Sunday, November 30, 2014

Taking That Christmas Walk

For the past several years as I have been working on this local history project on La Farge and as the year comes to an end, I have written a Local History Notebook column on a walk down La Farge’s Main Street.  Sometimes the walks have been from the past, as I have skipped through time to take the stroll from the time of my youth.  Often I take the walk in a particular year in time and then use it to compare and contrast to another time in the town’s history.  Perhaps it is time once again to be taking that walk, at least to usher in the Yuletide Season.
            The Christmas decorations are once again up on the streetlight poles on Main Street – a sure sign that my little walk down that thoroughfare is upon us again.  Might be a little early for the decorations – I prefer post-Thanksgiving for trotting out the tinsel and Rudolph’s red nose – but I am thankful that it wasn’t up before Halloween.  The stars and Christmas trees comprised of the little glitter lights look really nice at night.  On the first night that they were illuminated the decorations all worked except for one and that was on the streetlight next to the bank.  (Is there any symbolism in that - such as paying your light bill on time?)  Looking at the streetlight decorations made me think back to what they were like when I was a kid growing up on La Farge’s Main Street.
            In the early 1950’s, La Farge’s Main Street was decorated for the holidays to enhance the shopping experience in town.  Nearly every store building was occupied at that time and most of those businesses wanted people to do their Christmas shopping in their stores.  At that time there were a variety of stores to offer the Christmas shopper plenty of gift options for the holidays.
            The decorations on the streetlight poles were usually strings of fresh evergreen garlands intertwined with strings of colored Christmas lights.  Those Christmas lights back then were regular size light bulbs, probably 25-watters, in all the Xmas colors of red, green, blue, yellow, and white.  The garlands would be attached to the top of the streetlight pole then twirled around the pole down to a few feet from ground level.  Sprinkle a little snowfall on the lighted garlands twirling around the poles and you had a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.
            With those strings of lights coming down so low on the poles, there was a temptation by some young Xmas Grinch’s to unscrew the bulbs and perhaps throw them against the side of the Mars Theater in a nighttime lark of larceny.  But after a visit later that evening by village policeman Mush Marshall, the young lads made adequate retribution and avoided that little temptation for the rest of the Yuletide season.
            In addition to the lighted evergreen garlands being strung on the streetlight poles, more of those same-lighted garlands were stretched across Main Street on wires at several places connecting to a streetlight or storefront on the other side.  I seem to remember about seven or eight places along the downtown where this Christmas canopy stretched across the streets.  There were two on south State Street, welcoming in shoppers coming in from Viola-way.  Then there were another five or six along Main Street, from Nuzum’s all the way up to my folk’s grocery store (where the Episcope office is located today).
            I cannot seem to remember a village Christmas tree on Main Street during this time.  I know that the big pine tree next to the barbershop building had served as the village Christmas tree earlier, but I can’t recollect that tree having lights at Christmastime.  Then later, the pine tree next to the old fire house (now the post office) served as the village’s Christmas Tree, but that tree was too small for this early 1950’s time that I’m reminiscing about.  Maybe somebody with a better memory than me can help out on this – or perhaps the village didn’t have an official Christmas tree during that time?
            Today, the village contracts with a company to come in and put up the Main Street decorations, but back in that day, I seem to remember the village and utility employees getting it done.  Ray Young, Leland Dempsey, and Boob Shird usually were helping to get those garlands up for the holiday season – part of the job description back then.
            Another holiday tradition back then was a visit to the village by Santa Claus to hand out treats to all the good little boys and girls of La Farge.  Santa usually appeared in La Farge for this visit on a Saturday afternoon in early December.  He never came to town in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer, but usually showed up in the back of the village truck.  The good little kiddees would be waiting by the side of the bank building and the village truck would pull up with Jolly Old St. Nick standing in the box in the back.  He would have boxes of paper bags filled with peanuts and candy, which he would disperse to the awaiting throng.  One year as this annual Xmas miracle was unfolding, I thought that Santa appeared to be village employee Ray Young, who usually drove the village truck instead of riding in the box in the back.  But I kept those suspicions to myself – why ruin Christmas for the others in attendance.
            There was usually also a free show for the kids that same afternoon at the Mars Theater.  We usually headed right over to the movie house after getting our bags of treats.  That must have hurt the popcorn sales mightily at the theater for that afternoon cinema freebie, but many of us would be back to the theater later that night for the regular show.  We would lay down our dimes at that time for the popped treat (ten cents for a regular bag and twenty for buttered).
            The movie selection for the afternoon free show was always chosen for kids to enjoy.  Sometimes the movie was a rootin’ tootin’ Western starring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, or Lash Larue.  Other times it might be a comedy featuring the Bowery Boys or Francis the Talking Mule.  There were usually multiple cartoons before the movie too, so we could all guffaw to the antics of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig.
            Reminiscing from a time over a half-century ago about the Christmas Season in a small town along the Kickapoo has been fun.  Here, have a peanut or two and a piece of hard candy – the memories are on me.

