Friday, December 24, 2010

From a Yuletide Dream

I awoke with this falderall swimming though my mind a couple of weeks back. I had to get it down on paper to get it out of my head. “He’s a strange one”, but sometimes we’re minions of the muse. I hope that you find some little morsel of enjoyment in it.


What startles me awake on this cold winter’s night;

Is it a noise that I hear that fills me with fright?

The din comes from the front; the sounds from the road,

Wagons and sleighs, trucks and cars from all ages pass my abode.

Where do they all go now, this caravan so large?

Son, hop on board; we’re heading to La Farge.

How can I go sir; it’s so very cold and chilly.

There’s straw on the wagon, horsehide throws in the sleigh,

The heater works fine in the Roadmaster; climb in son, don’t be silly.

Clip-clopping down the snowcovered road, pulled by Topsy and Mae,

Bundled in the back seat of the Chevy; the day we will stay.

The Yuletide is upon us, festivities and shopping to do,

So on to La Farge this Saturday, to spend the day through.

The village streets are filled with people; my, what a sight.

Garlands of fir boughs hang from the lights.

Brightly decorated stores are packed to the rafters with goods and wares

Front windows filled with wonders; mouths agape as we stare.

Andrew’s window has sausages, ducks, geese and ham.

But wait – Isn’t that Jennie’s store; puzzled where I am?

She had Variety; amazing puzzles and toys,

Then wasn’t Muriel’s here, too, with gifts for little girls and boys?

Quick up to the Opera House; they’re lighting the candles on the village tree,

As we race up the dark stairs and into the great hall, shouting with glee.

There will be fresh oyster stew and crackers across at the Hotel Ward,

And cracklin’ roast goose and dressing for all at Harris’ Checkerboard.

They’re giving out treats at the theater lobby, over at the Mars,

Santa is there, giving out goodies like apples, peanuts and candy bars.

But He’s in the back of the village truck, there by the bank

Mush brought Santa in the police car, isn’t that Ray or Dick; surely not Hank.

La Farge’s ice rink is frozen; let’s join hands to “crack the whip”,

We can warm by the wood fire; hot chocolate to sip.

Hike up the river; bind blades to our shoes,

There’s always best skating on those Seelyburg sloughs.

There are candies aplenty at Weisner’s, but Harry’s has them, too.

Pete Chase, Casey, Everett, Bun or Lillian; they’ll find us a gift or two.

Let us get sacks of oranges and apples from the groceries in town,

The store clerks are always helpful and smiling; with nary a frown.

The light is now gone; for home I must start,

But from these time-sliding memories, I surely do hate to part.

What’s the matter son; don’t you know where you’re at?

Please mister, please, can you give me a ride out to Jordan Flat?

Mom, my legs do hurt so; why can’t I walk?

Your brothers will carry you; hush now, no more talk.

What startled me awake on this cold winter’s night;

Was it a noise that I heard that filled me with fright?

Merry Christmas to all

May you all make it home for the holidays!

The response to the release of my first book on the story of La Farge continues to amaze me. People from all over the country have contacted me via emails, phone calls, or regular mail. It is so heart-warming to hear from you all. Thanks for your interest in this little history project.

Unfortunately, by the time you read this, we will have sold out of the first printing of three hundred copies. I have another order in to the printers for a couple hundred more, but they will not be here until after the first of the year. When they do arrive, we will have them available locally at the regular retail outlets and the area libraries. If you wish to order a book by mail, send $25 per copy to me at PO Box 202, La Farge, WI 54639.

See you next year!

Monday, December 6, 2010

La Farge History Book Released

My new book about the history of La Farge has now been released. Titled "La Farge: The Story of a Kickapoo River Town - Volume I" the book is for sale at the Visitor Center of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, the La Farge State Bank, the La Farge Episcope newspaper office, Lawton Memorial Library - La Farge, the Viola Public Library and Brambles Bookstore in Viroqua.
To order the book by mail, send $25 (check or money order) to Brad Steinmetz, PO Box 202, La Farge, WI 54639.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Sad Demise of Sam Hook


NOVEMBER 7, 1857

MAY 5, 1917


(Epitaph from gravestone in Chapel Hill Cemetery)

Sam Hook, the last merchant in Seelyburg drew his last breath in the early morning hours of May 5, 1917. His death and the suspected foul play that accompanied it haunt the old river hamlet to this day. Was Sam Hook murdered as robbers looted his store? Who was responsible for such a heinous crime?

The flames shooting out of Sam Hook’s store building in Seelyburg were first discovered around four o’clock on that Saturday morning. An alarm was immediately raised and many neighbors and friends rushed to the conflagration. However, the old store building was a mass of flames and beyond any hope to save from destruction. With Sam nowhere to be found in the little hamlet on La Farge’s north side, everyone feared he had perished in the fire. When the flames had subsided an investigation found the store owner’s body in the southwest corner of the building. He had either crawled or been placed under the floorboards and was near the cistern that he used for cooling items for sale in his store.

Foul play was immediately suspected in Sam Hook’s death as the first people to arrive at the scene of the fire had found the front door wide open. Scattered in the front of the store were pieces of money and bunches of shoestrings. It was well known in the area that Sam kept large amounts of money in the store, often tied into bundles with shoestrings. It was unusually cool on that morning and frost covered the ground. Several rods south of the store building, a person’s shoe tracks were visible in the frosty dew leading off Seelyburg’s Main Street towards the west. A bloodhound was brought up from Viola to track the trail, which led north towards the mill, across the dam to the north side of the Kickapoo River and then east back to the Advent (Star) Cemetery. The trail was lost at the cemetery by the first hound, but later in the day another dog was brought in from Richland Center. That dog followed the trail of the first, but then continued on from the cemetery south across the bridge and to a house nearly across from Sam Hook’s store. A man named Clint Rockwell and others occupied this house; when the bloodhound’s baying ended at that location, many citizens of Seelyburg feared the worst. According to the account of the incident in the La Farge Enterprise (5/10/1917), “This place has for some time been known as a rendezvous for people of none too good of a reputation and suspicion at once fell on Rockwell and frequenters of his home.”

Apparently, Hook had previous trouble with Rockwell and others who hung out at his abode. On the night of the fire, the well-liked storeowner had a dispute with Rockwell, which nearly led to fisticuffs and further indicated foul play was involved with the fire and Sam Hook’s death.

The Vernon County District Attorney and Sheriff came to Seelyburg later in the day on that Saturday of the fire. However, after interviewing many of the neighbors and friends of Sam Hook as well as the occupants of the Rockwell house, the county law enforcement officials could not find enough evidence to warrant any arrests being made. At the local level, the investigation did not cease and new evidence and information was gathered. Using that, the La Farge authorities arrested several occupants of the Rockwell house and took them to Viroqua on the following Monday for a hearing. After that session in the county courthouse, two men and a juvenile girl (all names were listed in the Enterprise article) were retained in the county jail in Viroqua. Sadly for the folks left in Seelyburg, after a few days, all of the suspects were released from the county jail and no charges were ever filed in the case.

