Thursday, December 22, 2011

Always 12:51 in La Farge

In the past few years, I have written several local history notebooks during the Yuletide season based on a nostalgic trip down La Farge’s Main Street of the past. Many of the visits down memory lane drew comparisons between the village’s Main Street from previous times and that of today. Although I have received many favorable comments from readers about those notebooks, those trips to nostalgia make me wonder if I am over-doing the concept. After all, all of us involved in this little history project about La Farge have their favorite time to remember about their hometown. In these year-end local history notebooks I have stepped back to the early 1950s, another time to the 1960s and last year composed some doggerel where I time-traveled through decades of Christmas memories on La Farge’s Main Street.

But if one had the gift to do some of that time travel, where would you stop the clock in your memories of La Farge? Would it be some favorite time in your childhood when you were growing up in this village? Would it be that best birthday party ever or that very special 4th of July Celebration? Where would you stop the clock in your cavalcade of memories about this place?

The reason that I pose this question is because of the clock on the La Farge State Bank. Although the time & temperature sign on the corner of the bank building has been operating in starts and stops for some time, the clock finally locked up, gave up the ghost and has posted the same time (with no accompanying temperature) for the past several weeks. It always reads 12:51. Which is alright in a way because, as we are want to say here in the Kickapoo Valley as we try and look on the brighter side of things, the stopped clock is always correct twice a day. But what time is it stopped on? Is it nine minutes before one in the afternoon, which means that the lunch hour is almost over? Or is it fifty-one minutes past midnight, which might have meant “last call” at La Farge’s watering holes in years gone by. (Do taverns and bars really need to stay open until 2:30 AM? Didn’t our grandmothers always tell us that nothing good ever happens at two in the morning?) So if we’re all locked into 12:51 here at the end of our current year of 2011, where would we like that clock to stop in another year from our past?

I was thinking perhaps that it would be fun to stop the clock at some highlight of the village’s history. Perhaps we could go back to that election in 1899 that ratified the incorporation of La Farge as a village. Or we could stop time nearly a decade later and perhaps could be a passenger on the Kickapoo Stumpdodger as it wound its way back up the Valley after La Farge’s town baseball team had taken on all comers at the Crawford County Fair. The players and fans would be giddy after winning the tournament, which had been set up (rigged might be a better word) to beat La Farge in the first place. A week later, the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper would declare the La Farge team the best in the state for its exploits. Those would be fun times to be a part of.

How about a time stop in La Farge on November 11, 1918 as the Great War was ending? We could hear the village’s church bells pealing out the news of the armistice being signed in Europe and join in that wonderful parade that spontaneously bloomed on Main Street. Wouldn’t that be a fun place to stop in our time travels?

We could move forward in time and welcome all of the local service men and women back at the end of World War II. That was a time of great change and transition in the village, a time of hope for the future. Maybe we could pinpoint a particular season of one of those great LHS basketball teams in the early 1950s? Wouldn’t that be fun to time travel back to those old gymnasiums in the Kickapoo Valley League and watch the Wildcat boys rack up win after win.

Even though there are mostly forgettable memories of the ill-fated dam project that most of us would not want to relive, there are even a couple of times in that dam story that might warrant a stop. I would like to time stop in the village on that Saturday night in May of 1971 when La Farge dam supporters celebrated the decision by Governor Patrick Lucey to support the dam project. Governor Lucey, in an open letter to the citizens of the Kickapoo Valley (which was really an open letter to La Farge), had said that, “If participatory democracy is to have any meaning whatsoever, we must, I feel, respond to the people most directly affected. With this in mind, I have decided not to stand in opposition to the project.” I missed that Saturday night celebration in La Farge forty years ago, so it would be fun to return to that time to catch the excitement.

Another dam project time stop we might want to make would be for “Proxie’s Funeral” that occurred in January of 1976. Perhaps no village ever put on a more effective and fun form of protest against their elected representatives. Wouldn’t it be fun to return to that time to attend Senator Proxmire’s wake in the Raven Bar or accompany the funeral possession up to the dam site? We could hear “Reverend” Red Alderson’s humorous eulogy again and watch Ward Rose toss the dummy effigy of Senator Proxmire off the unfinished dam into the “Dead Sea”.

