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.