After the initial outrage over the lack of any prosecution of those suspected in Sam Hook’s death, fear crept into the village. Doors that had never been locked before were now locked at all times. Nightlong vigils with shotgun in hand were kept at some residences in Seelyburg to protect against a fate such had befallen Sam Hook. Shortly after the release from the county jail, many of those implicated in Sam Hook’s death left the Seelyburg area, but others remained.

But the friends and neighbors of Sam Hook knew that a wrong had not been righted. For years after the death of the last storeowner in Seelyburg, they would attest to the fact that Sam had been murdered. One neighbor said, “He was murdered, plain and simple.” Another resident when questioned about the event decades later, said, “ Of course he was murdered, everyone around here knew that.” But if there was such a foul crime committed, no legal justice was ever carried out as a remedy. Yet, perhaps even today that justice for a terrible wrong is still being sought.

The funeral for Sam Hook was held the day after his death, Sunday, May 6 at the Methodist Episcopal Church in La Farge. Sam’s mother, two brothers, two sisters, friends and family laid him to rest on that day in the Chapel Hill Cemetery, south of where Sam had grown up and lived all of his life. The epitaph, which was quoted at the beginning of the Notebook, can still be seen on his headstone in the last row in the back of the cemetery. We Know Not The Cause Of His Death, indicates the remorse over his sudden loss and the agony of never knowing quite what happened, which was felt by the family over Sam’s death.

Even in the silence of the grave, justice perhaps is still being sought. Each spring when Village of La Farge employees return to the Chapel Hill Cemetery for maintenance, invariably they find Sam’s headstone askew from the winter’s frost. Most of the other grave markers at Chapel Hill survive the winter fairly well, but Sam’s always seems to have been moved, as if drawing attention back to that eerie epitaph, We Know Not The Cause Of His Death. It still seems to cry out for some kind of justice.

However, even today that cry for justice from Sam’s grave would be somewhat muffled. Sam certainly didn’t hear the intruder enter his store that night and he probably couldn’t yell out for help when he was accosted and robbed. Over his lifetime, the circumstances of Sam’s life had rarely hindered his progress, but they might have played against him on that fateful night in May so many years ago. For you see, Sam Hook, the last merchant in Seelyburg, was a deaf mute.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Life of Sam Hook

Sam Hook was born in Morgan County, Ohio on November 7, 1857, the son of Henry and Angeline Hook. He was one of five children, having two brothers and two sisters. When he was eight years old, the Hook family moved to Wisconsin and located in the community of Seelyburg in the northern Kickapoo Valley. His father, like most of the other men in the small hamlet, worked for Dempster Seely, who operated a lumber mill and other business enterprises. Henry Hook built a house on “The Lane” which ran east from Seelyburg’s main street on land purchased from Chauncey Lawton. Sam grew up in Seelyburg, neighbors with the Ainsworth, Parker, Wood, Gift, Lawton and Nixon families. Dr. Amos Carpenter’s house and office were nearby as well as Levi Millison’s store. Further down the street were several other stores, two blacksmith shops and the buildings of Seely’s mill. Beyond the bridge crossing the Kickapoo were the Star Cemetery, the Advent Church, the schoolhouse, Dr. Smith’s house and office and John Anderson’s house and bee yard on the hill. Downstream from the bridge was the dam, feeding current into the millruns to power the lumber mill.

Sam attended the Seelyburg School and learned at the knee of Alice Seely Nixon, the daughter of the lumber mill owner. Sam was good with numbers and clever with his hands at certain tasks. Alice Nixon was a gifted musician and singer, providing her students with a love for music. Sam was limited in his appreciation of his teacher’s musical offerings and probably one of the few in the village who didn’t enjoy Alice’s musical renditions played on the organ in her home at the foot of Chapel Hill.

When Sam reached a certain age he started to work for Seely. He didn’t become one of the dozens of “Seely Men” who worked on various crews felling trees in the woods, milling the trees into lumber, rafting the lumber down the river or building wooden bridges over the Kickapoo. But being good with numbers and friendly, Sam could always find work in the village. When work at the mill slowed down when the lumber began to run out, Sam worked at various jobs in Seelyburg and at the small community of DeJean’s Corners to the south. He would work at several of the stores located in the two communities, working at Levi Millison’s stores in both places.

His brother, Gus, owned a farm and Sam could help with the chores there. In the spring there was always rattlesnakes to hunt and kill, but Sam had to steer clear from that endeavor. Another brother, William, owned a dray line, a feed mill and other businesses in La Farge where Sam could always find work. He was industrious, good with numbers and keeping books, not afraid of hard work and frugal with his money. Over time Sam became a man of some means and purchased a store in Seelyburg.

At a time when many merchants were leaving the river town of Seelyburg and moving to La Farge, Sam opened his store less than a block from the house where he grew up. By 1898, Sam’s Seelyburg store was booming. He had developed a skill for making brooms out of corn straw and each fall would make hundreds of corn brooms for sale to his neighbors. His reputation as a broom maker spread and folks from miles around would bring their broomcorn to Sam so he could make them a year’s supply of hardy brooms. His skill at the craft increased with the work and it was said that Sam could make a new broom in six minutes from start to finish.

When the big Kickapoo flood hit Seelyburg in 1899, the water ran three feet deep through Sam’s store. Undeterred by the misfortune, Sam put his brooms to good use, cleaned up his store, which also served as his home, and continued on. Some of the residents and merchants left Seelyburg after the big flood, but Sam and his store remained.

Sam wasn’t all work and no play; the friendly merchant liked to have fun, too. He caused a stir in Seelyburg in 1900 when he applied for a license to put a pool table in his store. The correspondent from Star wrote in the March 9, 1900 La Farge Enterprise, “Our little burg is in a state of excitement over the appearance of a pool table being put in Sam Hook’s store, things being carried on there that is no credit to our burg or the people living in it. We hope that there will soon be something done to remove the curse from our place. We understand that he has even let minors play as they choose and we think it is time to have it stopped.” Pool right here in River City! It is obvious that certain people did not stop to shop at Sam’s store. But for those who did, Sam might play a game of pool with you or a hand or two of cribbage.

In April of 1902, Sam put in a new artesian well for his store. The new well ran fresh cool water into a cement cistern beneath the floor of the building. There in the new cistern, Sam could cool milk, cheese, meat and other products that he could sell in his store. Sometimes the cistern would keep bottles of fermented and distilled liquids cold; items which Sam could not sell in his store, but might be offered to friends after closing. It was not all that unusual to see the lanterns burning late into the night in Sam’s store and hear the laughter of card players emanating from his back rooms.

