Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fort Wales

There is a salient little flat-topped hill that sits less than a mile to the southwest of La Farge. Tucked in against a taller ridge behind it, the hill features sheer sandstone sides that resemble the walls of a fortress, especially when viewing from the south. The place is called Fort Wales. (When driving north on HWY 131, as you go through the cut in the hill where the old railroad tunnel was located, the fortress hillock is straight ahead of you.) When standing on top of the hill, one has a wonderful view of the village of La Farge. Over the early years of the village, the hill was a favorite spot for people to go on hikes and picnics. Many of those picnickers took photographs of the small town from up on the fort and some of those photos have survived to the present. Later, the town road up to the fortress hill became a favorite parking spot for local teens, affording a wonderful view of the village while pursuing some sort of perfection towards amorous night moves.
Locally, legend has it that the hill received its name during the Blackhawk War of 1832. When Blackhawk brought his people into the Kickapoo Valley, panic spread among the white settlers. The story goes that all the settlers in the area fled to the hilltop refuge, somehow dragging cannons with them to defend against the invading Sauk-Fox contingent. It is an interesting story although little if any of it is true.
First of all, there were virtually no white settlers in the Kickapoo Valley in 1832, especially in the northern part around La Farge. Although a panic did spread across southern Wisconsin from the lead-mining district in the southwest on over to the four Lakes region (Madison), there wouldn't have been any panic in the Kickapoo because settlement was still more than a decade from happening. Secondly, Blackhawk and his people crossed the Kickapoo much further to the south on their way towards the Mississippi River, where they would eventually be massacred at Bad Axe. Blackhawk and some of his warriors may have ventured farther north into the valley looking for the Winnebago, who had villages and camps in the Kickapoo at that time. He did not find any allies though, as the Winnebago villages in the southern part of the valley were abandoned, probably indicating an avoidance by the Winnebago in getting involved in Blackhawk's troubles. The pursuing federal army troops and Illinois militia did have some cannon in their arsenal, but why they would have drug them up on Ft Wales, is anyone's guess. Indeed, another prominent Kickapoo Valley folk story is that those Blackhawk War artillery pieces are supposed to be buried at several places around La Farge, including on Bear Creek, at Lawton's Flat and in the areas around West Lima and Sabin. Despite numerous searches by many, some armed with metal detectors, no cannon have ever been recovered.
Although the picnicking and the parking are things of the past, the little hillock called Fort Wales still looks down on La Farge. With the brush pruned back and its crown of trees felled, the hill would almost resemble a mesa from the west. Steeped in legend, the little hill continues its vigil over the Kickapoo Valley and La Farge.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Village Christmas Tree

As the Christmas Season rushes at us once again, the nostalgia of Christmas Past in La Farge draws me to remember back. Over the years, La Farge has had a tradition of a special tree decorated for the holiday season.
In the early days of the village, the season was celebrated with a tree lighted with candles for all to enjoy at the Opera House on Main Street. A program was held on the evening when the tree's candles would be lit that included music by the La Farge Concert Band. Readings were offered in the program, as well as treats and presents were given to the children.
When electricity came along and illuminating the Yule Tree became safer and more convenient, the village decorated a tree erected in the main intersection at "The Corners"(today where Highway 131 joins Main Street from the south). The tree offered holiday cheer in the busy street. As Christmas shoppers poured into the village to do their shopping, the "Band Boys" would play Christmas carols in the nearby bandstand. Eventually, Wisconsin's highway department nixed the village's tree in the middle of two state highways, so La Farge's Christmas tree was moved a few yards north to the large white pine that stood next to the Belcher's building, later the barber shop, on Main Street. During World War II, La Farge sons and daughters in the service would long for a sight of that tree in their hometown. That tree grew too large to decorate over time and in the 1950's a tree was decorated with lights in the vacant lot where Mac's Hotel was once located (across the street and west of the bank building). That young pine served as the village tree for several decades until it had to be removed for the construction of the new post office building.
Today, the village's tree has returned to near its earlier locations. Now the tree with its lights glowing and limbs loaded with decorations made by students in La Farge's elementary classes, stands in the yard north of the former shoe & harness shop, located just off Main Street on south State. Christmas through the years in the village has seen the decorated tree celebrate the season for the community.
Merry Christmas to all! Enjoy the season and I hope you can all make it home for the holidays!

