Sunday, May 3, 2015


Every once in a while, something happens in this little burg on the Kickapoo that makes a person proud.  Yes, we Kickapoogians have our faults, which can often cause us to be cast in a less than pleasant light.  Then, lo and behold, the local folks will band together for a particular cause, carry it through with appropriate gusto and √©lan to such a degree, that it makes everyone puff up with pride.   So, let’s take a look at something that has transpired in the last few months regarding the lands of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.
            Yup, We have trouble right here in River City and it starts with a capital “C” as in a controversy once again concerning the “government land”.  That damn “dam land” has risen up another time to capture the headlines of the local press.  Most of us denizens of the upper Kickapoo Valley had thought that the issues associated with the land taken by the federal government for the La Farge Dam & Lake Project were put to rest some fifteen years ago when the land was legally transferred over by the Feds to state control.  Since then, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, which was created from that “government land” (This was a local name bestowed on the dam project lands during that time starting in the 1970’s when the dam project was in legislative and bureaucratic limbo for nearly thirty years as the powers to be tried to figure out what to do with the nearly 9,000 acres.  That name for the property is not heard nearly as often in these parts as it used to be.), has grown into one of the most popular public lands in southern Wisconsin.  Tens of thousands of people use the Reserve every year to hunt, hike, bike, fish, camp, canoe, ski, bird watch, and cool out.  Thousands of school children from all over western Wisconsin come to the Reserve each year to hike its trails, learn about the wonders of nature and become aware of the history of the land.
            So what could possibly interrupt this idyllic transformation for these Kickapoo Valley lands from a bad situation into a good one?
            Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced his proposed state budget to a joint session of the state legislature on Tuesday evening, February 3rd.  It was a snowy evening in Madison and there was also a Badger men’s basketball game at the Kohl Center that same evening that I was attending.  The combination of the snowy and slippery streets, the crowd coming in for the UW basketball game and the Governor’s budget address made for a traveling gridlock for people driving into the Downtown Madison area.  By tipoff time for the Badger game, more than half of the seats were still empty – an extremely rare occurrence.
            Eventually the snow stopped and the streets were plowed and salted.  Bo Ryan’s Badgers played superbly in dispatching an over matched Indiana team by a score of 92-78. By halftime of the game, the Kohl Center was packed as usual.  Everything returned to normal except for that pesky budget presented that evening by Governor Walker.
            By the time that we had returned home from Madison that evening, my e-mail started to fill with messages about a particular provision in the Governor’s budget.  That policy provision (always a bad deal when included in a budget bill, but Walker isn’t the first Governor to do it) called for a change in the administration of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, moving it from the Department of Tourism over to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  The Governor’s proposal for the Reserve caught everyone by surprise.  Neither the staff nor the management board of the Reserve had been consulted.  The Ho-Chunk Nation, which jointly manages part of the Reserve, knew nothing about the proposed change.  Even the DNR, the state agency designated to administer the Reserve in the Governor’s proposal, was unaware of the proposed change.   
What was apparent with the proposal was that it had been included in the budget by Governor Walker without proper communication to those most directly affected by the change.  Soon a strategy was developed to voice opposition to the proposal.  To provide some historical perspective to the story of the lands involved in the Governor’s proposal, I wrote a letter-to-the- editor and sent it off to a few area newspapers.  I titled the letter, “Walker’s Proposal a Slap In The Face to the People of the Kickapoo Valley”.
  In the letter, I wrote,
“The recent proposal in Governor Scott Walker’s budget to transfer administrative control of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve to the state DNR caught nearly everyone by surprise.  The move by the governor was obviously done with little thought to the complex and troubled history of these lands.
            In the early 1990’s, a move was made to return the nearly 8,600 acres of land purchased by the federal government for the failed La Farge Dam Project to the State of Wisconsin.  Governor Tommy Thompson, State Senator Brian Rude and Assemblyman DuWayne Johnsrud (all Republicans) worked to involve the people of the Kickapoo Valley in that process.  A committee of local citizens met with Al Anderson from UW-Extension to see what could be done with the huge section of land located north of La Farge.  Meetings were held throughout the Kickapoo Valley to hear from the people.  Overwhelmingly, the people demanded that the property NOT be controlled by the DNR.