The government discontinued the Star Post Office on June 30, 1902. The post office had been kept in Robert Parker’s store, a few doors south of Sam’s store, for over twenty years. Before the end of that year, Parker had closed his Seelyburg store and moved to Viola, where he opened up a store in Mound Park.

Sam Green had moved north to Seelyburg in 1900 to run a store in the Seely building. Green, the man with the original La Farge Post Office at his house south of The Corners, had moved to La Farge when the railroad came in 1898. He built a store across from Millard’s Store, where the new La Farge Post Office was kept, and put in a line of goods. He rented out part of his building for a barbershop, but sold his south State Street building in 1900 to Alva Drew, the new lawyer in town. He moved his line of wares to Seelyburg, where he rented the old Seely store building for his new business. In January of 1903, Sam Green passed on; with his death, his store business in Seelyburg was closed.

Sam Hook was the last merchant in Seelyburg.

(To Be Continued)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Working Away

One of the challenges for any small town like La Farge is to provide meaningful employment for the people that live there. In doing research on the village in the years after World War II, one finds that La Farge’s population swelled during those years. As folks returned to the village after serving in the military during the war, men in particular were faced with a limited number of jobs in the La Farge area. Many of those men had been married during the war and returned to La Farge to start their families in their hometown. Too many people chasing too few jobs meant many of these men would have to make a choice made by many before them. They would choose to work away at a job far from the Kickapoo Valley, while maintaining a home in the La Farge area. It would mean the men would travel to places like Kenosha, Madison, Janesville, and Rockford, Illinois to work at good paying jobs. It was an employment practice and procedure that went back to the very beginnings of this village located in the northern Kickapoo Valley. So, let’s look at what “working away” meant in those formative years.

The beginnings of settlement occurred in the northern part of the Kickapoo Valley around 1850. Two actions by the federal government facilitated the movement of settlers into the area around what would become La Farge. First, the United States Army, through several treaties, removed the last of the Native-American tribes from the area by the mid 1840’s. As the Winnebago tribe (now Ho-Chunk) left the Valley through a series of removals, the army insured a safe area for settlement in the region. With the federal surveying of the land in the Kickapoo Valley shortly after, an orderly process for purchasing land was also available for the settlers.

Cheap land and jobs was what drew settlers to the Valley in those early days. The jobs were in the vast stretches of white pines, which extended north up the Kickapoo River from present day La Farge. “The Pinery” drew the first people into the region as gangs of lumbermen were felling the pines even before the government surveys had been completed. As milling operations were established to saw up the pine trees into marketable lumber at Ontario, Oden, Rockton, Star (Seelyburg) and the Corners (La Farge), more men were required to make the enterprise function. Crews were needed to fell the trees and trim them up. In the winter, when the ground and river were frozen, the logs would be hauled to the mill sites. Soon bridge-building crews were spanning the river in key locations to provide better access to the lumber and routes to and from the mills. Men were also needed to work in the mills and then to raft the lumber down the Kickapoo. Many of these lumbermen settled in the Kickapoo Valley. Indeed, one of the first settlers at what would become Seelyburg was John Anderson, one of the original lumbermen in the Valley. Anderson, a Scot from Glasgow originally, retired from the hard life of the ax and settled on land overlooking the river in 1854. A few years later, Anderson sold some of his land to Dempster Seely, who started his vast Kickapoo lumber business at Anderson’s previous water site on the river.

Those that came to the northern Kickapoo Valley for land in those early days also worked in the lumber crews. Clearing land for a future farm was a fulltime job in itself, but little income was earned in those endeavors. Many of those early farmers in the region would supplement their income with work in lumber. In the winter months especially of those early years, “Seely’s Men” were any and all men who needed a job in the area. Working on the lumbering crews could pay up to fifty cents a day in those cold winter months. If you had a horse to help skid logs, your pay could increase to $1.50 per day, big money for those times. The work was hard and dangerous at times, as the story of “The Fatal Oak” can attest, but as long as there were trees to cut and saw into lumber, there were jobs to be had.

Of course, the trees and the forests of pine could not last forever. By the 1880’s the vast white pine forests of the Kickapoo Pinery were pretty much gone. When a fire destroyed Seely’s lumber mill during that time, he built the operation back bigger than ever, but with more of an emphasis on finishing hardwood lumber. Within another decade, much of the prime hardwood forests had been cut and the industry was on a decline. By the time that the railroad reached La Farge in 1897, much of the prime lumber in the region was gone. How ironic that the new transportation system which could haul the lumber to the markets of the Midwest arrived after most of the trees had already been cut.

By the end of the nineteenth century, many of the lumber companies based in La Farge were looking for a new source of trees. That source was available in northern Wisconsin. The Miner Brothers lumber company, located first in Clinton Township and then in La Farge, left for the north woods in 1898. A year later the Knutson and Johnson lumber mill would sell their La Farge operation to August Kriigle and move their business north to Forest County. When these lumber companies headed north, it meant that the jobs went in that direction, too. Decisions had to be made by many living in the La Farge area, those men who worked in lumber. Should we stay or should we go?

For some the answer to that question was to both stay in the Kickapoo Valley to live and to go away from the Valley for the job. They started a trend that endures to this day.

Looking back at old copies of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper, one can always find news from rural areas outside of the village. News reported by correspondents from Ottervale, Morning Star Ridge or Rockton were common in most editions of the local paper. What was happening to folks in those rural areas close to La Farge was an important function of a small town newspaper. However, if you looked at those old copies of the Enterprise from the first decade of the 20th century, you might find reports from Mather, Warrens, Island Lake, Pine Island, Chili, Ladysmith, Lindsey, or Carter. These are not local places, but towns located to the north that are hours away from the Kickapoo Valley. The news from those places is in the La Farge paper because many men from the Kickapoo Valley went to northern Wisconsin to work in the lumber camps there. News from Chili or Island Lake was news about folks from La Farge working there or living there. Many of the men went north for the winter months, leaving in the fall after the crops had been harvested and returning in the spring when it was planting time. They were the first from the little village on the Kickapoo who were “working away”. But they would not be the last.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