Perhaps we won’t even have to travel that far back in our time travel. We could go back to the turn of the new millennium and welcome in the twenty-first century. Maybe we could be in the victory parades as the village welcomed back another champion LHS volleyball team? Wouldn’t it be fun to relive those noisy nights as the team bus was escorted back into town by the fire trucks, sirens wailing and lights flashing, and the Wildcat girls on the team screaming with joy to the town and showing off their latest conference championship trophy or WIAA regional or sectional championship plaque?

So many times to choose from for our stopping of the clock, but I would personally choose a Christmas Eve in 1953. (I’m kind of guesstimating on the year here, buy I think that I’m about at the right time.) My family lived in a ranch house on Highland Street, between Bird and State Streets. We were all still together then as a family and this six year old was stubbornly hanging on to his last beliefs in the magic and wonder of Santa Claus. We walked to the Christmas Eve services at the Methodist Church only a block away. I remember the huge Christmas tree in the front of the church, how the lights were dimmed and the candles provided most of the light. Carols were sung and I joined other children from Sunday School classes with some special songs of the season.

When we returned home, a miracle had happened! While we were in church, St. Nicholas had visited the village, stopped at our house and filled under our Christmas tree with presents, many of them for me. Grandmother, who lived across the street, joined us in opening the presents – what a grand evening it was! The next day, we all packed into Dad’s Buick Roadmaster and it was off to Aunt Alice & Uncle Mike’s house in Cheyenne Valley for Christmas dinner. The house was packed with family and friends. The women worked in the kitchen to help Aunt Alice get the huge dinner ready; the men sat in the living room and talked about their jobs and adult stuff like that. The kids were upstairs regaling each other with news of their wondrous Christmas presents.

Those were special times for me in my memory stop, but they wouldn’t last much longer. Stopping the memory clock at a particular time only can last for so long. The next year, our family’s Christmas Eve was held in a room at the Viroqua Hospital, where my Mother battled against the leukemia that was ravaging her body. That’s one of the disadvantages of stopping the clock on these trips back into our memory – the bad times aren’t necessarily erased as we make the clock stop to visit the good times.

May you all make it home for Christmas.

If you would like me to send you an autographed copy of my new book on the La Farge dam project, please send $19 to me at P.O. Box 202, La Farge, WI 54639. If you would like me to mail you a copy of my earlier book on the history of La Farge, send me $25. However if you would like both signed books sent your way, then send me $40. All of the dollar amounts listed will cover all mailing expenses.

I have been busy this week sending out the book to people all over Wisconsin, from Phillips to Janesville and from Germantown to Wausau. Books have made their way to Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, California, Washington and Alaska. The book will soon be in the hands of our exchange-student daughters in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Sydney, Australia.

Locally, copies of the book are available at the Episcope office, La Farge State Bank, Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center, Rockton Bar, Bramble’s Bookstore in Viroqua and Dregne’s Gifts in Westby.

By the way, I am currently working on a local history notebook about pool halls in La Farge. If you have any photographs, memories or stories to tell about the fascinating billiard room culture that once thrived in our village, send them my way. Working together, we can tell the story of this little Kickapoo River town.

Friday, December 16, 2011


A few weeks ago, I finished reading my new book, “THAT DAM HISTORY – The Story of The La Farge Dam Project”. It’s not a bad read, even if I do have to say so myself. Although I wrote most of the book in the first six months of this year and had spent the last couple of months helping to get the book published and printed, I really hadn’t spent much time in actually reading it. Twenty-two boxes containing copies of the new book arrived from the printer on November 18th, so since that time I have been looking it over and reading it.