Friday, October 17, 2014


(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.

Monday, September 22, 2014


(This is a continuation of previous posts that tell the story of the oral history project about the La Farge Dam Project that came to be known as “The People Remember”.)

            Raw emotion can take many forms.  As the local history class students from La Farge High School and their adult volunteer teammates soon found out as they set out to conduct interviews on the La Farge Dam Project.  The interviews were going to be filled with lots of emotion as people remembered a very difficult time in their lives.
            In the fall of 2000, the students and adult volunteers were trained in proper interviewing techniques and learned about the history of the La Farge Dam Project.  Tape recorders, microphones, audiotapes and cameras were purchased (with money from a Wisconsin Humanities Council grant) and the interview teams practiced using the new equipment.  A list of names was compiled of potential candidates for the interviews.  As the training came to completion in late October, phone calls and personal visits were made to potential people to interview about the project.
            Fritz Cushing, the project coordinator, made most of those contacts for interviews and I helped with some on the list.  We both found that the people we contacted had some hesitancy about being interviewed, but after explaining what the purpose of the project was – to save people’s stories about the dam project – many set up times and places to conduct the interview.  Others turned down our requests outright because of their unpleasant memories associated with the dam project.  Some people did not want to dredge up the painful memories of that time in their lives. 
I received one phone call from a longtime friend explaining the family’s decision not to be interviewed.  We both ended up in tears over that conversation as the heartbreak of those times of losing the family farm to the dam project once again was remembered.  In the end, that family was never interviewed for the project because the hurt was still too deep for them.
Before sending out the student/adult volunteer interview teams, we had to be sure that everyone understood the emotion that they might face.  The interviews were going to generate feelings of heartbreak, bitterness and other strong emotions as the peoples’ stories were being told.  As the interview teams set out to get the stories, they understood the seriousness of their task.
The adult volunteers usually contacted the person or people to be interviewed by phone to set up the interview.  Most interviews were conducted in the home of the people being interviewed, a setting that would be comfortable for telling the story.  Interviewees were encouraged to have photographs, documents and other artifacts about the dam project experience with them for the interview.  In the second week of November the interviews were begun.  Times for conducting the interviews varied from morning until early evening.  The local history students were excused from school to ride with their adult volunteer partner to the homes for the interviews.  The students and volunteers gave up their time after school and on weekends to make connections and get the interviews recorded.
  By the end of November a dozen interviews were completed.  After each interview, the student interviewers returned to the classroom and discussed their experience with their classmates.  All of the students related how much emotion was evident in the interviews.  Some students told of how people being interviewed would have to stop and leave the room to gather themselves to continue.  Tears were shed in the process, not only by the people being interviewed, but by those recording the story as well.  The interviews continued on through December and January without letup.
After each interview, the students were asked to fill out a reporting sheet that included a place for the students to record their personal observations.   Here are some of those personal observations as written by the students after the interviewing process:

“This interview went very well.  I noticed that when you just let them tell what they want to say, they say a lot more about their feelings and the project’s impact itself.”
“Mary was afraid of bringing it all up again, but she did so everyone could hear her stories.”
“They shut off the tape through half of it because they were afraid of letting out too many feelings.”
“I found her very interesting to listen to, and her account of living at Pott’s Corners touching.  I felt sorry that she had suffered, but I was also glad that she had that time in her life to remember.  She didn’t actually lose the land, it belonged to her parents and she was living in town by the time the government took the land away, but she felt as if she was losing it also because it took away her sense of community and belonging.”
“He was angry the whole time we were there.”
“She told of life at Weister Creek, and what she described for us was a small town, with close friends.  There were over 20 families in the surrounding area, as well as a school, church, and a few businesses.  The woman lost a great deal, and yet she was only mildly bitter.  She said that she was bitter, but mostly what she described to us was shock.  The people in Weister Creek were shocked, and didn’t know what to do or where to go.  Also, she told us a unique perspective, and that was that people of her generation all went along with the dam project idea mostly because they didn’t feel they could challenge the government.  They were from the World War II era, and they believed the government was always right and they refused to challenge their authority.”

Another task that the students did after each interview was to listen to the tapes and make a log or outline of the topics discussed.  Each audiotape held an hour of conversation, thirty minutes per side, and some of the interviews used up two hours of tape.  As the student played back the interview, they made notes on the log sheet on what topics were being discussed in the interview and wrote out name and places with the correct spellings.  This was done for the transcribing team to use at UW-La Crosse when the interviews would be transcribed for archiving.
The students also listened for particularly poignant or personal recollections given in the interviews.  They listed parts of the interviews that they felt were powerful and dramatic.  These parts of the interviews were noted so that Stuart Stotts could find them and listen to them as well.  Stuart was listening to all of the tapes in preparation for the public presentation, scheduled for the spring that would serve as a culmination of the oral history project.
More on that next time as we continue to look at this unique oral history project that gathered the people’s stories about the La Farge Dam Project.


Save the date!!  The weekend of July 3-5, 2015 will be the time of gathering for La Farge’s All-School Reunion.  It happens every five years and the school reunion committee is busy planning a fun weekend for those returning to their hometown and school.  We need to get the word out to everyone who ever attended or worked at the school here in La Farge.  We need volunteers from every class at LHS to help us update addresses and contacts.  Look for a new Facebook page that will be all about the reunion – “LIKE” it and stay in touch!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Saving The Stories

(This is a continuation of a previous post about
 “The People Remember” oral history project.)

The mission of this group of students and community members is to collect and archive the stories of area residents affected by the La Farge Dam Project so that future generations will better understand its history and impact.  The La Farge and Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton schools and the Kickapoo Valley Reserve are sponsoring the group.  The Wisconsin Humanities Council and the UW-La Crosse Oral History Program are providing funding and technical support.  The oral collection will be transcribed and archived at the UW-La Crosse for historical documentation.
- Mission Statement: La Farge Dam Oral History Project