La Farge History - Part I

It has been a while since I've posted any update of my history-writing efforts on this blog. Since I have last talked to those of you who may frequent this post, some major decisions have been made and substantial progress moved on the book.
First of all, the book on the history of La Farge is still scheduled to come out in early December. I had wanted to have the book out by the 4th of July of this year, so I'm only six months late. I want to have it for sale at that time and to sell it at the Small Town Christmas in La Farge on Saturday, December 4. I would like to have a table at the Crafts Fair at the gymnasium that day and perhaps another book signing at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve early in that evening. More will be forthcoming on those events.
Secondly, the history is now definitely a two-parter. This first book - Part I - will cover the history of La Farge from its beginnings up through the early 1960's. I stop at that point in time because that is when the La Farge Dam Project is finally authorized by Congress. After that time, the dam project takes on a whole life of its own and is another book in itself. To do any justice to that story and how it affected the village, I need to put it another book. With the self-imposed deadline for getting a book out this year, I did not feel I could do the village and dam history from the 1960's and on any justice. So, Part II will be coming out later.
Lastly, I'm really getting some excellent help in finishing up the book. Carolyn has been helping with editing since summer. Chuck Hatfield is helping me with the self-publishing (We are calling ourselves Kickapoogians Press.) and has helped me with ISBN numbers and copyrights. He is currently in contact with printers, lining up quotes for that procedure. Paula Howard (nee Muller) has come aboard to help with final editing, which has really been a God-send for the project.
I am finishing up the research and writing on the last chapter, which I hope to have done by the next couple of weeks. Then Chuck and I will start putting the whole thing together to send off to the printers. Wish us luck!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

4th of July

The 4th of July has passed for another year and once again La Farge celebrated Independence Day in good style. The celebration, which began on Friday night, July 2 and ran through the 4th was a fun time for lots of people. The only downer for the weekend was that the Hot-Air Balloon Rides, the Legends vs. Icons baseball game and the fireworks were washed away by the late rains on the 4th.
Some new events highlighted this year's celebration in the little Kickapoo River town. A leadoff event on Friday night was the Snap, Crackle & Pop 5K Run/Walk, which attracted over 50 participants. The route ran from the Lions Shelter next to the baseball park, up Seelyburg Road, across the Kickapoo River and on to the dam site on the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Running off Old Highway 131, runners and walkers took the "Dam Loop" trail, passing the dam tower on the way and then headed back down Corps Road and into old Seelyburg before returning to La Farge.
Saturday saw several new events as well. The Antique Tractor Pull drew a surprising number of participants with 105 "hooks" in the four pulling classes. After the big tractors were finished, the kids had fun participating in the Peddle Pull. In the evening both the Bingo Bizarro and the Singing Bee were well enjoyed by all who attended.
I was involved with a local history display that we put up in the school gym. We had displays that featured Ray Calhoon's baseball uniform, artifacts and photographs from old Seelyburg, photos on former La Farge businesses and the Kickapoo Railroad (including some newly discovered photos of the Lawton railroad tunnel). Since Saturday was also the All-School Reunion at the school, there were also lots of old school photos as well as a continuous slide show of school photos and a video history of the school. We had lots of people go through the history display on both July 3, the day of the reunion and the next day on the 4th.
On the 4th, there was a legion game between LaCrescent and Westby, with both teams being coached by LHS graduates, Jamie Muller and John Hamilton. It looks like a legion tournament is in the works for next year at La Farge's 4th of July. I can't wait.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day, I'm going to list the soldiers from the La Farge area who lost their lives during World War II.
We are losing the WW II veterans at a startling rate now and La Farge is honoring their surviving WW II vets by having them as parade marshals at this year's 4th of July parade.
This listing of the men from the La Farge area lost in WW II is taken from the "Service Record - World War I and II - La Farge & Community" published in 1949 by the La Farge VFW Post. Harry Lounsbury was the commander of the post at that time. The book lists 291 men and women who were from La Farge, the surrounding community, or had connections to the village and served during World War II. Twelve are listed as "Gold Star Boys", those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. They are:
Lee Lawrence - April 6, 1943 - plane went down off coast of north Africa
Harold McElhose - May 23, 1943 - died during North Africa & Italian campaigns
Floyd Smith - March 22, 1944 - plane crashed in Northern Ireland
Asa Lawrence - September 10, 1944 - died in Italy
Russ Alderman - September 15, 1944 - died near Moselle River in France
Joe Strait - January 19, 1945 - died in Luzon, Philippines
Fay Alderman - April 10, 1945 - died at Okinawa in Pacific
Orville Hisel - May 9, 1945 - died in Luzon, Philippines
Graydon DeVern Gilman - September 3, 1945 - drowned in Arkansas
Van Brokaw - August 29, 1946 - plane crashed at Grenoble in Alps
Lysle Ewing - no date listed - no information
Vic Willie - no date listed - died in Pacific

Each Memorial Day, an honor roll of the deceased veterans is read at ceremonies held in La Farge. The names of these twelve men , La Farge's "Gold Star Boys" are included in that calling.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

1930's - A Time of Transition

I have recently been working on a chapter in my history of La Farge project that tells the story of transition in the village during the 1930's. I used the great Kickapoo River flood of 1935 as a central event from which to spin off three themes which happened in the decade
The first of these themes was when the village and the rest of the Kickapoo Valley sought help from the federal government for their flooding problems. It was a time when a group of La Farge businessmen hopped in Harold Calloway's new Packard automobile and went to Washington D.C. to testify for a congressional hearing. Petitions were signed and gathered to be sent to Congress and the 1936 Water Bill contained money to begin a study of the Kickapoo Valley. A year later, the Army's Corps of Engineers were holding meetings in La Farge to learn more about the Kickapoo River flooding. By 1938, an intensive study on the Valley was underway to seek possible options to contain the floods. Flood control dams and levees were looked at for La Farge and other Kickapoo communities - help was on the way!
The second theme looked at the end of the Kickapoo Railroad. Abandonment of the line by the parent company was sought in 1937 and La Farge joined the other communities to fight to save their railroad. The fight lasted two years and the Valley lost. The last run of the Kickapoo Stumpdodger down the Valley was August 15, 1939. La Farge, which had been the northern terminal of the railway line, adjusted from the loss and sought better roads to facilitate their position as a trade center.
The third theme from the decade and one which actually endures to the present, was the construction of La Farge's new baseball field, Calhoon Park. It was begun as part of a WPA project in 1936. The village purchased a little over six acres to the west of the school for the new facility. Original plans called for a baseball field with grandstands and dugouts, a six-lane track and facilities for track & field meets, and a swimming pool. Eventually the baseball field was completed in time for the 1939 season with a covered grandstand, cement seating down both lines, and covered cement dugouts. There were spaces down both foul lines behind the cement seating for watching games while parked in your car. The new facility was named after Ray Calhoon, longtime player, manager and backer of baseball in La Farge.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Population Numbers

According to the numbers from the United States Census Bureau, the population of the village of La Farge peaked in 1940 at 921. From that point the village’s census population figures dropped steadily to a low point of 746 in 1980. That was a drop of 175 inhabitants and a decrease of 19% in that forty-year period.

