Wednesday, June 5, 2019

La Farge's Commercial Club

A meeting of professional men was held at the Masonic Temple on Friday evening, September 3, for the purpose of organizing a Commercial Club.
            Thus began an article in the September 9, 1937 issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper about the establishment of an organization of village businessmen.  The article went on to tell what the new club was going to be all about: The purpose of the organization is to bring together the business and professional men of La Farge for the purpose of bringing about uniform business practices, better harmony and to aid in the development of this Community.  It is hoped that through the efforts of the Community Club that La Farge will be selected as the Headquarters for the Kickapoo River Flood Control Survey, and later headquarters for this project.
            At a later meeting held on September 7th of that year, the new Commercial Club elected Ralph Freeze, an attorney in the village as its first President.  Other officers elected in that 1937 organizational meeting were Secretary – Gene Calhoun, who ran a funeral home in the village and Treasurer – Mac Marshall, who owned a Main Street hotel.  The four Directors elected to fill out the Executive Committee of the club were Bernard Brokaw, William Adams, who ran a hardware store in La Farge, Harry Lounsbury, who ran the village’s drug store and Emory Thayer, the manager of Nuzum’s Lumber. 
            At the time that the new Commercial Club was formed, La Farge and the entire Kickapoo Valley were undergoing some dynamic times. As was mentioned earlier regarding the flood control survey, Congress had approved a federal study of the Kickapoo Valley in August of 1937.  The study would be held over the next few years and La Farge’s business community wanted the village to be the center of that project.  Besides the federal flood control study, an impending event of another nature loomed in the immediate future – the abandonment of the Kickapoo Valley’s railroad.
            In August of 1937 a protest meeting was held in La Farge regarding the proposed abandonment of the Valley’s railroad.  At that meeting, the Kickapoo Valley Defense Association (KVDA) was formed with La Farge Village President Arch Davidson serving as president of the new organization.  Davidson had been a leader in the Valley to get the flood control study (In January of 1937, Davidson and Ralph Nuzum, who owned the lumberyard in town, had spearheaded a petition drive to be sent to Congress in favor of the flood control study. The petitions sent to Congress had been gathered by the Kickapoo Flood Control Association, another organization that Davidson served as president.), and now he would lead the fight to save the railroad.
            One of the first things that the new Commercial Club did was to sponsor a Harvest Festival & Fair to be held in La Farge in mid-October of 1937.  The new festival, which featured a parade and a variety of activities was a success and was held under the sponsorship of the new businessmen’s club for several more years. In 1939, all of the businesses in La Farge closed from noon to 6 pm on the day of the festival.
            Later in 1939, members of the La Farge Commercial Club went to Hillsboro to celebrate the opening of the new state highway between the two communities.  The last section of the new Highway 82 had been completed that fall.  With the Kickapoo Valley’s railroad gone by this time, the development of state highways to La Farge was a main concern for village leaders.  With the completion of Hwy 82, La Farge had the first state road to the village. While at the meeting in Hillsboro, the community leaders from both towns also celebrated the re-opening of the Hillsboro Brewery and sampled some of the “Hillsboro Pale” that was again being made.
            The opening of the new state highway between La Farge and Hillsboro was the result of strong lobbying by village leaders, led by Davidson.  When the railroad abandonment became a certainty earlier in the year, the KVDA switched its emphasis to getting new and improved state roads to the Kickapoo Valley.  Because the railroad had been used extensively by many Kickapoo Valley businesses, especially for the receiving of goods to sell, a new and reliable highway system was needed as a replacement.  Davidson and other La Farge businessmen continued to have the state improve and gravel Highway 82 to Viroqua and to have the state designate the old “River Road” (then County Hwy M) as a state highway.
            Having good roads to La Farge had always been a priority for its business community.  In 1915, La Farge businesses had donated money to have the Otter Creek Road dragged and graded.  At the same time, June of 1915, three La Farge businesses – Chase’s, DeJean’s and Householder’s – had placed a notice in the local newspaper announcing that their stores would be closing at 8 pm except for Wednesday and Saturday. Operating hours for local businesses could be a point of contention in a small town like La Farge.  Probably because the stores actually competed for people’s business when they came to town to shop, establishing a mutual time for hours of operation was difficult to achieve at times.  But later that month the community came together to promote La Farge’s 4th of July Celebration.
            A call was made to all the automobile owners in the La Farge area, estimated to be about 75 at the time, for a Booster Club Trip to promote the 4th of July.  Eventually 36 automobiles and around 150 people went on the booster trip that included stops in West Lima, Bloom City, Woodstock, Rock Bridge, Hub City and Yuba in the morning of that last Saturday of June in 1915.  When the booster caravan reached Hillsboro, everyone stopped for lunch before continuing on to Dilly, Valley and Rockton in the afternoon to conclude the trip.  La Farge’s 4th of July Celebration was well attended and successful that year thanks to the efforts of the business community.
            In 1920, the La Farge businessmen united once again to sponsor the La Farge baseball team.  The “town team” was the pride of the village and always seemed to play for a championship each year.  Over the years, the sponsorship by La Farge’s businesses for the ball team was a given.
            During World War II, the La Farge Commercial Club ceased to function as the village turned its attention to various drives to support the war effort.  After the war was over, there were calls for the Commercial Club to again unite La Farge’s business community.  In 1947, the La Farge Development Association was formed and Casey Sanford was chosen as its first president.  Sanford, who owned a men’s clothing store on La Farge’s Main Street, led the new organization in helping with the village’s annual 4thof July Celebration. The new business organization sponsored a raffle for that year’s Independence Day.  The following year, the development association co-sponsored the 4thof July with the newly formed VFW Post.
            In 1949, a Lions Club was formed in La Farge and it seemed to take the place of the previous business organizations.  The president of that first Lions Club in La Farge was Ed Deibig, who owned the Chevy-Buick garage in town.  The new Lions Club sponsored a “Wild West Rodeo” that was held on Labor Day.  The rodeo was held at Calhoon Park, but crowds that first year were small because of rainy weather. 