            In September of 2000, the final plans and organization were being put into place for an oral history project to collect and save the stories of those affected by the La Farge Dam Project.  Two meetings had been held earlier that summer at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve offices on Mill Street in La Farge.  At those meetings chaired by KVR Executive Director Marcy West, the support of the project was secured from Ron Johnson, President of the Reserve’s management board, and La Farge superintendent of schools Lee Bush and N-O-W school superintendent Al Szepi.  In addition, through the efforts of Marcy and Fritz Cushing, a grant was received from the Wisconsin Humanities Council to help finance the project.  Fritz was chosen to coordinate the project and he soon had three professionals on board to help with the training.  With that support, the project moved forward and it was decided to team students with adult volunteers to conduct the oral history interviews.
            I was teaching a local history class at LHS that fall comprised of juniors and seniors who had an interest in the oral history project.  I “volunteered” the students in the class for the project.  Kristi Campbell and Robin Lee, who had interviewed James Daines about the dam project the previous spring, were joined in the local history class by Jessie Lee, Amanda Andrew, Deanna Ewing, Rene Widner, Kayla Muller, Shannon Thompson, Mary Beth Sarnowski and Ximena Puig.  Adult volunteers who would team with the students on the interviews included Brian Bufton, Chuck Reynolds, Geri Hall, Margaret Lee, Chuck Hatfield, Rosanne Boyett, Fritz Cushing, Deb Rolfe and Cyndee Baumgartner.
            Four training sessions for the students and volunteers, each lasting nearly three hours, were held at LHS in October and early November.  Harvey Jacobs, from the UW-Madison’s school of Urban & Regional Planning, talked to the group about land issues in general, giving an overview about other federal projects like the one at La Farge and how the federal government could take some people’s lands by using the power of eminent domain.  He also led discussions on the importance of land ownership and public vs. private land ownership issues.  With Jacobs’ leadership, the interview topic was divided into four areas - community, property, decision-making, and environmental protection.  From those areas, over fifty questions were developed that could be used for the interviews.
            Chuck Lee, a history professor with UW-La Crosse’s Oral History Program, trained the students and adult volunteers in interviewing techniques.  Lee taught the basics of beginning an interview, choosing a good place in the home for an interview and how to properly use the tape recorder. He provided samples of forms that included a confidentiality agreement form and informed consent form to be used with the interviews.  After the interviews were conducted, the tapes would be copied and transcribed by UW-La Crosse students so that they could be archived at the Area Research Center at UW-L’s Murphy Library.  In the final training session with Professor Lee, a student and adult volunteer interviewed me about the dam project and that interview was used in a discussion on interviewing do’s and don’ts.
            Stuart Stotts, a renowned storyteller and author (who also happened to own a vacation cabin on land adjacent to the Reserve), worked with the group on developing a presentation to the public after the interviews were concluded.  He asked the students and volunteers to listen for poignant stories and interesting quotes from the people who were being interviewed and to note those on the reporting sheets that were kept.  As the taped interviews came in, Stotts would glean those highlights for use in a public program to be given by the interviewing team.
            As the training sessions were being held, Fritz Cushing was compiling a list of people to be interviewed.  The former landowners of property taken by the government for the dam project headed that list.  But others in the La Farge community were added to get the impact of the dam project on the local school districts, towns, villages, and county.  Other people were included to show the social and economic impact of the dam project on La Farge.  As the list of potential interviewees was being made and contact was started with people on the list, one thing became apparent.  Some of the people would not consent to being interviewed!  As a matter of fact, several people said that they didn’t want to have anything to do with such a project.
            More on that next time as we continue to look at “The People Remember” oral history project.

My Presentation At Portage

            On Tuesday evening, July 29th, I gave a little talk at the Historic Indian Agency House in Portage.  The historic house sits right next to the old Portage Canal and both are linked to a time before Wisconsin even became a territory.  The Agency House is running a series of programs this summer on “How Non-Traditional Research Helps Capture Our History”.  I was invited to present the story of the La Farge Dam Project and the oral history project discussed in this column.
            There was a nice crowd on hand for the presentation and I was particularly pleased to see some former residents of La Farge in attendance.  When Carolyn and I walked into the room of the Visitor Center, Becky Oliphant Goleuke, her husband Paul and daughter Gwen immediately greeted us.  Becky graduated from LHS and was an outstanding student in my history classes.  Later, two of the Vosen girls, Lisa Jernander and Lynne Clark (with her husband Wayne) came up to the front table to check in with their old history teacher.  Their Dad, Bob Vosen, had been very active in the village’s effort to get the dam project completed.  Lisa and Lynne said that their parents, Bob and Anita Vosen, had been in Wisconsin the previous weekend for a family wedding.  Another couple of former Kickapoogians joined the audience later – Cindy and Jack Heal.  Cindy’s Mother, Maxine Shird, was interviewed for “The People Remember” project and her interview was included in the book that was published about the project.  It was fun to catch up with some of those who had lived through those years of dam trouble in La Farge.