Finding the population numbers for La Farge over the years of its existence has been an interesting part of the research on this little history project of the village. Finding the numbers is a relatively easy process. The actual records of the various census findings are online at various sites up through the 1950 census. Wisconsin’s Blue Book usually lists current census records for the years they are published and most of those volumes are also online.

The saying goes that “The numbers don’t lie”, but as we are finding out with the 2010 census currently under way, census numbers are often far from accurate. When learning that the La Farge Post Office had to return boxes of census forms with inaccurate addresses recently, I think I’ll take the accuracy of the 1910 census over the one currently under way.

In that census from one hundred years ago, you can clearly read the tallies at each household recorded by the census taker, Ray Calhoon. One can imagine him walking the streets of the village and penciling in the names of the head of household, usually the father of the family, his wife and children (arranged in order by age from oldest to youngest), and others who lived in the house (often relatives such as grandparents or cousins). There were no addresses on the 1910 census forms as most people picked up their mail at the post office located on south State Street in the Millard building. One page of Calhoon’s postal tally followed along that street south of Main Street in 1910 and recorded the village’s population house by house. When he arrived at the last house near the bridge over Bear Creek on the south end of town, he crossed the street and started back up the other side. Street by street, he counted noses in the little river town, coming up with a total of 654, which was an increase of 34% over the 1900 population of the village which was 488.

The 1910 tally might have actually startled some residents of La Farge as being too low. In 1905 a state census had shown La Farge’s population was 827. That was an increase of 339 over the 1900 federal figures, or an astounding rise of nearly 70%! These population numbers were reflecting the tremendous growth of the village in its first decade of existence. In newspaper articles of that time, the village was often said to have a population exceeding one thousand. Although the village’s census populations don’t show that figure, if one were to figure in those living in the Town of Stark, that century mark was easily achieved.

The Town of Stark had a population of 1,033 as reported by the 1890 federal census. By 1900, the township’s census number had dropped to 907, but if you include La Farge’s 1900 census number of 488 (La Farge was incorporated in 1899 and separated from the Town of Stark at that time), then the total living in what had been the township was 1,395. By 1910 that combined La Farge/Stark population number had increased to 1,467 people, and ten years later in 1920 it hit a high of 1,925 people. During that decade between the 1910 and 1920 census, the population of the village of La Farge had increased by over 20% while that of the surrounding township had risen 40%.

If, in fact, “The numbers don’t lie”; what caused the phenomenal growth in the little river town and the township which surrounded it? First, we need to remember that by 1920, American farmers, through advanced agricultural methods and technology and with the devastation in Europe caused by the First World War, were feeding much of the world. The grains, livestock, and dairy products of the Kickapoo Valley farms were part of this process and farming in the La Farge area was probably at its peak. (Tobacco was also being grown as a cash crop by many La Farge area farms by this time, also.) The village was strategically located as the northern hub of an efficient transportation system, the Valley’s railroad line and was providing all of the area’s farms with efficient markets for their products and a retail business district to provide for their needs. Coupling the farm markets and the retail operations with a still strong lumber industry in the village, La Farge was a bustling community.

By 1930, the Great Depression was at its worst and its affects on farm prices had been felt years before the stock market crash of 1929. The census for 1930 showed the combined populations of the village (756, down 4%) and the township (993, down 144 people from a decade earlier) at 1,749, down 9% from the previous census. The population numbers would continue a steady decline from 1930 on, especially in the township. Between 1920 and 1960, the Town of Stark saw its population decrease by 650 people (from 1,137 down to 487), a drop of 57% in forty years. Numerous changes in farming over those years, from modern machinery allowing for fewer people to farm more acres to various government set-aside programs, meant fewer people on La Farge area farms.

The village grew during the 1930’s and the 1940 census population of 921 was the highest ever. With the outbreak of World War II, La Farge, like every village in America, underwent tremendous change. Many have said that the population of the village was at its highest right after the conclusion of the war and was probably over one thousand at some point. With the many men and women who had been in the military service and war related jobs returning to La Farge, the village faced a housing crisis. Government-issue trailers were brought in and a temporary housing camp was set up in the field that today is the school’s parking lot. The actual 1950 census showed La Farge with a population of 905.

With the loss of the surrounding farming community’s population, the village’s population also started a steady decline between 1950 and 1970. Losing nearly a fifth of its population in those two decades, La Farge finally stabilized near 750 people by 1970 and has stayed close to that number ever since.

The Town of Stark hit its nadir in population in 1990, bottoming out at 259. The township had by then lost nearly a fifth of its farms to the federal government through the La Farge Dam Project. The acquisition of those properties in the township and the subsequent loss of population as the families left their farms occurred from 1968 through the early 1970’s.

In the last census, the population of Stark was up ninety people, and increase of nearly 35% from ten years earlier. The village’s 2000 census saw a modest 3% climb from twenty years earlier.

Some of those houses along south State Street where Ray Calhoon stopped in 1910 to count people for the census have recently been torn down. They were the victims of the great Kickapoo River flood of 2008. Razed and hauled away to the landfill, those residences are a memory now of another time. The numbers don’t lie.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Show Time at The Mars!

When I was a kid growing up in La Farge, one of my great sources of entertainment was attending the movies at the Mars Theatre. Located on the corner of Main Street across from the bank (now the Field House Bar), the Mars really was another planet for a young lad existing in those pre-television days of the early1950’s. Movies at the Mars brought that whole wonderful world beyond the hills that bracket the Kickapoo Valley to the folks who resided in the little river town. For a boy or girl of that era, the images that flashed on the silver screen of the Mars Theatre transported us to other times and other places.

I usually went to the movies on Saturday night and the matinee on Sunday afternoon. It cost twenty cents for a kid to go to a movie back then. I would usually get forty cents from my parents for each trip down two blocks on Main Street to the Mars. That would leave me twenty cents for a Coke (in a cup from a dispensing machine) that cost a dime and a bag of freshly popped popcorn for the same. Or I could skip the Coke and go for a box of buttered popcorn for twenty cents. Sometimes I would limit my discretionary spending on Saturday night to only ten cents on regular popcorn, then use the extra dime on Sunday for a Coke AND buttered popcorn on Sunday. What a treat that was!

Saturday nights were my favorites as that was the big night for all the businesses in town. My folks ran a grocery store on the east end of Main Street (Byrd Kennedy’s store for those that go that far back; today the Episcope office) so getting a five-year old out of their hair for the evening was certainly worth the forty cents. All of the kids in town and country alike would be in town as their parents did the family shopping and visiting on Saturday night. But no grown-up duties for the kids, who headed to the Mars for a double feature packed with action and laughs.