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Fatal Oak

One story from the earliest days of La Farge and the Kickapoo Valley that still carries its emotional message to us is that of a lumber rafting accident that occurred in 1870. The accident took the lives of three young men from the La Farge area and was immortalized in a poem written by Abbie Payne called The Fatal Oak. The words of the poem show the deep affection by the people of the Valley for the lads who lost their lives. That poem was eventually put to music and the song of the accident was sung at gatherings around the area for years. The song moved north with the lumber crews and into their work camps when the lumber ran out in the Kickapoo Valley. Eventually the folk tune was sung wherever lumber crews were. It would be placed on a national register of lumber camp songs and is known throughout the country.
In the early fall of 1870, two rafts of sawn lumber are ready to ride down the Kickapoo. This is a time before there were good roads leading out of the Valley, so the river is used as the way to get the wood product to market. The lumber is finished at Dempster Seely's mill at the village of Star, commonly called Seelyburg. The booming river town is located on the north end of what now is La Farge. The lumber is owned by Anson DeJean, who like Seely had a mill on the Kickapoo where Bear Creek joins the river. DeJean converts his mill to a grist operation, but still owns vast tracts of land for harvesting lumber. DeJean needs a crew of four to help him get his lumber down the Kickapoo. They're known as "Seely's Men" because everyone in the area works for the mill owner. Straws are drawn, wooden slivers actually, to see who will be the last to fill the crew. It is hard work to get the lumber rafts down the river, yet an adventure too, as the young men may get to see Davenport, Dubuque, or Galena before the trip is over.
When the lumber rafts come down the river, the people of the Valley act as a community to aid in the effort. One of the crew usually runs ahead to the next town to ask that the dam be closed to build up a head of water so the rafts can pass through. If the rafts are left on the Wisconsin River, the crew often walks back up the Kickapoo to home, living off the generosity of neighbors on the river for food and lodging.
DeJean's crew makes it down the Kickapoo and steers their rafts onto the great Wisconsin. They pass below Wauzeka and tie up their rafts at a place above the sloughs of Wyalusing. They tie to at a favorite place with an oak tree for an anchor, have supper and sleep that night on their rafts. In the morning, DeJean goes ashore to start breakfast. As he does so, he sees the tree start to topple towards the rafts with his sleeping crew. The tree crashes down on the rafts trapping the young men under its weight. Only one is able to escape and three others drown in the river. Only two of the bodies were recovered at the time of the accident, but the other was found some time later down river. Mrs. Payne, who lived in Wauzeka at the time, wrote the memorial poem and sent it to the DeJean family. It is said that it was read at the funeral of the last boy who was returned to Seelyburg for burial.
On December 5, String Ties, the popular musical group of western Wisconsin, will play in concert at the Visitor Center of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. They will sing their stirring version of The Fatal Oak that evening, and the Friends of The Reserve will be recording the song and program. Plans are being made for future sales of a CD or DVD based on the song and the story.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Human Cork

This week in my Local History Notebook, published in the La Farge Episcope newspaper, I wrote about the interesting life of Bill Claybrook. He was a La Farge lad who gained some fame in the 1930's & '40's as "The Unsinkable Man" or "The Human Cork". Apparently, Bill was a floater extraordinaire, who was featured in Look magazine and on the Ripley's Believe It Or Not" radio show and syndicated newspaper column. In the October 11, 1939 Milwaukee Sentinel, Bill was featured in the Ripley's column, which included a photograph of him. The column said,"He is called "The Human Cork", being given that name because he can stand erect in water, even walk and sleep, but his face always remains above the water's surface."
Bill graduated from La Farge High School in 1914, moved from the Kickapoo and worked in theaters in Minnesota for nearly 20 years. It is thought that Bill may have acquired his buoyancy skills while in this line of work, perhaps learning from traveling vaudeville shows. When World War II broke out, Bill offered his services to the U.S. war department, with no luck. Later, the Canadian government approached Bill regarding training their servicemen in his floating skill. Bill lived in Charleston, West Virginia when he passed away in 1944 at the age of 51. He was brought back to his home town for the funeral and buried in Bear Creek Cemetery. "Non-Sinkable William" had returned to his home.