Eventually the Kickapoo Valley Reserve was created by state statute and the property was administered by the Department of Tourism.  It has since developed into one of the most popular public lands in southern Wisconsin.  It draws tens of thousands of horseback riders, hunters, hikers, campers, winter sports enthusiasts and others to the northern Kickapoo Valley every year.  Thousands of students and adults participate in the Reserve’s education programs and special events each year.  This excellent public use of the lands has developed as the people of the Kickapoo Valley had hoped.
            Yet, Governor Walker now wants to turn the administration of the Reserve lands over to the DNR – an agency that he also guts of nearly 70 job positions in his same budget message.  Due to the governor’s enforced under staffing the DNR cannot manage the lands that it now oversees.  How will the DNR administer the proposed new lands of the Reserve – one of the largest areas of public land in southern Wisconsin?  Chaos and mismanagement can be foreseen.  More importantly, why did the governor go against the wishes of the citizens of the Kickapoo Valley with this “Slap in the Face” move?  Perhaps he was too busy being out of state courting his billionaire campaign backers for his presidential bid?  He obviously wasn’t studying the history of the Kickapoo Valley.
            This shortsighted blunder by the governor can be stopped by the legislature.  If you would like to see that happen, contact Assemblyman Lee Nerison and State Senator Jennifer Shilling to get them behind the opposition to Governor Walker’s insult to the Kickapoo Valley.  Act now before it is too late!
            My rhetoric was a little fiery and over-the-top perhaps, but I intended it to rally some outrage over what the governor was proposing.  It may have worked.
            Within a week the letter had been printed in newspapers from Baraboo to LaCrosse.  Soon it was posted on various Face Book pages and the message spread throughout social media.  I was hearing from both old friends and people that I had never met about how to help save the Reserve.  Phone calls and e-mails poured in.
  On Thursday evening, February 19th, the Management board of the Reserve met with Rep. Lee Nerison and Sen. Jennifer Shilling to see what could be done.  It was standing room only that night at the Reserve’s Visitor Center as 150 people crowded in to see what they could do to oppose the governor’s proposal.  Both of the elected officials in attendance pledged their opposition to Governor Walker’s proposal and instructed everyone to contact the members of the Legislative Joint Committee on Finance and tell them to pull the proposal from the budget. 
The rallying cry was heard and the people responded.  By late March, the members of the Joint Finance Committee were starting to indicate that the proposal would be pulled from the budget.  Senator Shilling’s office staff said that they had heard from more people about the Kickapoo Valley Reserve proposal than any other issue ever.  At a Joint Finance Committee hearing held in Reedsburg on March 26, Co-Chairman Rep. John Nygren spoke to a group attending from the Kickapoo Valley and hinted that the governor’s proposal about the Reserve was coming out of the budget.
On Wednesday, April 22nd, the Joint Finance Committee, by a vote of 16-0, removed Governor Walker’s proposal to change the administration of the Reserve to the DNR from the budget.  Once again, the people had remembered the special lands of the northern Kickapoo Valley.
They had spoken and they had been heard - So Far, So Good

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wearing The Red!

(This is written prior to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game being played in Indianapolis.)

            I am a mess – nervous, edgy – a certifiable basket case.  I have the Basketball Jones, addicted to the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team coached by Bo Ryan.  I have worn UW red everyday since March 1st – alternating two red Badger hats, two Badger sweatshirts, a red Badger pullover and three other red Badger t-shirts for my daily attire.  A red Badger Motion W flag adorns my car.  In the coaching parlance, I am a Badger Basketball Benny gone ballistic and bonkers, as UW has advanced to the NCAA Championship game.
            I have been going to Badger games at the Kohl Center for over a decade.  Bob Stirn, who was superintendent for the La Farge School District for a number of years, had Badger season tickets and we started going to some of the games together in the 2002-03 season.  Eventually, after Bob had retired and started wintering in Florida, I bought his season tickets for the Badger basketball games.  We sat in those seats in Section 220 of the Kohl Center for a number of years.  Those seats looked right down on the Badger student sections, the Grateful Red, as they are sometimes called.  Sometimes watching the student section and the UW Pep Band was more entertaining than watching the basketball team play. For the last two years we had seats in Section 223, which is on the same side as our previous seats, but behind the Badgers bench.