             That Christmas season, the Lions Club sponsored a “Clock Stops Contest” fundraiser. People would pay to make a guess on how long a hand-wound clock would run. The clock was on display in the front window of one of the Main Street stores.  The clock ran for 92 hours before stopping and a winner was announced with much Yuletide fanfare.
            One of the main projects that the La Farge Lions Club undertook was to build new tennis courts in town.  Using proceeds from several more successful rodeos, the courts were constructed beyond the left field fence at Calhoon Park.  John Ferris, who ran a funeral parlor and furniture store in the village, was key in making the rodeos successful.  Finn Johannesen, who ran a grocery store in town and also served as the village’s president for several years, led the Lions club in getting the tennis courts completed.
            Over the years several different business organizations were formed in La Farge to provide some type of order in the commercial sector of the village.  Some times the individual businesses had to act upon their own.  
            In May of 1947, a notice appeared in the Enterprise that the four grocery stores in town – the Cash Store, Clover Farm Store, Andrews Market and Kennedy’s Grocery – would all be closed during the summer on Thursday afternoons.  The reason given for the new closing hours were due to the late Wednesday nights when the free movies were held on Main Street during the summer.  At a time when those La Farge grocery stores were sometimes open for 15 hours a day, a break was needed for the workers in the store to catch some rest.
            Different times; different needs for this little Kickapoo River town.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019


In this conclusion about the strange death of Robert Morris that occurred in La Farge on February 24, 1928, the focus will shift to the legal proceedings to punish a possible murderer in the case.  In the last installment, we learned that several people had come forward to implicate Frank Traister regarding the death of Morris.  Robert Morris had been in the upstairs apartment of Traister, who lived with his family in the Travers Building on La Farge’s Main Street, on the evening prior to his death.  
            Following investigations by the Vernon County Sheriff and a Pinkerton Agency detective brought in for the case, Frank Traister was arrested on an alcohol charge (Traister was known to have run a speakeasy from his apartment).  After questioning in Viroqua by the Vernon County District Attorney, Traister eventually admitted guilt to a 4thdegree murder (manslaughter) charge and was sentenced for up to two years in the state penitentiary.  So that is where we ended last time, but that is certainly not the end of the story.
            In the March 22, 1928 issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper, a front-page headline boldly screams out, “TRAISTER CASE STILL UNSETTLED”.  Under the headline, Enterprise editor B.W. Koob, who had been hesitant to print very many first-hand accounts on the case since its earliest phases writes:
            Reliable and authentic reports regarding the proceedings in the Traister case, have failed to reach this office, as it appears there has been several unforeseen obstacles presented.  The following data is taken from last week’s Vernon County Censor:
            It is interesting to see how often the editor of the Enterprise uses other newspapers’ accounts when covering this story. In his original account of Robert Morris’ death, Editor Koob had a lengthy article about the deadly incident. But in the weeks following the strange death, Koob seems to rely solely on other newspapers for presenting information. This practice will continue as Traister’s legal case plays out over several months.  Let us return to the March 15tharticle in the Vernon County Censor that Koob had introduced:
            The case of State of Wisconsin vs. Frank Traister, of La Farge, seems to be arousing considerable interest among our citizens.  Proceedings were had before Judge Mahoney on Monday in which the defendant was sentenced to the Penitentiary for from one to two years on a plea of manslaughter in the fourth degree.
            Prior to that time attorneys had been employed to look after his interest, but no notice was served upon his attorneys of any proceedings and upon learning what had taken place his attorneys immediately appeared in court and demanded that he be brought before the court to ascertain whether or not he had entered a plea of guilt understandingly.  The court refused to order the prisoner brought before the court, but affidavits were obtained stating the true facts in the matter, and Attorney Bennett went to Madison and appeared before the Supreme Court, Wednesday morning at 9 a.m., and that court issued an order directing the County Judge to proceed no further in the matter and to grant the defendant the proper hearing that he might be tried on the merits or in the alternative to show cause before the Supreme Court why he should not do that.
            Besides being one amazingly long run-on sentence, that last part of the V.C. Censor article provides some new information in the Traister case.  First, after initially appearing to have had no counsel in the case, Frank Traister subsequently was being represented by one of the top lawyers in Vernon County, J. Henry Bennett.  It is amazing to think that Traister was originally sentenced in the county court without any counsel, but that appears to be what happened. When attorney Bennett heard what had happened to his client, he immediately tried to get Vernon County Judge Daniel Mahoney to change or vacate the charge, but was denied access to the court.  That prompted Bennett to hop in his Model T Roadster (or whatever prominent attorneys drove back then) and head to Madison to get the Wisconsin Supreme Court to issue a legal stop to the proceedings against his client.  The Supreme Court issued an order for the Vernon County Judge “to proceed no farther”.
            I wonder how Frank Traister, who does not seem to have a job since it is never mentioned in any of the articles, could afford to hire a top law firm to represent him.  Perhaps Traister’s father-in-law, Chancy Parr provided the money.  Parr, a distinguished Civil War veteran and President of the G.A.R. Post in La Farge, was married five times.  Frank Traister’s mother was Chancy Parr’s fifth and last wife. I’m presuming that Parr would have had the financial means to hire the Bennett law firm in Viroqua to represent his wife’s son.
            The La Farge Enterprise printed another Vernon County Censor article in the March 29th issue.  The front-page headline read, STAY ORDERED IN TRAISTER PROCEEDINGS.  The reprinted article followed:
            Viroqua County Censor: All proceedings in the case of Frank Traister, La Farge, execution of whose sentence of from one to two years on a plea of guilty to manslaughter in the fourth degree in connection with the death of Robert Morris on February 24th, has been held up, have been suspended pending a return to the supreme court writ by Judge D. O. Mahoney ordered for April 7th.