Saturday night scheduling of films at the Mars generally included a double feature with an action flick, usually a shoot-em-up western that would be paired with a comedy aimed at the younger set. Funny movies featuring the likes of “The Bowery Boys”, “Francis, The Talking Mule”, or “Ma & Pa Kettle” were favorites. Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall were always in some kind of trouble in those Bowery Boys schemes, and Francis the mule seemed to make Donald O’Connor’s life a mess every time. Can’t you still hear Pa Kettle slowly saying “Now Ma” and she would shout back with that raspy voice of hers nearly knocking him over as he slouched in his chair? The westerns were loaded with action, lots of six-shooters blazing, horses galloping, and the stagecoach headed for the cliff. Randolph Scott was often the star and you couldn’t go wrong by him. John Wayne would come riding in some nights as did Gene Autry, but my favorite was Roy Rogers. It wasn’t just Roy with that winning smile though, as his movies always featured an assortment of co-stars and sidekicks. Wife Dale Evans was usually around to sing a duet or two, and George “Gabby” Hayes was always good for lots of laughs. Jingles (Andy Devine) might help in a shoot-out, firing off his six-shooters like he was throwing darts (did he ever hit anybody with that technique?). Then there were the animal stars as well: Champion, the Golden Palomino and Buttermilk led the horses for the heroes, and Bullet, The Wonder Dog was always doing, well, wonders. The “Sons of the Pioneers” would probably be over in the bunkhouse singing “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds”. Action, music, amazing animals, comedy, good singing – how could you beat it?

Now you might think that those two movies would be enough for that evening’s entertainment, but there was usually more. A cartoon would certainly follow the “Coming Attractions” at the start of the evening. Tom & Jerry were classics from that era, loaded with colossal cartoon violence, but nobody was permanently hurt and laughs were plentiful. If there was only one show on a Saturday night, then a “Three Stooges” short was usually included with the main feature. Now, we’re talking about mayhem and violence aplenty with Moe, Larry, and Shemp performing their shenanigans, but the laughter was always uproarious, long, and howling for us kids.

In to the theatre our army of kids would march at six-thirty or seven, and out we would race after ten, another Saturday night at the Mars Theatre (Best in Sound for Miles Around). The country kids would race to their folks’ car and head for home. I would run back up Main Street to Steinmetz Grocery, still busy with the last of the evening shoppers. I would regale my Mom with the fantastic things seen on the Silver Screen at the Mars Theatre. Then with eyes drooping with sleepiness, I would troop upstairs to bed, where I would dream of amazing adventures with Bullet and Champion by my side.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Best Laid Plans

This week’s notebook is going to be a progress report on my efforts to finish a history of La Farge and put it into some type of book for all to enjoy. When I began writing these local history notebooks back in May of 2007, I stated then that the purpose of these bi-monthly columns would be to tell some of the interesting stories that I came across doing research on the history of La Farge project. I will soon be approaching three years in the process of keeping the readers of the La Farge Episcope updated on that project. Along the way we have shared stories about the village and some of the interesting events that have transpired over the years. We have seen how a La Farge boy went away to Hollywood and won an Oscar. Another local lad became nationally famous for his ability to float. We have taken walks together down La Farge’s Main Street from the past. We have discussed the big snowstorms, the good basketball and baseball teams, businesses like Nuzums that have lasted a century and others that have been in the village for twenty years like Organic Valley. We shared in the coming and going of the railroad to La Farge, the village’s fight over saloons licenses, the village’s 4th of July celebrations over the years, and the development of the school system.

During the entire time that I have been writing these notebooks, I have continued to research on the history of the village. Former LHS classmate and history-buddy Gary Hagen tipped me off early on that all of the copies of the La Farge newspapers were on microfilm at the Viola Public Library. For the past two years I have generally spent two mornings a week there scanning the old copies of the La Farge Enterprise. I have been to Madison on several occasions to go over information at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. I have spent many hours at the Vernon County Museum in Viroqua and many more hours at the Lawton Library here in La Farge. I love to do this research. Internet sites also have been useful in my search.

Other history-buddies have guided me in the search. Martha Olson in East Troy started me on the path to information on my own family’s past that helped immensely and still keeps in contact on a regular basis. Dawn Dosch-Betters from Florida and Jim Tilley from California had information for me, then later came to visit me to learn more history of when their family was here in La Farge. Donny Burnard has sent historic photos of La Farge on several occasions. Dozens of others have sent photos and other helpful bits of information along the way these last few years. These contacts have been very helpful and greatly appreciated.

Maxine Shird leads a cadre of local folks who keep me updated and walking along the correct path on this search. I have a dozen people here in La Farge that I can and do contact when I’m looking for answers to a poser from the past. Lonnie, Gail, and Matt at the Episcope office have served as a repository for information and photos on my quest. You need support like this for such an endeavor.

So, let’s start with the good news. I have a title for the book. It is:

La Farge

The Story of A Kickapoo River Town

An Unfinished History

By Brad Steinmetz

Pretty catchy title, huh? Which parts of the title don’t you like, the “Unfinished History” line? Well, I haven’t finished it yet, so that line really holds true. When I do finish the book, it will still hold true. My book isn’t going to have everything about La Farge in it, so I’ll leave it to others to fill in those missing pieces. The “unfinished” doesn’t mean that I’ll do another book about La Farge later, but others might want to.

Another positive aspect to my project is that I have half of the book written. I have written an introduction that explains who I am, why I’m writing the history, how the information is organized and what I’m including in the book. (The organization of the book was a real hang-up for me, but once I settled on a format to use, the writing has come easier.) I have written a prelude that sets dramatic anticipation for the rest of the action, something my old college roommate, Joe Porter, tipped me off to a while back. Chapters 1, 2,3, and 4 are about done, totaling nearly ninety pages of written material. A “Chapter Notes” section at the end is being compiled as I write, so much of that is done.

Now for some bad news, you were waiting for that, weren’t you?

There are three chapters left to complete, which include the conclusion. Each of those chapters is going to cover some major topics like floods and dam projects. I might have another ninety pages to write. There will be lots of photographs to accompany the manuscript. How those will be assembled is still being debated between my chief editor/publisher/history-buddy, Chuck Hatfield and me. At the end of the book I will include a number of the Local History Notebook columns that I feel will help tell the story about the village. There could be nearly eighty of those, so selecting which ones to use and reformatting those will be a chore as well. The last three chapters, the photographs, and the notebook columns will all take time.

I intended to have the book completed and ready to be released by this 4th of July. That isn’t going to happen; I’m not going to have enough time to get it completed in three and a half months (although I may come close). Instead, I now want to get it done so that it can be released for the next Small Town Christmas here in La Farge. That will be the first Saturday in December. You can hold me to that date, I think.