            The 2013-14 Badger basketball season was interesting in that the team started the season with a long winning streak, which led to a high national rating of #3 in week-11 of the season.  Then they hit a really rough patch in January in the beginning of the Big 10 season, losing five of six games.  That string of losses would cost them any chance at winning the conference title, but they again started playing well in the back half of the conference schedule and finished tied for second in the Big 10.  With a 26-7 season record, Wisconsin was awarded a #2-seed in the NCAA tournament and started their tourney run at the fan friendly Bradley Center in Milwaukee.  After demolishing American by a score of 75-35 in the NCAA opener, UW found themselves in peril in their second game against Oregon.  Trailing by twelve at the half, Wisconsin put on a furious second half rally fueled by the huge home-state fan support to outscore the Ducks by 20 on their way to a 85-77 thrilling win.
            The Oregon comeback introduced the country to an emerging star for the Badgers – Frank Kaminsky.  The 7-foot junior center led the Badgers with 19 points and 10 rebounds and set the stage for his true coming-out party at Anaheim the next weekend in the NCAA Regional games.  In the semi-final game, UW dismantled a good Baylor team as Kaminsky again led the Badgers with 19 points and 10 rebounds.  More extraordinary was Kaminsky’s passing as the Badgers sliced up Baylor’s vaunted zone defense.  In the Elite-8 regional final game, Kaminsky played a remarkable game, scoring 28 points and recording another double-double to lead the Badgers to a pulsating 64-63 overtime win over #1 seed Arizona.  “Frank The Tank” had led the Badgers to the Final 4!
            As we all know, Wisconsin lost in that first game of the Final 4, falling 74-73 to Kentucky on a last second shot.  UW finished 30-8 for the year and ranked #4 in the final coach’s national poll.  But more importantly, that Badger team laid the groundwork for this year’s amazing season.  Of the nine-man rotation used by Coach Ryan in that magical run to the Final 4 in March of 2014, only Ben Brust was a graduating senior.  When Kaminsky announced a month after the end of the season that he would forego the NBA draft and return for his senior season at UW, the stage was set for this year’s magical season.
            The Duke Blue Devils came to the Kohl Center to play Bo’s Boys on December 3, 2014.  It was a battle of college basketball heavyweights and one of the most anticipated games in Badger basketball history.  Courtside seats were being scalped for thousands of dollars per pair on Stub Hub.  Tickets in Section 223 were valued at anywhere from $250 to $350 per seat.  Watching the game, I was seated beside three rabid Duke fans clad in their colors.
            It was a great college basketball game, fiercely fought from beginning to end.  Duke led most of the way and near the end of the game, the Duke fan seated beside me turned and said that the game felt like a Final 4 game.  He was right because the level of talent and the intensity of play were first class all the way.  The ten-point victory margin, 80-70, for Duke was a testament to their outstanding shooting and ability to penetrate to the basket.  For the next week, I told everyone who would listen that I wished the Badgers would get to play Duke again.
            Duke shot 65% from the field in that game!  That is an outstanding, almost unheard of shooting percentage for a college game.  My thinking is that nobody can shoot 65% in a game like that – for crying out loud, you can put most college teams on the floor with nobody guarding them and they could not shoot that percentage!  Could they ever do that again if they played the Badgers?
            Wisconsin on the other hand missed an inordinate amount of shots in the paint in the Duke game, especially in the crucial points of the second half.  The Badgers magnificent front line never could get going in that Duke game.  Frank Kaminsky did not score in double figures nor did he rebound in double figures either – a rarity for a player who would lead his team in both categories for the season.  Sam Dekker, the 6’9” Badger forward was still nursing a sprained ankle and was a non-factor in the game.  Traevon Jackson had a remarkable offensive game to score 25 points, but could not will Wisconsin to victory over the Blue Devils.
