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.}