Monday, November 2, 2009

That Dam History

I have recently been doing some research on the La Farge Dam Project. That story is an important one for the history of La Farge, that I am currently working on. In fact if you trace the dam history from its origins after the great Kickapoo River flood of 1935 up through the present use of the dam project land as the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, one could argue that it is the most important or salient aspect of the village's history. Much has been written and many studies have been done on the early years of the project; from its inception by Congress in 1962 through the halting of the project in 1975. I have been focusing my recent research on the years after that time, from 1975 through the 1990's, when Governor Tommy Thompson sent in Al Anderson from UW-Extension to look for some answers to the dam project controversy. The creation of the Reserve, of course, is what happened in the end, but it has been very interesting looking at the other options that were looked at in the 1970's and '80's.
The main function of the La Farge Dam Project, which included levees at Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills, was for flood control. Yet after the dam project was stopped, although the discussion seemed to always be focused on flood control, nothing was ever done in all those years to give the valley any effective system to deal with the great river floods. Soldiers Grove headed to the hills after the great flood of 1978 and relocated their business district and Main Street in Solar Town. Gays Mills is starting the same process now after being ravaged by great river floods of the Kickapoo in August, 2007 and June of 2008. Through all of this, the unfinished dam sat north of La Farge, a possible aid in dealing with floods, yet never utilized for its original purpose.
Not that there weren't plenty of ideas brought forward in various forms to finish and use the dam. There was the smaller lake proposal (800 acres instead of 1,800) floated by the Corps of Engineers within a couple of years of having the original plan stopped. That COE concept was loudly rejected by state and federal officials and environmentalists due to the same water quality problems that had plagued the original lake proposal. Then there was the dry dam proposal, which said complete the dam so it could be used solely for flood control. That idea in various forms was bounced around for more than a decade and was supported by various governors, senators, congressmen, and county boards to no avail. One idea that I learned about in my latest research was a plan championed by Congressman Steve Gunderson to have a dry dam built, which would later be turned into a wet dam, when water quality issues could be resolved. Various hydro-electric options were forwarded over the years to make the finances for the dam more feasible, all to no avail.
For years, the majority of La Farge citizens held out for the original big lake proposal, which probably did not help some of the alternatives presented during those turbulent times. A local group of these proponents, Kickapoo Land Owners United Together (KLOUT) was formed with two basic goals: get the dam project finished in its original form or return the land to the former land owners. Court injunctions were filed by KLOUT members for return of the land to the former owners, again to no avail.
This history of the dam project after the original project was stopped had long lasting consequences for La Farge and the rest of the Kickapoo Valley.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Kickapoo Railroad

The first regular train of the railroad (then called the Kickapoo Valley & Northern) arrived in La Farge on October 11, 1897. Its coming caused a boom in the village as people scrambled to meet the business demands and possibilities of the new transportation system. The business district, which had been focused around the original corners of what today is Main and State Streets, began to stretch west towards the river and the train depot located there. Hotels and boarding houses were jammed with the increased populations brought by the railroad and resulting increases in business activity. Construction of places of business along Main Street was a constant for several years. New houses were being built to the north and east of the corners as the village’s population increased during this time. La Farge as we know it today was defined by the growth of that era when the railroad came.

It took a while for the railroad to get as far north as La Farge. It all started in 1889 with a grand scheme to run a branch line up the Kickapoo Valley from Wauzeka to Wilton. Even before that, in the 1870’s, a survey had been proposed and partially completed in anticipation of running a narrow gauge track up the valley all the way to Tomah. Then the Kickapoo Valley & Northern was organized in 1889 by a group of businessmen from Prairie du Chien, Muscoda, Baraboo, and Soldiers Grove. A new survey was started. In 1890, E.R. Burpee was brought in from Maine to be president of the new company and the survey was completed through to Wilton. Construction on the line’s road-bed was commenced from Wauzeka with intentions of building the thirty-four mile southern section of the line to Soldiers Grove.

From the beginning the fledgling railroad company had financial problems. When steel rails could not be secured due to lack of funds, wooden rails of maple were made and temporarily used to get the work train and crews out to the construction sites north of Wauzeka. Right-of-way easements were negotiated with landowners, as the company had no money to actually buy land. Additionally, local municipalities were petitioned to donate to the cause and many townships donated $500 or more to the project (the Town of Stark would make a $725 donation in 1898), while villages were solicited for even higher donations. Individuals also donated money and land, and many farmers agreed to help with team work in the actual building of the railroad. Finally in 1891, the line had reached Gays Mills and was completed to Soldiers Grove the following year. Soon the United States mail was being carried on the Kickapoo trains and the United States Express Company established offices in villages along the line and did a brisk business as well.