            From that point on, the Badgers front line of Kaminsky, Dekker and 6’8” forward Nigel Hayes would dominate their opponents.  UW would win every game they played except for road losses to a bad Rutgers team (Kaminsky did not play due to a head injury and Jackson broke his foot and would miss the next nineteen games.) and a good Maryland bunch.  On March 1, the Badgers clinched a share of the Big 10 championship in their final home game by defeating a very good Michigan State team, 68-61.  On that Senior Day at the Kohl Center, Kaminsky was magnificent for the Badgers, scoring 31 points and dominating play on both ends of the court.  After the game was concluded, nobody would leave the arena as Badger fans stayed to watch the presentation of the Big 10 trophy, the Senior videos played on the scoreboard video panels and the team and Coach Ryan cutting down the nets.  (Two more road wins at Minnesota and Ohio State the following week guaranteed the Badgers would not share the conference trophy with another team.  Maryland would finish second, two games behind the Badgers.)
            I began to wear the colors on that first day of March.  From that time until now, the day of the NCAA final game, I have sported Badger Red each and every day.  Bo’s Boys would go on to win the Big 10 Tournament held in Chicago.  After their scintillating overtime victory over Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans in the championship game of that conference tournament, Wisconsin was awarded a #1 seed for the NCAA Men’s Tournament.
 March Madness was upon us again.  I filled out my bracket, dutifully plotting the Badgers, Kentucky, Michigan State and Duke through to the Final 4.  I still wanted the Badgers to have another shot at the Blue Devils.  I continued to wear the Badger Red.
Two victories over Coastal Carolina and Oregon in NCAA games played in Omaha led Bo’s Boys back to Los Angeles for the Regional Finals.  North Carolina fell to the Big Red in the Sweet 16 game played at the Staples Center as Sam Dekker led with a double-double of 23 points and 10 rebounds in the 79-72 win.  In the Elite 8 regional final, the Badgers outscored Arizona to win 85-78.  Dekker was named the Regional’s MVP and Nigel Hayes wowed the country with his play and vocal elocution.  Frank The Tank was on ESPN’s SportsCenter and interviewed Will Farrell, the original Frank The Tank.   I sported Badger Red each and every day on the way back to the Final 4.
On to Indy – Frank The Tank is named Player of the Year – Down goes undefeated Kentucky as Bucky shocks the nation with their play and toughness.  The 71-64 win was formed when Dekker took over late to get Bucky the lead and secured when Bronson Koenig swished in the clinching free throws.  The Badgers will play Duke in the final game.  I won my bracket – I got my wish for the rematch with the Blue Devils – I wear the Badger Red.


(This was written after the game.)

Be careful what you wish for!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Building A New School In La Farge

I attended a meeting at the school several weeks back where a pair of design schemes was presented to the La Farge Schools facilities committee to ponder.  After the two plans, which featured various new additions to the present school buildings in a variety of forms, were presented and discussed, more information was presented to those gathered about the costs for such construction.  The total projected cost of ten-plus million dollars for the construction of the new school buildings sent more than one pair of eyebrows arching towards the ceiling of the high school library.
            At a later school board meeting there was discussion about the demolition of the 1901 schoolhouse building to facilitate some of the plans for construction of other buildings.  Tearing down the old school landmark has triggered some opposition from preservationists and others who want to save the historic building.
            The whole exercise currently being undertaken by the local school district is one originated to look at future building needs for the school.  What will the district need for buildings in order to function ten or twenty years from now?  Looking down the road into the future can be a pretty tricky business for small school districts like La Farge in this day of open enrollment, voucher programs and declining state aids.  It is a difficult task made even more strenuous due to these times of shrinking enrollments, local tax levy limits and other constraints on public schools in Wisconsin. 
Perhaps some history of previous attempts to construct new school buildings in La Farge might aid this process a little.  After all, it is much easier to look backward than to try to peer very far into the future.  So let’s travel back to some other times when folks were considering whether to build some new school buildings in this little town along the Kickapoo.
In 1894, the newly minted hamlet of La Farge (the place known as DeJean’s Corners had only had the “La Farge” name for a year as the La Farge Post Office had been moved from Sam Green’s house north to “The Corners” in 1893) needed a new schoolhouse.  The old log schoolhouse constructed in 1880 by Thomas DeJean and located a block from the original corners (at the present site of the post office) was bursting at the seams.  As more and more families moved to the La Farge area during that last decade of the 19th Century, the need for a new school was evident.  By 1894, the leaders of La Farge were ready to build a new school and grand plans were envisioned for the construction of the best schoolhouse in the Kickapoo Valley.  To help make that happen, La Farge reached out to its neighbors to the north at Seelyburg to see if they would want to join in the venture.