            Traister, who is still held in the Vernon County jail, was not arraigned in court yesterday to which time the case had been adjourned.  Judge Mahoney has ordered a stay of all proceedings until a return on the alternative writ issued by the supreme court, demanding that the sentence be set aside and Traister given a trial is made.
            From this article in the V.C. Censor, we can deduce that attorney J. Henry Bennett was able to get the Wisconsin Supreme Court to halt the proceedings of the Vernon County Court against his client.  Although still in the Vernon County jail, Frank Traister at least did not have to go to the state penitentiary in Waupun.  Getting a new trial and getting out of jail was another thing all together.
            In the April 19, 1928 issue of the Enterprise, there was this article listed under the headline, “TRAISTER CASE TAKEN UNDER ADVISEMENT”:
            Norwalk Star:Whether or not that Frank Traister, La Farge man being held in Vernon County jail in connection with the death of Robert Morris, also of La Farge, will be admitted to trial over his plea of guilty for manslaughter, will be determined by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.
            The Supreme Court on Saturday took the appeal of attorneys under advisement, whether it will issue a peremptory writ of mandamus ordering the Vernon County court to withdraw his plea of guilty, and be tried.
            Attorneys C. J. Smith and J. Henry Bennett, for the defendant, took the case to the Supreme Court on the allegation that Traister was “railroaded” into court to plead guilty unbeknown to his counsel.
            Following the legal proceedings for this case proved to be tricky.  Back in 2013, when I first started research on this murder case, I went to the Clerk of Court’s office in Viroqua to see if they had the records.  The records for that far back (1928) were no longer there, but had been transferred to the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) to be archived.
            The WHS had deposited the old Vernon County court records at the WHS Area Research Center (ARC) at the Murphy Library on the UW-LaCrosse campus.  I had done some previous research at that site, so I made contact with the folks at the ARC to see what they could find.  Ed Hill, retired librarian and local history aficionado, did some digging for me and sent along a copy of the registration of official documents by Vernon County in the case.  From this document, I was able to get a better picture of the time line regarding the legal proceedings.  (Ed Hill later called me about what he had sent regarding the Traister Case.  He said that all of the hearing and court proceedings were on file at the UW-LaCrosse ARC and could be viewed there.)
            The La Farge Enterprise provided the next information on the Traister Case in the May 10, 1928 issue.  Under a front-page headline that read Traister Gets New Trial, the article read:
            The county court of Vernon County must receive the application of Frank Traister to permit him to withdraw his plea of guilty to manslaughter in connection with the death of Robert Morris, also of La Farge, the supreme court held on Tuesday of this week.  Traister is now serving a sentence of one to two years for alleged offense. 
            Traister was arrested on a charge of violating the prohibition laws and while being held in the county jail he was persuaded to plead guilty to manslaughter in connection with the death of Morris. Morris was found nearly dead at the foot of the stairway leading to the living quarters of the Traister family, and is believed to have died as the result of a skull fracture. 
            Traister had an attorney who was told that the only charge against him was the one involving an alleged violation of the liquor laws and this case was set before a justice of the peace.  The attorney waited at the justice’s office but found that while he had been waiting Traister had been induced to plead guilty to a manslaughter charge.
            After Traister’s attorney, J. Henry Bennett, had obtained the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that his client should have a new trail on the manslaughter charges, the Vernon County Court had to act.  On May 16th papers were filed in the county court as a “Petition of Frank Traister to withdraw plea of guilty and Judgment vacated filed”.  At the same time, an “Order setting aside plea and sentence filed” also appeared on the listing of legal filings in the case.
            Three days later an order was filed in court for the Vernon County Sheriff to continue to hold Frank Traister in jail.  On that same day, May 19, 1928, another order was filed requiring “bail and commitment after arrest and before trial”.  On June 27th, a notation on the filings in the Traister case notes read, “Bail Bond, certificate of deposit for $500.00 filed”.  By that time it appears that Frank Traister was out of the county jail for the first time since he had been arrested back in early March.
            Traister, this time with his attorneys present, was back in the Vernon County Court in early October.  On the 5th of that month, an “Affidavit of Order for witnesses of indigent defendant” was filed and a trail was held three days later. The court record shows that Traister was “Tried by Jury who return a verdict of “not guilty”.  The next week’s issue of the Enterprise had a short notice that Judge Mahoney had dismissed the Traister case due to a lack of evidence.  I am assuming that the editor of the La Farge newspaper had it wrong on the outcome of the Frank Traister case, but regardless, Traister was a free man.           
            Although arrested on a “liquor charge” originally, then subsequently sentenced to time in the state penitentiary on a manslaughter charge, Frank Traister eventually was not found guilty of anything.  
            Later in 1928, in an October issue of the La Farge Enterprise, there was a notice in the school news section that May Traister, 2ndgrade and brother Harold in 4thgrade had perfect attendance for the first quarter at the La Farge School.  They were the two youngest children of Frank and Cora Traister.
            Life went on, except of course, for Robert Morris.   

Thursday, May 9, 2019


The first time that I ever heard about the murder of Robert Morris was when I was talking to my aunt, Alice Lawrence, twenty years ago when I was just starting this little local history project.  We were talking about some events from La Farge’s “Dark Side” from the past and she brought up the death of Morris.  She did not remember Morris’ name, but did remember the Traister name and where the family lived at that time.
            She said that Frank Traister ran a speakeasy in the upstairs apartment that he rented at the old Travers Building then located on Main Street.  According to my Aunt Alice’s version of the story, Morris, Traister and some other men were drinking and playing cards late at night in that apartment.  She said that they caught Morris cheating at cards and the other card players threw him down the stairs.  From the fall down the stairs, Morris broke his neck and he was found dead the next morning, lying on the sidewalk in front of the building. My aunt’s version of the story leads us into a continuation of looking at the aftermath of the death of Robert Morris.
            Let us return to the year of 1928 and take a look at the lead story in the March 8th issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper.  It began under a headline of “New angle In Morris Death”:
            While it is hardly possible for the Enterprise to issue statements with a degree of authenticity relating to the disaster which befell Robert Morris, on Thursday two weeks ago, we have been able to secure certain facts connected with the case which we believe we are free to publish without fear of contradiction.