In the mean time, I want to show the photographs that have been complied on La Farge’s history at this year’s 4th of July weekend. This photo show on La Farge’s history will be in the school gymnasium on July 3, which is the All-School Reunion day and on the 4th. Brian Turner, another history-buddy, will help with the show and he is a veteran at these sorts of photo displays, so it should be fun to walk through. Some of the students at La Farge High School will also help.

Speaking of La Farge students working on history projects, check out the new “La Farge History Project” just completed by Amy Lund’s LHS Local History Class. It is on the school’s website at Click on La Farge History Project and there you will find the student’s work. There are oral history interviews, lots of photographs of La Farge – past and present, and several short histories on various topics. Some of the student work on this project is nicely done. Check it out; you might enjoy it.

So that’s where I am on this little project on telling La Farge’s story. Keep the information, photographs, and remembrances coming to me at Box 202, La Farge 54639 or I really appreciate hearing from everybody. Working together we will get the story of this little river town told.

Monday, February 1, 2010

More Dam History

When Senator William Proxmire announced his withdrawal of support for the La Farge Dam Project in October 1975, the actual work on the project did not stop. Previously appropriated federal funds were still in the pipeline and would be spent by the Corps of Engineers, the federal agency working on the project. Negotiations on the final purchases of land and easements needed for the project, mostly in the Ontario area, continued. Indeed, Joe Davis of Ontario, became known as “The Last Man Standing” because of his refusal to sell to the Corps during this time. Eventually, Davis would win out and retained some parcels that the Corps never did buy.

The leadership of the Corps’ regional headquarters, believing in the old maxim of “Never Say Never!” had sought solutions that might be politically digestible to conclude the La Farge project. Drawing on a commissioned study done by the URS Corporation, the Corps announced an alternative compromise on a “Wet-Dam” solution in November of 1976. The compromise called for the completion of the dam structure located north of La Farge to impound a smaller lake of 840 acres. This would be down from the previous plans for a lake of over 1,800 acres. The new smaller lake would have an elevation at 822 feet above sea level compared to 840 feet with the bigger lake. What the URS proposal had done was shrunk the water impoundment back to the same sized lake as when the project first had been authorized in 1962. The new smaller lake would fill up much of the Star Valley lowlands and cover the river’s lowlands up to Rockton as well as the lower portions of Weister and Jug Creeks. This new proposal of reverting to the earlier lake size and depth was a “Blast From The Past!” in many regards, but it did have one new feature. The Corps asked for a variance on water quality in the smaller lake from the Wisconsin DNR. Other alternatives listed by the URS study included protective dikes downstream on the Kickapoo River for the villages of La Farge, Viola, and Gays Mills.

The Corps’ new smaller lake wet-dam proposal tried to address some of the reasons for opposition to their previous plan, particularly in the area of environmental concerns. By asking for a variance on the water quality issue, the Corps was trying to buy time to deal with that issue. The earlier study, which had been done on water quality of the La Farge Lake by the UW-Madison, was already under attack by local soil & water conservation groups and agencies. By buying time with a variance on water quality in the smaller impoundment, the Corps could wait for solutions to come forward to rectify the problem. Another environmental concern addressed by the alternate proposal was the loss of rare plant species. By lowering the level of the lake by nearly twenty feet, much of the habitat for the rare plant species would not be submerged as in the previous lake level. Or so the Corps thought.

Reaction from environmental groups to the Corps new proposal was immediate and all negative. The governing council of the DNR rejected the variance request on water quality by a 6-1 vote. In December 1976, the Scientific Areas Preservation Council, based in Madison, issued a statement, which said that 75% of the Kickapoo Valley habitat for the endangered species Arctic Monkshood and Lapland Rosebay would be “inundated” by the La Farge Reservoir under the alternate proposal.

The reaction on the local scene also took a negative turn regarding the Corps latest proposal. After the rejection of the Corps water quality variance by the state’s DNR board, Lonnie Muller, editor of the La Farge Epitaph published a scathing editorial titled, “DNR, Kiss Our Butt”. In the editorial, Muller promoted the idea that the reason for the rejection of the variance by the DNR was because that state agency already had other ideas for the dam project property. In other words, the DNR wanted that nearly 9,000 acres in the Kickapoo Valley taken for the dam project for its own uses. I’m not sure if the local editor originated that idea, but he certainly gave it greater exposure. It was an idea that would remain pervasive on a local level right up through the present. (Ironically, when the land did become available to state agencies during the creation of what would become the Kickapoo Valley Reserve in the 1990’s, the DNR would have to pass on the property.)

At the same time that the Corps alternate wet-dam proposal was being introduced, local protest turned to a more hard-lined stance. Bridge #16, now on the “government land” was set fire late in November. The Schroeder Bridge, as it was known locally, ironically had caught fire once before, back in the 1930’s. (Could Immaculate Ignition have been at work here?) Most thought the bridge being set on fire was a local protest to the dam controversy, another way to vent frustration. When another suspicious fire was ignited in nearby Bard Lawrence Hollow the following month, also of unknown and mysterious origin, the message seemed clear that at least a certain part of the local population was not taking the defeat of the dam project graciously.

As 1977 began, State Senator Paul Offner tried to inject some reason into the whole process by appealing to the various factions to sit down and develop a policy as to how to proceed. La Farge businessman Ward Rose offered a reward of $1,000 for anyone who would tell the truth about the La Farge dam project. Local activist and dam supporter Bernice Schroeder wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter asking for his help in resolving the matter.

To further fuel the controversy, Wisconsin Governor Patrick Lucey rejected the Corps alternate wet-dam proposal entirely and further rejected Senator Offner’s idea of a policy session. Editor Muller reacted to the Governor’s rejections by calling him a “Liar” in an Epitaph editorial.

In February 1977, the Corps of Engineers threw up its hands and asked for a halt to the La Farge project. The agency had run out of alternatives and political support for the project. The local reaction to the Corps’ announcement was to organize a new group called KLOUT, Kickapoo Landowners United Together. The group’s first president was Roger Gabrielson (Gabby, as he was known, was also the La Farge School District president at the time), the treasurer was La Farge teacher Al Szepi, and Bernice Schroeder was secretary. In its first public meeting held at the La Farge gymnasium, KLOUT attracted a crowd of nearly 200, who vowed to sign and circulate petitions to support what the new organization stood for. KLOUT’s platform was simple; either finish the La Farge dam and lake as originally proposed or give the land back to the people. A new phase in the dam controversy was beginning.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dam Trouble

Recently I have been focusing my research of the history of La Farge on the tumultuous story of the La Farge dam project. That story is a long one. It spans a time from the Kickapoo River flood of 1935 right up through the present. I thought we might be able to put a coda to this dam story earlier in the decade, but the great Kickapoo River floods of 2007 and 2008 brought it back to life. After those flood waters receded, lying there with all of the other flood trash was that stinking dam story to stir up emotions in the Valley again.