By 1892 when the line reached Soldiers Grove, the company was in dire financial straits. Construction had to cease while additional funding was sought. In 1894 the company went into the hands of a receiver, E.A Wadhams, who negotiated loans for the company to continue. Grading, bridging and track laying were eventually continued up the valley and by 1896 the line had reached the village of Readstown. Another loan was secured and the line continued north to Viola. (Expenses on the line’s construction had increased as the land needed for track right-of-way north from Soldiers Grove was now being purchased from the individual landowners.)

To get to La Farge, a tunnel needed to be dug through the hill on the Lawton farm located on the Richland-Vernon County line. The digging of the tunnel was a costly and involved construction project started around the beginning of the year in 1897. When it was completed, there were two more bridges to build (There were thirty-four bridges on the railroad line in all.) and then the line could reach La Farge. There the line ended.

In a press release in February 1898, the KV & N declared that the fifty-one miles of the line (from Wauzeka to La Farge) was in good shape, a mail car had been added and several passenger cars (built in the company’s shop in Wauzeka) had been put on the line. The company planned to expand south in the future, through Grant County towards Dubuque, Iowa or Galena, Illinois. No mention was made to extend the line north beyond La Farge.

In 1899 the K.V. & N. was sold to a company headed by Norman James of Richland Center. Mr. James had apparently arranged the earlier loan to complete the line’s construction. He became a capable manager of the railroad line and soon made it profitable. By 1903, the line earned a profit of $37,000 on passenger traffic alone and was handling 50,000 tons of freight annually. That same year, ownership of the railroad changed again as the Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul Railroad Company bought the Kickapoo railroad and made it a branch line.

In those early days, the Kickapoo railroad usually had two trains running each way daily except Sunday. One train was for passengers and the other was called a mixed train, carrying freight as well as passengers. The first train to go down the valley each morning and the last one north in the afternoon usually carried the mail. Special freight runs were put on according to need, with a special stock train added each Tuesday in the fall for a number of years to handle livestock shipments. Special excursion trains would run to take passengers for events such as ball games and fairs. (The October 12, 1908, La Farge Enterprise reported 151 tickets had been sold in La Farge for the train to the Gays Mills Fair.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

La Farge's Origins

The Village of La Farge, located alongside the Kickapoo River in west-central Wisconsin, was incorporated in 1899. However, the story of the town's origins stretches back another 40 years. Thomas DeJean claimed land at the site in the mid-1850's. After moving his family to the Kickapoo, DeJean and his son, Anson, built a sawmill at the place where Bear Creek enters the Kickapoo. Later, they built a grist mill near where the sawmill had been. Thomas DeJean built a store building in 1875 north of his mill, at an intersection where two trails crossed that became known as "The Corners". Earlier, Dredsel Bean had built a house and blacksmith shop just north of The Corners. Bean's business drew people to the crossroads and prompted De Jean to open the general store. When Thomas De Jean passed on in 1877, the place was called DeJean's Corners in his honor.
Two miles north of The Corners another community was thriving. Chauncey Lawton has platted a village along the Kickapoo River named Star in the mid-1850's. When Dempster Seely built a sawmill at Star, the village soon grew around the mill location and became known as Seelyburg. Seely employed crews to run the mill, lumber crews to provide lumber for the mill, bridge-building crews, construction crews, and rafting crews to take the lumber to markets. By the mid-1870's several hundred people had settled in the Seelyburg area. A business district grew up along the river to serve the people's needs and a post office was established at Star with Lawton as its first postmaster.
A couple miles below The Corners another settlement was started in the 1850's known as the Lawton District, named after the Lawton family (of which Chauncey was part of) who first settled there. As this little farming community grew, they sought a post office. Sam Green had the post office at his house and the name of La Farge was chosen from a provided list for the postal address.
Eventually DeJean's Corners grew to be a busy commercial center. John Bailey purchased land south of the crossroads and operated an inn and cheese factory from his farm. Henry Millard moved his general store business south from Seelyburg to DeJean's Corners in the 1880's and was followed by other Seelyburg business owners Levi Millison and Charles S. Brown, the photographer. Dred Bean organized a number of area farmers to build a farmer's co-op store at DeJean's Corners in the early 1890's. In 1893 Sam Green allowed his post office to be relocated to the bustling crossroads town and DeJean's Corners officially became La Farge. Green built a store building there and Algon Parker, the harness maker from the Lawton District, followed Green to open a place of business at the new La Farge.
The Kickapoo Valley Railroad reached La Farge in the fall of 1897, making the bustling community its northern terminal and further increasing its commercial desirability. The little village on the Kickapoo was off and running!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Kickapoo Oral Histories