            Shortly after the funeral of Robert Morris, Frank Traister was taken into custody by county officials, and after a hearing at the county seat, was placed under $1,000 bonds, which, being unable to furnish, caused the officers to place him in the county jail.  His trial was set for Monday, March 12th, according to plans in force at the time this is being put into type.
            Herman Henthorne, a farmer living a few miles from Viroqua, who with Harley Harris, of the village, were inmates of the Traister apartment at the time of the accident, were taken to Viroqua, where, in the county attorney’s office, certain details of the case which were not brought out at the inquest held on the day following the death of Robert Morris, were made to present a somewhat different angle regarding the death of Robert Morris.
            With these opening paragraphs in the Enterprise article, the story that was told to me by my Aunt Alice starts to come together.  Vernon County Sheriff Martin Larson arrested Frank Traister and took him to the county jail in Viroqua.  While there, Vernon County District Attorney Martin Gulbrandson questioned Traister about the night of Morris’ death.  Let’s return to the Enterprise article:
            Frank Traister has made a signed confession that he was standing at the top of the stairway and witnessed R. Morris roll down the stairs, from which catastrophe he is supposed to have received the blow which soon afterward caused his death.
            At the time this is being put in type, Wednesday afternoon, the county sheriff, in company with a special representative of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, of Minneapolis, are in the village, going over the scene of the accident, and putting certain parties who are more or less involved in the case, through the third degree.
            The editor of the Enterprise, perhaps to protect the reputations of Frank Traister and the other men in the apartment that night, is loathe to declare the death of Robert Morris a murder.  The story published in the March 14, 1928 issue of the LaCrosse Tribune does not show the same constraint.  Under a headline of “Hold Evidence In Morris Death Case Points to Foul Play”, the article in the Tribune read:
            That Vernon County authorities have in their possession sufficient evidence on which to arraign Frank Traister, La Farge, on a murder count, seemed a certainty as the probing of the mysterious death of Robert Morris went forward today.
            Most important of this evidence divulged today by Martin Gulbrandson, district attorney for Vernon County, was that blood stains were discovered on the upper landing of the stairway, leading directly into the Traister residence, and below which the frozen form of Morris was discovered by a laborer at 5:30 on the morning of February 24th.
            Authorities point to this evidence as the most conclusive of any yet uncovered in connection with the case, since it has been maintained by Traister and his associates that Morris sustained the severe skull fracture, contributing to his death, in his tumble down the stair case.  It indicated to authorities that an assault had been made and aided in bearing out their contention that foul play had been committed.  Other evidence authorities are believed to have in their possession has not been divulged.
            C. A. Hedin, St. Paul, special investigator brought in on the case, went over the ground with Sheriff Martin Larson yesterday, making a trip to La Farge and discussing various phases of the case with Vernon County officials. The findings of the special detective were not disclosed, but he was to remain with the authorities until the case was cleared up.
            District Attorney Gulbrandson over long distance today said that meanwhile Traister, who was placed under arrest last Friday, and from whose stairway Morris was said by him to have fallen, was being held on a liquor charge.  He (Gulbrandson)said the preliminary hearing was set for Monday, but said the arraignment on this charge would be postponed in the event other clues pointing to Traister’s implication in a murder count were uncovered.
            It appears from this account in the LaCrosse Tribune that Frank Traister was originally arrested on the “liquor charge”, or that Traister was running a speakeasy of sorts out of his Main Street apartment.  Remember that this event occurred during the days of Prohibition in the United States, so there are federal and state laws in effect regarding illegal bars or taverns, “speakeasies” being in operation.  The Tribune article then goes on to capture the mood in La Farge as found by conversations that the reporter had with residents of the village.  The article continued:
            Through its own investigation, carried on in the city with parties who have recently been at La Farge and who know personally the persons involved, The Tribune learned today that considerable feeling is in evidence in that village, the majority of residents contending the action should be brought on a charge of murder.
            Complete disregard on the part of the Traisters of Morris’ well-being after his injury was explained here as a means they adopted in endeavoring to cover up on any possible connection with his injury, it is alleged.
            Morris was known to have sought liquor at the Traister home on the night previous to his death, spending close to an hour before 11:30 that night in Traister’s quarters.  He was believed to have departed around midnight, and lay at the bottom of the stairway until 5:30 in the morning, when he was found in a dying state, with his hands and feet frozen.
            Detective Hedin was scheduled to question Traister at the Vernon County jail today.  Authorities previously have questioned him and on all occasions he has maintained that his original story – that Morris was injured in the fall – was the truth.
            It is interesting that although the editor of the Enterprise did not want to speculate on the alleged murder as the Tribune article had done, the local La Farge newspaper did reprint the entire Tribune article in the March 15thissue of the Enterprise.  The following week (March 22nd) the La Farge newspaper reprinted an article about the Morris murder case that had been originally printed in a Viroqua newspaper, the Vernon County Censor. Although the Enterprise account led with the following disclaimer, “Reliable and authentic reports regarding the proceedings in the Traister case, have failed to reach this office, as it appears there has been several unforeseen obstacles presented”, the VC Censor, again like the Tribune article the week before, was reprinted in its entirety.  The lead paragraph in the VC Censor article read”
            The case of the State of Wisconsin vs. Frank Traister, of La Farge, seems to be arousing considerable interest among our citizens.  Proceedings were had before Judge Mahoney on Monday in which the defendant was sentenced to the Penitentiary for from one to two years on a plea of manslaughter in the fourth degree.
            Piecing the information from the several articles together, it appears that Frank Traister, who was originally arrested on alcohol – related charges, eventually admitted to having a part in Morris’ death, probably after questioning by the detective and county sheriff.  Perhaps to avoid being tried for a more severe offense, Traister agreed to plead guilty on the manslaughter charge.  It appears that Traister was headed for a year or two in the state penitentiary at Waupun.  Or was he?
