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!