As the muddy churning waters of the Kickapoo knifed diagonally through the village of La Farge in June of 2008, how many weary residents cast a glance towards that unfinished dam north of town? Some knew the details of the dam story and could only shake their heads at what might have been. Others knew little of the dam story, but still wondered about why something had not been done to help the Valley cope with those floods of destruction and devastation. What might have been? What could have been done?

Residents of La Farge were not the only ones in the Valley asking those questions. Down river in Gays Mills, those who lived there also gazed at the river’s path of destruction after that June 2008 flood. But the futility of resistance was more evident for those who lived in Gays Mills, as they had suffered an equally calamitous flood only ten months earlier. Hadn’t a levee for the protection of Gays Mills been part of that La Farge dam project years ago? Had the citizens of Gays Mills really rejected that levee by a mere handful of votes in a referendum at one time?

The story of the dam project is a long one, which we can’t begin to cover with any depth here in the notebook (although it is a compelling part of the history of La Farge and will be told in detail for that story). What I would like to begin focusing on is the time after the federal government stopped the project. For this part of the story, let’s use 1975 as the date and specifically when Senator William Proxmire withdrew his political support for the project in the fall of that year. Some felt at the time,” That’s that!” and that the story was over. In some respects those feelings were true and the project as envisioned before that 1975 stoppage was over. Yet the turmoil over the project would continue on for more than two decades.

The political debate over the project, which continued on for nearly thirty years, would eventually lead to the creation of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Let’s begin to look at those years between the stopping of the project in 1975 and the creation of the Reserve in the 1990’s. It offers us an amazing view of a dazzling array of political maneuvers on the national, state and local level.

The players who performed in this drama on the Kickapoo were many. (I thought about using the term “tragedy” here, but there are so many preposterous and farcical turns in this story; that it, at times, resembles a “comedy”. Borrowing from Shakespeare, “A Comedy of Errors” might be our best title for this chapter.)

The Corps of Engineers is at front stage throughout our drama because the La Farge Dam Project is their baby. The Corps conceived the scope and scale of the project, sold it to the public and various government entities, and proceeded to try to complete it. The Corps has been painted by many as a villain in this story, but in reality, this government agency’s sole purpose is to build things – BIG things and the BIGGER, the better. After all, they are engineers. It is probably true that the Corps failed miserably in the theater of public opinion regarding this project. The government agency was also unable to react properly to the new federally imposed environmental laws of that time. Both of these shortcomings by the Corps of Engineers would eventually contribute to the stoppage of their La Farge project.

The environmental movement (enter stage right), emerging as a national power during this time, was also a significant actor in our dam project drama. Led on the national stage by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson and on the state level by the Sierra Club through its Madison and University of Wisconsin John Muir Chapter, this movement fought the La Farge Dam Project in the courts of law (rather unsuccessfully) and public opinion. In the later, the environmentalists had great success in painting a picture of the La Farge Dam Project as an environmental nightmare. Although debatable to this day, this tarnished tint of the dam project that was created by the environmentalists carried the day.

As the saying goes,” Politics makes strange bedfellows”. In the drama of the La Farge Dam Project, the adage could not have been more succinct. Whether emanating from the halls of Congress in Washington D.C., the state capital in Madison, or the county board room in Viroqua, the politicos weighed in with their two cents worth on the project. Those two-penny sound bites and press releases must have added up to millions of dollars over the years, but the cumulative effect of such a hefty price was in the end constant confusion and turmoil.

The last participants in our play, entering from back stage, are the people of the Kickapoo Valley. These are the common men and women who perhaps should stand at center stage. Although in a prominent position, their voices are low and muted, hard to hear over the din from the other players in our drama. (Perhaps we should stage this story as a Greek tragedy and have the politicians, the environmentalists, and the Corps bureaucrats form a chorus. We could place the chorus high above the people who live in the valley, perhaps on Fort Wales. This chorus could shout their ideas down on the people below them. But I digress.) These people of the Valley at the center of this drama will also make remarkable twists and turns as alternatives are sought for the project. Over the years, working together has never been an admirable quality or practical ability for the communities on the Kickapoo. Again, that classic Kickapoogian fault (some may argue that it is a quality) will play out in our little drama, the story of the La Farge Dam Project.

So the time is set, the players are assembled. Next time we will look at how our story plays out. Stay tuned for exciting scenes and acts such as: Completion of the Dam & Lake, a Smaller Lake, Dirty Water Now & Clean Water Later, a Study of Alternatives, Dry Dam #1, What Endangered Species?, Dry Dam #2, another Study of Alternatives, a Dry Dam & Wet Dam, a National Park, a modified Wet Dam, a National Archeological District, yet another Study of Alternatives, a Hydro-Electric Dam, Levees for La Farge, Viola, Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills, Relocation of All the Villages, Protests & Counter-Protests, a Mock Funeral, Return the Land to the People, and (an oldie but a goodie) Dam Up the Whole Valley & Put It All Under Water.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

On Writing History

I wanted to give everyone a little update on my progress in writing a history of La Farge. "Slow, but steady" would be the most appropriate description, I suppose. I have about three of the book's chapters more or less completed. I think there will be six to nine chapters in all and at the rate that I am currently writing, it doesn't look like my self-imposed deadline to have the book out for this year's 4th of July may be in jeopardy. Some things have come up that slows the process. (And I'm not talking about the day-to-day types of things, such as shoveling snow, attending Badger men's basketball games at the Kohl Center, visiting the Rockton Bar to catch the local buzz and , an oldie but a goodie, procrastinating.)
One of the detriments to writing the history is that I'm still actively tied up in the research. Whether it's scanning the microfilm of old issues of the La Farge weekly newspapers or listening to tapes of oral history interviews, this research bug really has its grip on me. Good buddy Joe Porter, who has written a few history books himself, told me that at some point you have to say enough and start writing. I'm trying to do both and its a problem for me. I like the research better than the writing.
My research is all over the place as well. I'm currently looking at the 1960's and the school consolidation movement in Wisconsin (which really has an interesting long-term impact on the school in La Farge), the political maneuvers regarding the La Farge Dam Project in the 1970's and 80's (unbelievable swing of ideas and propositions from the Right & the Left on that stalled water-control project), and the 1914-20 era (the village has an intriguing story on the liquor license-no license or "dry vs. wet" debate that runs for decades). Interesting stuff, huh?
The writing of the book is not nearly so interesting. It takes discipline and work. Sit down and write for two hours every day. Easier said than done for me. Write and don't worry about mistakes, you can edit later. The English major in me keeps that from happening. If I keep getting bogged down in this writing process, perhaps adding "- An Unfinished History" to my title will be necessary (Actually, I like that idea.).
Stay tuned!