More next time on the murder of Robert Morris.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Murder or Not? The Death of Robert Morris

Although I have tried to focus on the positive when writing this little history of the community of La Farge, there are some bad things that happened in the town as well.  I have not ignored the negative entirely.  Back in 2010, I wrote about the death of Sam Hook, a storeowner in Seelyburg who died under mysterious circumstances as his general store was being robbed and set on fire.  That two-part Local History Notebook about Sam Hook’s unusual and tragic ending in 1917 detailed how his death was investigated thoroughly.  In the end though regarding the death of Sam Hook, nobody was ever prosecuted for a crime, although Seelyburg residents always contended that he was murdered.
            Eleven years after Sam Hook’s death, another mysterious death took place on Main Street of La Farge.  It involved the death of Robert Morris, who died on February 24, 1928.  The circumstances of Morris’ death and the legal maneuverings that followed make for another interesting story from La Farge’s past.  To begin, let’s look at the story of the death of Robert Morris as told in the March 1, 1928 issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper.  The headline on page 1 of the Enterprise read, “Robert Morris Found Lying Unconscious On Sidewalk Friday”. A sub-headline under that lead read, “Both Hands Frozen and Face Covered With Blood”.  The article in La Farge’s weekly newspaper at the time continued:
            Excitement ran high in the village on last Friday morning when the intelligence was passed about that Robert Morris had been found on the street just before daybreak, almost frozen to death.  The unconscious man was first discovered by John Mullett, who chanced to pass by the stairway leading to the second floor of the Travers building, heard a strange sound, at first thinking it might have been a dog that had crawled up the stairway seeking shelter from the extremely cold night air.
            Let me interject here that the Travers building is the former post office in La Farge, the brick building that last housed a real estate office and sat between the current post office and the Zzip Stop. It was torn down a few years ago after it started to fall down.  For more information on the building, check out my Local History Notebook columns when I wrote about it in 2013.  In 1928, the building had a covered outside stairway that led up to the second story apartments.  Now; let’s return to the Enterprise article:
Upon drawing closer, however, Mr. Mullett discovered the sound issued from the numb human, who was lying on the snow-covered walk with his head resting on the lowest step of the stairway.  Mr. Mullet immediately hastened to the Central Hotel next door, and divesting the knowledge of his discovery to those within the hotel, who were already about, lost no time in notifying Marshall Showen, and as quickly as the village official arrived on the scene of the tragedy, he, with two other men, loaded the unfortunate onto a handsled and placed him on the cot in the village lock-up.
            The Central Hotel was located where the present post office of La Farge sits.  Beside the hotel there was another large store building that would have been next to the Travers building.  Both of those buildings burned down during the great hotel fire of 1942.  When Robert Morris was sledded to the jail by Village Marshall Showen and others, they probably only had to go a block or so. Taking the severely injured man to jail seems like a strange choice, especially when you had warm rooms at the hotel right next door.  But there are lots of strange occurrences involving this case, so let’s return to the newspaper story:
Not once since the man was first discovered until life became extinct did he regain consciousness.  Immediately after the man was placed on the cot, Dr. Haggerty was called, but his services were of no avail, as the man’s life ebbed before he arrived.  Parties who remained with the man after he was placed on the bed say that he opened his mouth once or twice, but that was the last and the only sign of life.
            At the inquest and hearing held in the afternoon, conducted by the district attorney and county sheriff, the details of the case were brought out. Depending on the strength of our memory, this is the way we got the run of the dope:
            “Run of the dope”?  That sounds like something from a present day song infused with hip-hop slang. Dr. Eber Haggerty, who was called to the jail to pronounce Morris dead on that cold February morning in 1928, lived a block away from the jail.  His house that contained an office for his medical practice sat across the street from the newly constructed Masonic Temple that would be formerly dedicated later that year.  Meanwhile, back to the story:
            It appears that quite late last Thursday evening Robert Morris mounted the stairway of the Travers building, a portion of the second story of which is occupied by Frank Traister and his family.  Morris, knocking on the door, made inquiry of Frank Traister, who answered the knock, if he could get something to drink.  Upon receiving an answer from Traister in the negative, Morris turned from the door and Traister closed it and went back to his chair.  Perhaps a moment afterward a commotion was heard within the hallway, and upon investigation, it was found that Mr. Morris had fallen down the stairway. With the aid of a second party, Frank Traister carried the man to the doorway of the Central Hotel, where inquiry was made regarding the engaging of a room, but was told that the house had no rooms available.  Morris was then taken back and deposited at the bottom of the stairway, where it was presumed he would soon be able to collect his senses and repair to a place of warmth and shelter for the night.  The accident, as near as we were able to determine, happened about 11:30 in the evening, and if the man remained outside from that time until he was found in the morning around 5 o’clock, small wonder that his fingers and hands were frozen white, when one remembers that a temperature of between 12 and 15 degrees below zero prevailed throughout the night.
            First of all, it is important to know that in 1928, the United States had Prohibition in effect, so there were no bars or taverns in La Farge.  It does seem interesting that Robert Morris goes to the Traister apartment at nearly midnight on a Thursday evening to get something to drink.  Another interesting part of the story was that Frank Traister and somebody else (and don’t you wonder who that person was at that time of the night) carried a badly injured Morris over to the hotel to get him a room. That seems like a decent thing to do. But then Traister and his buddy drop off Morris back at the bottom of the stairs to sleep it off.  There is not much compassion in that determination.
