(This is a conclusion of previous entries that tell the story of “The People Remember”, an oral history project about the La Farge dam project.)
In the end, after nearly three months of the teams of La Farge High School students and adult volunteers conducting interviews, nearly fifty stories had been told about the La Farge dam project. Some of the interviews had been illuminating for the students and adult volunteers, while others were not – but it was important that the stories had been gathered. The interviews began in November of the year 2000 and continued for the next three months. After each interview the students sat down to listen to the audiotapes of the story and wrote a log or outline of what was said in the interview. Copies of the tapes and logs were made and sent on to UW-LaCrosse, where students in the UW-L Oral History Program would transcribe the interviews. Those transcriptions and the tapes were then archived in the Area Research Center at the UW-L Murphy Library.
As a conclusion to the oral history project, a presentation to the public was to be made in the spring of 2001. Stuart Stotts, a well known and respected educator, author and storyteller in the state, worked on pulling segments from the interviews that could be used in the dramatic telling of the dam stories in the public presentation. Using the interview logs compiled by the students and listening to the tapes himself Stotts started to compile a collection of excerpts from the interviews that could be used for the presentation. To organize for the presentation, he grouped the chosen excerpts into three categories that followed the general organization of the questioning that had been used for the interviews. He was looking for what had been said in the interviews about the history of the dam project and the stories about community and change when the land was taken, the stories of influence and power as demonstrated by federal vs. local government control, and finally the stories of the people’s relationships to their land and the environment.
After compiling the excerpts from the interviews, Stotts fashioned them into a choral reading to be conducted by some of the same students who had conducted the interviews. The students who were chosen for the choral reading part of the program included Amanda Andrew, Deanna Ewing, Jessie Lee, Robin Lee, Ximena Puig, Mary Beth Sarnowski and Rene Widner. Kristi Campbell continued her job as video recorder and taped all of the presentations. Kayla Muller, who had served as scribe for the oral history project throughout, continued to write articles for area newspapers about the upcoming presentation.
On April 25, 2001, the program was presented three different times. In the morning the LHS students were bussed to Brookwood High School where the presentation was made to seventy-five 10th and 11th graders. The first program was a good rehearsal for the later performances and brought out some parts that needed to be improved. After returning to the Reserve offices in La Farge (this is before the Visitor Center was built), the students went over their morning performance, made some changes in the readings and formulated plans for the upcoming presentations. After a pizza lunch, the group made their way across the street to the school to perform for the LHS students. That show went much better, transitions were smoother and the attention to the show by the LHS students was excellent. A robust question & answer session followed the performance for nearly an hour, again showing the interest by the LHS student body.
That evening, the presentation for the public was held at the La Farge Community Temple. It was a packed house as most of the people who had been interviewed for the oral history project attended. The presentation also drew many others from the community who were interested in the oral history project as well as the adult volunteers who had helped the students with the interviews.
Marcy West, Kickapoo Valley Reserve Executive Director, welcomed the large contingent to the evening’s presentation. I followed Marcy in the program by introducing the project and making presentations to the students and adult volunteers who had helped make the project such a success. Harvey Jacobs, University of Wisconsin professor, then gave an overview of the presentation and introduced the first topic of the “La Farge Dam Project History and Stories of Community and Change”. The students then started their choral readings from the stories told in the oral history interviews.
I had settled into a corner off the side of the stage where the students were making their presentation and I was facing the audience. As I gazed out over the large group of people, I made eye contact with Kayla Muller, who was sitting in a center seat taking notes for her next article. She nodded her head to her right to point my eyes in that direction. There seated to her right was a woman whose farm had been bought by the federal government for the dam project. As the woman listened with rapt attention to the students’ performance, tears were streaming down her cheeks. I looked two seats over and there was another lady with tears running down her face. I shifted my gaze to another portion of the community hall and saw a man, eyes misting over, straining to hear the words spoken by lifelong friends. It was amazing – you could have cut the emotion in that hall that night with a knife!
Professor Jacobs introduced two more sections of the presentation and the LHS students, performing with excellence after their two earlier rehearsals, read their excerpts about “Stories of Influence and Power: Government/Local Control” and “Stories of the Relationships to the Land and Environment”. The stories were being told!
After the last of the student’s choral readings, Jacobs said that there would be a ten-minute break and then everyone would break into small group discussions. But before anyone could move, Olive Nelson stood up to speak. Olive, who had been interviewed for the oral history project, said that the presentation that had just happened had been the best thing that had ever happened to all the people who had to sell out for the dam project. Her observation was met with spontaneous applause and shouts from the audience and the whole assemblage broke into a huge group hug.
More tears flowed and then laughter erupted as the older times were remembered with fondness. The student presenters received enough hugs and pats on the back to last a lifetime. The stories had been remembered and the stories were told.
I would like to finish this with a few of the excerpts that were read by those LHS students that night. Remember, these are the words of people who were interviewed for that oral history project.
They said I had to be out in 30 days, this was March; I had 225 head of cattle. Where was I supposed to go?
I graduated in 1937, from La Farge. The flood was in 1935. And in 1937 the government had made their study and recommended an earthen dam. Now I am 82 years old this year. My entire adult life and the adult lives of many people have been spent involved in this one issue – your entire adult life – on one thing.
It was a depressed area, but we didn’t know it. We were happy.
Neighbors fighting neighbors, families split, hard feelings.
Afterward people were scattered. These were your close friends, it was sad. People used to gather at the store, and after – no place for us all to get together again.
The government had made us a promise, and my feeling is when you promise something, you follow through. When I left the farm, I felt some bitterness; not for myself but for the way my friends and neighbors were treated. The government had betrayed us.
Up until this time, all our elected officials favored it, but the Sierra Club went the political route. Our elected representatives changed their positions. The Sierra Club had the money and the influence; they forced our representatives to change their positions. Our little community, we are poor, no money, no influence, we didn’t stand a chance, and the project got stopped.
Most people, around here were pretty handy, can fix a tire by yourself, but here was a tire we couldn’t fix.
The people loved the land. It was a terrible place to farm but a beautiful place to live.
So, we will finish this story where we started it by hearing the words of James Daines, a man who wanted the stories to be heard.
The land’s not mine anymore. I don’t hunt it. But I do stop and get a drink from the well every time I drive by.
Their stories were told.