Seelyburg also had an old log schoolhouse (located at the mouth of Plum Run where it joins the Kickapoo River) that had seen its better days.  It was also overflowing with students at that time.  However, as the leaders of Seelyburg were approached about the idea of a new combined school by their downriver neighbors, there was some trepidation towards the move.  Several Seelyburg businesses including Brown’s Photography Studio and Millard’s General Store had recently relocated to La Farge.  Other families who had lived in Seelyburg had left their homes there and moved to higher ground in La Farge (mainly fleeing the near constant flooding that was starting to occur in Seelyburg at that time).  So Seelyburg residents were a little leery about partnering with La Farge on this new schoolhouse venture.
Another problem with the merger of the two schools was the location of the new school.  The leaders of La Farge were demanding that the new building, a two-story structure that would be a fully graded school (housing students in grades 1 through 8), should be located near their hamlet’s growing Main Street.  La Farge argued that their location was superior for drawing the most students and that there was plenty of good land available for a site on which to build the new school.  Seelyburg had few building sites to compare to La Farge, unless it was on the hills north of the old mill town.  These land parcels, though, would be far from centrally located and thus, of not much serious consideration.  Seelyburg residents, already chafing at the thought of losing their school to the newer community to the south, balked at the thought of having the new school located so far away in La Farge.  It appeared as though the idea of the joint school venture was not going to happen.
At some point in these negotiations, the Vernon County School Superintendent entered the discussion and helped broker a compromise for the joining of the two districts.  It was probably pointed out that neither district had a sufficient amount of students to warrant a larger fully graded school, but that the two district’s combined enrollment would foster such a move.  The tax base for the two combined districts would also make the construction of a new schoolhouse more financially feasible.
The location of the new school building still seemed a major sticking point until Dred Bean offered a compromise.  The founding father of The Corners offered to sell to the proposed new combined school district a parcel of land in the north pasture on his farm, just across the road from Bean’s Grove (now La Farge’s Village Park).  This proposed site was centrally located between the two communities and also was located along the main road that connected both.  The location satisfied most of the people of Seelyburg, since the new school was going to be very near the south side of their hamlet.  La Farge could accept the location proposed by Bean, even though it was nearly a half-mile from its busy main intersection.  The ambitious southern hamlet expected their town to expand north to the school in a short time anyway, so it would be in La Farge soon enough.
So, the new Joint School District #15 of La Farge was created and a two-story wooden schoolhouse was built in Dred Bean’s north pasture, opening in November of 1895 for students of La Farge, Seelyburg and the surrounding areas.  The new schoolhouse was built with the intention of being the best and word of the new school at La Farge quickly spread throughout the area.  The new school was a two-story wooden structure with double sized classrooms on both floors.  Equipment and desks from both of the former schools was moved to the new one, while the newest supplies were added to make the new schoolhouse the best in the Kickapoo Valley.
In 1896, the county superintendent of schools said, “The La Farge schoolhouse is the finest in the county outside of Viroqua and I doubt if any village in the state has a nicer school house.”  The new school was soon the pride of the little town on the Kickapoo.  It also became a boon for the growing town as students were drawn to the new school and its enhanced educational opportunities.  Being a “fully graded school” meant that students could now complete the 8th grade at La Farge.  The curriculum for the eight grades was taught in a seven-month school year stretching from September through April.  Graduates of the new La Farge School could then move on to high school studies at other places that offered that curriculum (Viroqua, Hillsboro and Richland Center were the nearest).  La Farge’s 8th grade graduates were also qualified to teach at rural schools, an especially appealing opportunity for young women of that time.
  It appeared that La Farge was educationally prepared for a long future of growth with their new schoolhouse.  Or were they?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

La Grippe

Last week it was reported that this winter’s version of the influenza had claimed its first life in Wisconsin – a twelve-year old girl from Milwaukee.  That is truly tragic news to hear.  Wisconsin seems to be one of the states in the country that has the influenza breaking out in epidemic proportion and the Kickapoo Valley has not been spared from that outbreak.  The medical clinic in La Farge has been jammed for several weeks with people seeking relief and remedies from the dreaded influenza.  In olden days, they called the disease “La Grippe”.
