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.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


(In the last blog entry we were taking a walk into the past on La Farge’s Main Street on a busy Saturday night at Christmastime.  The time is in the early 1950’s – a time when the village’s stores were packed with shoppers buying presents for the holidays.  Our stroll had led us down the north side of Main Street, where we had paused in front of the Mars Theater.  As we cross the street and head towards the La Farge State Bank, we will conclude that stroll through years of yore.)

The bank is closed and dark, they are never open at night, 9 to 3 only, Monday through Friday, but little one’s like us wouldn’t go in there anyway. Listen to the music coming out of the Club LaFarge. We can’t go in there either or the tavern across the street, they are not for little kids like us, although my folks occasionally like to stop in after the grocery store is closed. Boy, it looks smoky in Mac’s Pool Hall. We’re not old enough to go in there either, but we can stare through the front windows at the older boys and men shooting pool and playing cards way in the back.
Next door, the Cash Store is really doing a business as the area’s farm families come to town for their weekly purchase of groceries.  Dutch Carpenter will be busy at the cash register tonight. I imagine that things are just as busy at the other two grocery stores in town.  I sometimes help my folks at their store next to the feed mill; I hope Charlie Z. can find his pipe tobacco tonight. Whenever I’m there in the store, he never seems to be able to find it without my help.
            Let’s stop in to Harry Lounsbury’s Drug Store. Harry always has some neat stuff for Christmas, all kinds of boxes of candies and other goodies. Maybe I will buy my Grandma this nice package of talcum powder with a pretty powder puff. Let’s check out the soda fountain to see if any of the teenage couples are sharing a malted or cherry Coke. They all seem to be talking about the big win the Wildcat boys had in basketball last night at Soldiers Grove. La Farge never seems to loose any of their basketball games, but they are supposed to have a really tough one coming up over Christmas vacation with a good team from Onalaska.
            Next door, Doctor Gollin has the lights on in his office and there are people in the waiting room. He seems to work day and night for this little town. We could stick our head in the door and yell up the stairs at the “Central” telephone operator. That’s where Abelt's have the phone switchboard and the operator would place a call for you, especially if you were a country kid and needed a ride home. You wouldn’t even have to tell her the number, as she knows everybody’s number and all the “shorts” and “longs”. Sometimes when the boys are playing a basketball game away, a fan will call her from Gays Mills or wherever and she gets the word out that the Wildcats have won another one.
Another grocery store is next to the doctor’s office; Dick Gabrielson owns this one.  His grocery store is in a new building, made of cement blocks and just put up last year.  There is a line at the cash register here, too.  As we keep walking, we come to another restaurant, the Band Box CafĂ©.  I can hear music coming from the juke box in there, so the curtains would be drawn open on the little band box hanging from the ceiling and the mechanical musicians will be playing their little hearts out.  It looks like some of the Wildcat basketball players are sitting at a big table in the Band Box, probably having Pepsi’s, burgers and fries. 
            Let’s stop at the hardware store on the corner and look at the displays in the front windows. Wouldn’t one of those pocketknives be a nice gift to get for Christmas? You could do some serious whittlin’ with one of those beauties. Those are some nifty looking Daisy BB guns, too. A boy couldn’t go wrong receiving a gift like that, although you would have to be careful not to shoot your eye out. I might have to drop some hints to Santa Claus about something like that for a present when he comes to the firehouse for his annual visit on the Saturday before Christmas. There will be a free show that afternoon, too. I’ve heard that they’re going to have a Gene Autry western. Boy, won’t that be a swell day here in town! Maybe we can go ice-skating on the village skating rink right below the firehouse. We could get a good hockey game going with so many kids in town.
            Wow, it’s getting late, it must be way past eight o’clock by now. We had better start for home. Those Christmas decorations hanging over Main Street sure are beautiful. Bright colored lights and fresh evergreen garland wrapped around each pole, too. The Mobil Gas Station on the corner is really busy as cars are being filled up before folks start their trip back home. The lights are on at the shoe shop just down the block.  Mr. Wood is the cobbler and he can repair any kind of shoe or boot at his worktable in the back.
Let’s linger a little at Deibig Motors to look at the new Buick in the showroom. Wouldn’t that be a super gift for a family to get for Christmas! Of course, the Buicks cost more than the Chevy’s, so if you couldn’t afford a new Roadmaster, perhaps you could still “See The USA in a Chevrolet”.
            Leo Smith is closing his gas station for the night; he has finished that last oil change and the car is backing out of the side door right next to where his big red fuel truck is parked on the side street. Look’s like the feed mill is closing, too, as the farmers have loaded up the last bags of grain into their pickups before heading home.  My folks’ grocery store is really jammed with people tonight.  Much too busy in there for a little boy to be running around, so I had better head upstairs.
The night’s business on the bustling little village’s Main Street is starting to slow as snow begins to fall from the sky. Isn’t it a beautiful sight?
            Merry Christmas to all – may you all make it home for the holidays!

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.