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.