            One of the downsides of researching through the history of La Farge has been to chronicle the effects of disease, disaster and destruction of various sorts in the community.  Great floods of the Kickapoo River stand like signposts when navigating through the history of this little river town.  Those disasters of Mother Nature provide dividing points in telling the story of this town.  (Think how the village has changed since the great flood of 2008 as the most recent example of this.)
            As one leafs through the pages of old newspapers that help to tell the story of La Farge, the mentions of the winter sicknesses like influenza are all too common.  At its very beginning, the village endured the ravages of the illness.  In the January 20, 1899 issue of the La Farge Enterprise, it is noted that, “everyone has la grippe”.  The use of that term, “la grippe” is interesting in itself.  Its use is probably derived from the earlier lumber camps that were located in the northern part of the Kickapoo Valley.  The derivation of the word is French-Canadian, which again would possibly tie it to the men who were populating those early lumber camps.
            The men in those lumber camps were housed in barracks of a kind that could foster the spread of a disease like influenza or la grippe.  Virtually stacked on top of each other for sleeping arrangements and usually eating from a common serving vessel, the spread of disease and illness was almost guaranteed.  The sound of the morning cough of the men in the camp was legendary and was a signal for other, more healthier sorts to stay away.
            In the first decade of the village of La Farge (1899-1909) mention is made nearly every year of an outbreak of la grippe or some other influenza type illness.  “La Grippe is back in town” led the local observation of the March 11, 1909 issue of the Enterprise.  Of course in those days there were no flu shots to help mitigate the ravages of the flu.  (Although I can personally attest that the 2014-15 version of that flu inoculation did not mitigate the effects of a certain strain of this season’s influenza.  My constant cough of several weeks has become a factor of recognition, as in, “Oh there’s that awful hacking cough, that must be Brad!)
Tragically, death from disease was often the final chronicle for some in those early years of research.  The report of a death from the influenza, or whooping cough, or croup was almost a weekly occurrence in those newspapers from that time.  In a 1905 issue of the La Farge newspaper, mention is made of a six-month old baby succumbing to membranous croup, a childhood upper respiratory illness associated with diphtheria.  Whooping cough was another deadly disease for the young during that time.  The whooping cough could become so virulent that quarantines and other isolating measures would be used to thwart the spread of the deadly disease.  Doctors in the village would post warning signs on the front doors of houses where the disease was rampant, warning others to avoid contact with the inhabitants.  The local school in La Farge was shut down for a week or two at a time on more than one occasion during this era to stem the effects of these winter illnesses.
In one year during this early decade of La Farge, the village president, acting in concert with the local doctors, cancelled a much-anticipated dance, which was to be held at the Opera House.  The members of the band that was to play for the grand winter ball were from Viola, which was apparently rife with whooping cough at the time.  So to avoid the threat of infection from the downriver community, the dance was called off.  Of course, this action did not sit well with the people of Viola, so in that town’s newspaper a scathing article was published the following week that rebuked the La Farge officials for impugning their fair town (Viola) as a center of disease and pestilence.
Of course, back in those days, there was a train chugging into town every day.  The old “Kickapoo Stump Dodger” delivered all sorts of goods and products to the businesses and farms of the community.  There were also usually some passengers on the daily train – often salesmen coming to La Farge to peddle their wares.  One can imagine of the various ills and maladies also accompanying those traveling salesmen when they came to town.  Spreading la grippe, the Kickapoo Croup and other winter illnesses would have been part of the convenience of La Farge being connected to the outside world via its rail line.
One of the saddest findings in my research dealt with the death of the teenage daughter of Henry Millard.  I believe she was only thirteen-years old when she succumbed to one of the winter influenzas of that time.  She was a very popular girl in the village.  Her Dad owned a general store and operated La Farge’s post office out of the same building and she often helped people with their purchases and picking up their mail.  She was a daughter of La Farge’s Main Street and her sudden passing shocked the community and devastated her parents.  It was said that Henry Millard and his wife never got over their lovely daughter’s passing.  Eventually, the store was sold and the Millard’s left the community that they had called home for so many years.  They left to escape the painful memories of the loss of their beautiful little girl.
Stay healthy during this winter flu season my friends.