            Perhaps, Traister could have let Morris stay the night in his apartment where the injured man could recover from his fall. At the time Frank Traister and his wife Cora had four children who lived in that second story apartment in the Travers building.  The children were John, aged 14, then there was Floyd, 12; Harold, 9 and little May or Mae (found it spelled both ways) Traister aged 7.  With all of those kids, perhaps there wasn’t any room in the apartment for the injured man?  But wouldn’t you think that Morris could have been laid on the kitchen floor to get him out of that bitter -15 degree cold night?  Frank Traister does not seem to have much compassion for Morris in this situation.  We perhaps will learn more about why that may have been, when other information starts to come out about Frank Traister.  (Don’t forget about little May Traister, the 7-year old daughter – she may be a key in this case.)  The newspaper article continued:
            Arrangements were made Saturday afternoon to conduct the funeral on Sunday, but all such plans were cancelled when those closely related to the deceased were advised by county officials that a post-mortem examination would be held over the body on the following Monday.  It appears that a more thorough and careful search of the premises upon which the tragedy occurred, by village and county officials, brought to light certain complexities connected with the matter which they wished to investigate and to effect a possible solution thereof. 
            Following the post-mortem examination of the body, on Monday afternoon, by local and deputy state medical examiners, the funeral was held Tuesday, at 2 o’clock, at the Free Methodist Church in the village.
            Mr. Morris was a man of close to 40 years of age, and only until quite recently, was in another section of the country, but returned to La Farge last fall and had been making his home with his brother, John.  We have endeavored to report the particulars of this case to the best of our ability.  As is always the case when an accident of this nature occurs, one will hear a great many and different stories, but we have tried to adhere only to those statements brought out at the inquest.
            Thus ended the newspaper article about the death of Robert Morris.  As mentioned in the concluding paragraph, there were many stories swirling around La Farge regarding Morris’ untimely death.  Some of those stories had more merit than others and soon, more stories about that frigid February night on La Farge’s Main Street would surface.  Next time in the history blog, we will continue to look at the unseemly death of Robert Morris.    

Thursday, April 18, 2019

La Farge Goes "Paperless"

A while back, they stopped selling the Wisconsin State Journal at the Zzip Stop in La Farge.  The long hard winter had resulted in sporadic deliveries to the La Farge gas station that had become an outlier on the route. When the big Kickapoo River flood had closed the Viola gas station back in August so no daily copies of the State Journal were being sold there, La Farge had become a stop too far on the route.  For those of us who are accustomed to having a daily newspaper to read, the stoppage was shocking.  Trips to Readstown, Viroqua and Hillsboro to get a newspaper are being made begrudgingly. What’s a guy to do? 
            The loss of a daily newspaper in La Farge also got me to thinking about when the last time the village was without a daily newspaper. I think it probably goes back a long way.  I’m guessing to the time before the railroad was completed to La Farge and daily trains could start bringing in the newspapers along with the mail, passengers and freight.  That takes us back to 1898!  Yikes! We have had daily newspapers in this little Kickapoo River town for over 120 years?  Probably, yes is the answer to that question.
            Remember that in those early years, the village of La Farge was the last stop on the Kickapoo rail line.  There were three hotels (Belcher House, Hotel Ward, and Central Hotel) operating in town to accommodate all of the people disembarking from the trains.  Dray lines in La Farge would have wagons at the railroad station to bring the visitors and salesmen up to the hotels in town.  From the very beginning the trains also delivered the daily newspapers. There is a classic photograph from that era showing some men dressed in suits sitting in the front lobby of the Hotel Ward.  Each man holds a copy of a daily newspaper in his hands.
            For over thirty years, there were always two trains arriving in the village every day.  Thus, the morning and evening editions of newspapers from Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago could be in La Farge “hot off the presses”.  Maxine Shird told me that when her folks were running Mac’s Hotel in La Farge (this would be from the 1920s until the early 1940s) that the daily newspaper was always available there.  Many of the train workers stayed at the hotel and bringing the newspapers was a daily delivery for them.
            When the railroad line ended in 1939, there was much uproar about how Kickapoo River towns would receive needed goods that had been delivered by the railroad.  Daily truck delivery routes were established to get goods to the Valley and newspapers were part of that.  The railroad continued to run a daily truck delivery route to the village until the late 1960s and daily newspaper deliveries were included.
            Eventually, the newspaper publishers began to run daily rural routes to places like La Farge.  The morning newspapers like the State Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel were delivered by delivery boys to people’s doorsteps in the village while later in the day, the Milwaukee Journal, Capital Times, and LaCrosse Tribune would arrive at people’s homes “fresh off the presses”.  
            I’m not sure if there were any age requirements for boys (Did girls also deliver the newspapers?  I can’t remember any from my youth, but perhaps later the fairer sex did become involved in the venture.) delivering newspapers in La Farge, but the job did entail collecting money for the papers besides delivering them.  I remember substituting for Freddie Shird one summer for a couple of weeks while he was on vacation.  He delivered the State Journal, I believe and I even was able to use his bicycle with the saddlebag newspaper baskets draped over the rear tire on the route.  During that time there were two boys delivering the State Journal since there were so many people in La Farge who had home delivery.  The afternoon deliveries of the LaCrosse Tribune may have needed a split route during that time as well.
            Delivering the Sunday newspapers was a whole different animal because of the increased size.  The newspaper bundles would be left on the back porch of the post office in town early each Sunday morning.  They would usually come in several bundles with additional inserts and such, and then the delivery boy had to put the newspapers together.  The papers would be so big and heavy that you couldn’t carry them all, so you had to do part of the route and then go back for the rest of the newspapers.
            Besides the home deliveries of the newspapers, several businesses in La Farge usually had the daily papers for sale.  Harry Lounsbury always had the newspaper for sale at his drug store and at least one of the grocery stores would also have them. The gas stations usually had the Sunday newspapers, as some of those other businesses in town would be closed. When we moved back to La Farge in 1972, we lived a block off Main Street in the Burt Apartments.  I would usually walk up to the drug store to get a newspaper and could catch up on the latest with Lillian Waddell, who worked there. At school, several daily newspapers would be in the library or teachers lounge, so we could read them there.
