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.