I see that fellow Kickapoogian Josh has checked out this blog. Josh and Kelle are working on an oral history project based in Crawford County, Wisconsin. They are interviewing "back-to-landers", who came to the Kickapoo Valley in the 1970's. (Still referred to as "Hippies" by some locals.) For more information on that project, go to I have been involved with an oral history project that was run through my Local History class at La Farge High School back in 2000-01. It focused on interviews with people involved with the La Farge Dam Project and eventually led to the book, "The People Remember" published by the Friends of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Another great oral history was done in 1978-79 as part of the Kickapoo Valley Project. Over 150 people were interviewed Valley wide and part of their stories ended up in the "Kickapoo Pearls", a book on Kickapoo history, which was recently republished by the KVR Friends. Those interviews from that 1970's era project are being digitally reworked by the Wisconsin State Historical Society at this time. This past summer, Chuck Hatfield and I led a group of Wisconsin teachers in a class based at the Reserve called "Making It Home on the Kickapoo". That class, sponsored by the Wisconsin Humanities Council, focused on using oral histories in the classrooms in a variety of ways. That class will be repeated next summer, so we have quite a bit of activity here in the Kickapoo on telling our stories and getting them saved.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Getting Started
It was a decade ago, when I was working with a committee to plan for La Farge's Centennial celebration, that we discovered that a history of the village had never been written. Several of that group thought that it would be fine for me to take on such a task, but I begged off, citing lack of time and offering many other excuses. Since then, a few members of the group have reminded me periodically that I should attempt to write such a history. They seemed to think that since I had retired from teaching, that lack of time and the other paltry excuses were a thing of the past. It was time for the ex-history teacher to do some research and writing on our local history.
So be it. I have divested myself of some of my accumulated responsibilities over the past years, and I actually have been doing research and jotting down some interesting tidbits from the past for some years now. I have worked with the local history group within the Friends of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve for the past several years. That group has worked on the oral history project that was done on the La Farge Dam Project, continues to research the archives of the Corps of Engineers headquarters for other information, and of course published "The People Remember" book as well as several other local history books. For the past two years, I helped research history for the Town of Stark, of which I serve as chairman, as the township celebrated its 150 years of existence. As long as I'm into so much local history already, why not try to put together a good resource on the history of La Farge?
Actually, it sounds like quite a daunting task. If you want to do this village some justice in discussing its history, you want to be as thorough and factual as you can be, while also adding the local color to make it interesting and readable. Where does one begin? Do you start with those two converging trails used by the Native-Americans who hunted and lived in this valley? Who can tell their story the best? How do you deal with the logging boom that hit the area and established old Seeleyburg as the "first village of La Farge" as some have called it? Who tells that story of one of Wisconsin's ghost towns? Just by looking at those two examples of the earliest history, we have only moved forward chronologically in time to about 1890. Where do we end? The story of the affect of the establishment of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve and the phenomenal growth of Organic Valley and CROPP on this area is still a work in progress. {Have you ever wondered if all of those people driving into La Farge every morning to work at Organic Valley are wondering what this place of La Farge is all about?} That part of the story is still one in evolution. So much to do, so much history to cover.
So let's do this together, shall we?
{This article was originally published in the La Farge Episcope newspaper in the May 1, 2007 issue. The article has been edited for this site.}

Monday, September 28, 2009

La Farge History

Hello Everyone!
This is my beginning of this blog - pretty scary stuff for me. As you may know already, I'm going to be writing a history of my hometown - La Farge, Wisconsin. I have created this blog to hopefully connect with others who may be interested in this project. For the past several years, I have been writing a local history notebook column in the local weekly newspaper in La Farge, the Episcope. I will be posting those on this blog site, hopefully starting later this week.
Well, that is a start. I'm unsure of myself in this format, but we'll see how it goes. BDS