            For a short time, Carolyn and I were part of the newspaper delivery system as we took over Ernie Meseberg’s rural Sunday route of the State Journal from November of 1979 until September of the following year.  The route included a drive down to Tunnelville and then up on Fairview and Salem Ridges.  We caught more places driving down Wemmer Hollow, Otter Creek and Green Hollow. Heading north, we caught the places on Plum Run, Buckeye Ridge and on to Weister Creek.  We would often stop and talk to Rex Bufton at his place before moving on to circle the Dell area.  Then it was on to Ontario where we dropped off a stack of papers at the restaurant there. We would sometimes have breakfast there before heading down to Rockton and Warner Creek.  Next, the route took us to Jug Creek and on up to Morningstar and Maple Ridges. Before finishing back in Bear Creek and heading home.  It usually took a couple of hours if the roads were good.
            We had a heavy social schedule back then and a couple times we went right from a late night party to our early morning paper route. We particularly remember a night of celebration for my class reunion (that was #15 for the great LHS Class of 1965) resulted in no sleep before going on the paper route.  Eventually, Ernie took the route back over and we could sleep in on those Sunday mornings.
            I’m not sure when home deliveries of newspapers stopped in La Farge.  I do remember that adults were doing the routes at the end, which may have been ten years ago perhaps.  Today some people have the daily newspaper come through the mail, but that means it’s always a day or two late.  The LaCrosse Tribune stopped deliveries to La Farge in 2018, but the State Journal continued until February of this year.  I always made a daily stop at the Zzip Stop to get my copy each day – my reading usually focused on the sports page and the puzzles.  But alas, that option is now gone.  We have moved on to another time – paperless.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

"Near La Farge" Photos from the Past

A while back, I received a request from the Vernon County Historical Society to help identify an old hand colored photo postcard.  The photo was of a bridge spanning the Kickapoo River with the only title being “Near La-Farge, Wis. By, Potter”.  The photograph was probably taken around 1908 and the photographer was Walter Potter as his name is hand written on it.  At the probable time of the taking of the photograph for the postcard there were three photographers operating in the village of La Farge.
            Walter Potter operated a photography studio out of his residence on Main Street next to Donaldson’s Hardware.  Today Deb Moore operates her beauty shop from that location. Another prominent photographer in La Farge in 1908 was Charles Brown who operated a studio in his house on south State Street, just south of the present hardware store.  A third photographer, A. E. Strait operated a mobile photography studio that when it was in La Farge the wagon was usually parked in the back of a building where today Cheryl Haas’ resell store is located.  
            It is hard to imagine that three photographers could make their living in a small town the size of La Farge, but those times of more than a century back obviously called for the need for people, places and events to be remembered in a permanent way.  Fortunately, many photographs from that era still survive, helping us to know the history from that time.  Each of the three La Farge based photographers left behind a variety of photographs to help us understand the little Kickapoo Valley community from that time so long ago.
            Walter Potter probably published the photo postcard of the bridge around 1908.  I base my reasoning for this choice because I have another similar photo from that same year that shows the sandstone cliffs along the Kickapoo River north of La Farge. That photo is also identified with the “Near La Farge, Wis.” title and it is hand colored, also like the photo of the bridge.  The similarity between the two postcards is quite evident, both from the river scenery choices and the coloring techniques used on the postcards.  But there are differences in the two cards, as the printing on Potter’s bridge photo is hand written while the river bluffs postcard “Near La Farge, Wis.” is printed.
            There is also a nice Kickapoo River photograph by A.E. Strait from this era, showing the river just south of La Farge and it is titled “Kickapoo Near La Farge, By Strait.”  If we attribute the sandstone cliffs postcard perhaps to have been taken by Charles Brown, we could have each of the three local photographers vying for the almighty tourist dollar of the time.
            La Farge was somewhat of a tourist destination of that era both because of the natural beauty of the Valley in which it lays and the terrible flood that hit the community on July 22, 1907.  That flood was one of the worst ever recorded in the Valley up to that time and the local photographers were out in force to record the event.
            First, we have Walter Potter’s iconic photograph, probably taken from the roof of the Opera House (Now Phil & Deb’s Town Tap) that shows La Farge attorney Alva Drew walking down the flooded Main Street with his son and dog in tow.  There is also an A. E. Strait photograph on that same day in 1907 with a view looking at the flooded houses on Snow Street a block south of Main Street.  Another photograph of the great flood of 1899, taken by C. S. Brown shows Seelyburg on the north end of La Farge being inundated by the floodwaters.  That photograph is taken from part way up Ed Nixon’s hillside hay field and actually shows where Brown’s former photography studio was located before he moved it to higher ground.
            With all three La Farge photographers publishing photos from those floods, the little river community became well known around the Midwest.  People would ride the train north to La Farge to view the village with the flooding past and to be amazed at the beauty of the Kickapoo Valley.
            Within a few years after that great flood in 1907, the photography business in La Farge would be drastically changed.  In 1909, A.E. Strait sold his photography wagon to Sam Steinmetz, who continued to run the business for several years after that. The announcement advertisement about the sale placed in the May 13, 1909 La Farge Enterprise newspaper read, “I wish to announce that I have purchased the Photo Gallery of A. E. Strait and will remain at the old stand just north of the Rittenhouse & Davidson’s Market, prepared to do good work at reasonable prices, will do all kinds of enlarging, also expect to handle picture moulding and make frames to order at reasonable prices.  Work guaranteed or your money refunded.  Yours for Business, S.I. Steinmetz”.  Charles Brown closed his La Farge studio in 1910 and moved to California, where he would eventually become the photographer for the movie stars of Hollywood.
            Walter Potter continued to run his photography studio in La Farge for many more years.  Eventually, his son Elmer would run a radio store from the same Main Street location after his father retired from the photography business.
            Thus, from these photographers from yesteryear, the story of this little Kickapoo River town can be better told. 
            As for the identification of where that bridge in the Potter photo was located, I think it was the Lawton Bridge at Tunnelville, located two miles south of La Farge.  Joe Young called to say that he thinks that the bridge was the Schroeder Bridge, now Bridge #16 on the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  When pressed on the matter, local newspaper publisher Lonnie Muller thinks it might be the original Bacon Bridge located north of Norris Ridge, now the KVR Covered Bridge #18.  I think we old-timers should continue to stare at the photograph for a couple more weeks to see if it will improve our squints any.        

