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.

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