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A World War II Letter Home

As Americans continue to remember the 75thanniversaries of the United States’ involvement in World War II, I thought it might be appropriate to share a letter from 1943.  LaVerne Green, who was in the U.S. Navy at that time, wrote the letter and sent it home to La Farge to his father, Lester Green.  The letter was written on October 22, 1943 and had an FPO military address in New York City.  For much of that year, LaVerne Green was stationed in Panama and did not return to the United States until November of 1943.  I am guessing that the letter sent home to his Dad was written in the Panama Canal Zone.
            LaVerne Green’s letter is remarkable in several respects.  First of all the written penmanship of the letter is superb.  Written in longhand script with a pencil, the letter reminded me of my own father’s excellent cursive writing, common from that generation. Cursive writing was a required skill taught in school back then and those who did it well, like LaVerne, leave an easily readable text for the reader to follow.
            Another aspect of LaVerne Green’s letter that is unique is that it is almost entirely about music.  The Green family was very musically inclined, talents that carried on to La Verne’s children and perhaps to later generations even to this day. From the contents of the letter, it is evident that Lester Green probably played in a band of some sort in 1943 and that LaVerne is musically active in the service as well.
            Much of that letter from late October in 1943 tells about LaVerne Green’s effort to copy some music for his father.  I will use La Verne’s words as he related them to his Dad in the letter:
            Just finished the music today.  I had to hurry a lot on two of the tunes.  Who & Marie.  They were set but I had to copy them and it is slow work.  I don’t have a writing pen and the ink I used on them is too thin. The ones written in pencil are quite neat but I spent more time on them.  Marie was a rush job.  I set it last night and took it to my friend to play this afternoon and there wasn’t a mistake in it.  Fast work. Tonight I copied it for you.  I will send them thru in the morning along with this letter.
            I do not know what songs that LaVerne is writing about.  I “Googled” the top songs of the 1940’s, but nothing with those titles came up.  Irving Berlin had written a tune titled, “Marie” several decades before then, so perhaps that is the tune that was being worked on and mentioned in the letter.  
            LaVerne Green continued with his letter to his Dad: 
My friend here plays violin beautifully and he likes the choruses very much.  He can really take off on them.  You will find them very hard for the most part.  Tea For Two is a beautiful job and the last measures are really swingy.
            Now here is a song that I could find!  “Tea For Two” was a song from the Broadway musical, “No, No, Nanette” originally written in 1925.  Doris Day sang the song in the 1940’s and made it a big hit, probably because as LaVerne wrote, it was “really swingy”.  He continues to tell his Dad about other hit songs that he is working on: 
Whispering is a bit easier.  Who is a terrific thing to play, especially the last 16 bars.  It’s catchy as can be.  Marie is a little bit on a hot tenor side.  I believe a tenor sax could take most of the choruses except 32 bars of that stuff is too long and the way it is written there are no breathing spots for a horn.  Marie runs pretty smooth if not tried too fast.  I think you will agree with me they are quite difficult.  For a small outfit the whole chorus would be fine.  8 bars or so doesn’t make much of a fill. I hope you find them all to your liking.
            “Whispering”, another song that LaVerne Green had written out for his Dad was a hit song first recorded by Frank Sinatra in the 1940s. Later, it was also recorded by Louis Armstrong and The Ink Spots.  LaVerne continues in the letter to tell his father about his work on writing out the music and possibly some future work that he may send home.  Apparently, LaVerne thinks his renditions may have some financial value when he wrote: 
If you see Alf Modahl, ask him what he thinks of the commercial value of this type of arrangement, will you?  Or anyone else you happen to see who knows something about it. Whatever you do, don’t give them away or let anyone copy them.  Keep them to yourself.  I think quite a lot of that work I put in them.            
            In the last paragraph of his letter, LaVerne wrote to his father about some correspondence with LaVerne’s brother, Willard, who is referred to as “Ping” in the letter.  Willard Green, who was thirteen years younger than LaVerne and a 1942 LHS graduate, had entered the Army earlier in 1943.
Got the photo of Ping today.  I like it very much and thanks a lot.  Had a letter from him dated Sept 20.  Just before he went to Sam Houston I guess.  He wasn’t so happy about the Army.  Hope he likes the new place.
            LaVerne wrote about Willard going to the Army base, Ft. Sam Houston located in San Antonio, Texas.  That was where Willard went after basic training and before being deployed to Europe where he was wounded severely in the Italian Campaign. After spending several months in an Army hospital in Iowa, Willard was discharged in late 1944.
            LaVerne ended up being based in Washington D.C. for the rest of the war.  Ironic, since he had worked for the federal government in the nation’s capital for two years prior to joining the Navy.  While there, he met a young lady from Pittsburgh working for the war department. LaVerne and Stella Green were married in 1942 and after the war they made their home in La Farge.  LaVerne was a mail carrier in La Farge, like his father and brother Willard.  LaVerne and Stella were also Cub Scout leaders in town for many years.  That’s when I first met LaVerne – when I was a member of the Cub Scout Pack – I remember how the couple was devoted to starting young boys on the skills of scouting.  LaVerne was also a master at tuning and restoring pianos – a skill that he practiced the rest of his life.
            I will close this column with LaVerne’s closing words to his father in that letter from 1943:
I’m fixing to send you my radio, player and a bunch of records, just to keep for me in case I get a place to put them.  All my love to you and mother.  Keep well – keep trying on those tunes too!  Your Son, LaVerne

(Joe Persons gave me the letter that LaVerne Green had written in 1943.  Joe wasn’t sure how he had received the letter, but it’s apt that Joe, a man of music would have had it.  If there are family members of LaVerne Green’s who would like the letter, I would love to get it to them.  It might make a memorable Christmas gift.  Otherwise, I will pass it on to the Vernon County Historical Museum for their WW II collection.)