Overall, the dam book looks nice and that is because of the efforts of my co-publisher, Chuck Hatfield. Chuck also helped me with the first book that I wrote on the history of La Farge. How both of these books appear is due to Chuck’s expertise, which includes experience in publishing a variety of other books over the years. For this dam book, I provided Chuck with the text of the dam story and then he put in the photographs, maps and newspaper headlines. Making all of those things fit into the text is quite a trick and Chuck is a pretty good magician at mastering the process. He also fashioned the cover, which is a full-color copy with lots of beautiful blue water (including several little sail boats) of an artist’s drawing of Lake La Farge. The drawing is one of many items in the book from information provided on the dam project from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There are also a number of Corps maps in the book, including a full color two-page map and schematics of the dam itself located inside the back cover.

Through my research, I found many photographs related to the dam project and several of them are included in the book. Some of the photos were sent to me by others interested in my writing project, while I found other photographs, particularly of the dam itself, in area historical repositories. Since the dam project and the controversies that surrounded it were nearly always in the newspapers for seemingly decades, many headlines and articles from area and state newspapers are also used to tell the story. When the dam project at La Farge also ended up as featured stories in The New York Times newspaper and on national television with the CBS Evening News, I had to include those national media citing’s as well. All of that helps to tell the dam story, which is a good one.

The story of the dam project is such a good one in fact that the key for me in trying to tell the dam story was to stay out of the way. In my prelude to the dam book, I mention that I am intending to do that, to stay out of the way and hopefully I have let the dam story pretty much tell itself. Looking back at the story, even with an abundance of first hand knowledge of what transpired, I still find it hard to fathom that the dam project played out the way that it did. In my prelude, I try to explain the cause for the way that the dam project happened, but it almost defies logical explanation. As I said before, it is quite a dam story and I’m glad that I could share it with others.

Right in the middle of the book can be found a timeline relating to the dam project. I first made a timeline for the dam project fifteen years ago when I was teaching about the project to students in my local history classes at La Farge High School. Over the years, the timeline has been changed and edited into many different versions. Visitors to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve have had copies of the timeline available in several forms over the years. My new timeline of the dam project that is included in the book has been expanded greatly and now covers nearly eight pages – it is the great-granddaddy of dam timelines. It is a handy reference to when things were happening during the dam story.

I have dedicated my new book to Bernice Schroeder, who was so helpful in getting the story of the dam project told. Bernice has been talking to students in my various classes on the dam project for many years. During that time, Bernice has also given me a variety of materials relating to the project that she had saved over the years. When she heard that I was going to write this book on the dam project, Bernice gave me several more boxes of materials that she had collected. Being an avid supporter for completion of the dam project for decades, she had accumulated an amazing treasure of material for my research. There were copies of nearly every study done on the dam project as well as personal correspondence with elected officials at every government level. With the help of this new resource material, I was able to understand the story of the dam project much more fully. At the end of the book, I have included an essay that Bernice wrote about the dam project in 2001. It seemed important to me to include her essay in the book. As I wrote on the dedication page of the book, “Bernice’s voice will always be heard when the story of the dam project at La Farge is told.”

Included in the dam book is a poem written by Libby Brandl. At the time that she wrote the poem, which is titled “The Dam”, Libby was a student at La Farge High School and was in the “Literature & Land Class” taught by Maggie Doherty. The members of that class had spent many days at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve and several class periods with me learning about the dam project. When Libby wrote the poem about the dam for an assignment for that class in 2008, it became an instant hit for many of us connected to the dam story. I felt that the bittersweet tone and quality of Libby’s poem would fit in perfectly to my book on the dam project. Libby, who is currently a student at UW-Whitewater, graciously granted her permission to use her poem in the book. It also helps to tell the dam story.

I will end this local history notebook by sharing with you the last paragraph of my new dam book, “The story of the La Farge dam project is a fascinating one that brings together the forces of national environmental concerns, political processes and financial limitations at a particular time in the history of our country and focuses these forces on this small valley in western Wisconsin. The story of that time in the Kickapoo Valley can provide lessons from which we can all learn.”

I found it to be a dam interesting story, I hope that you enjoy it as well.

If you would like me to send you a signed copy of the dam book, please send a check in the amount of $19, which includes the cost of the book and all mailing costs, to me at P.O. Box 202, La Farge, WI 54639. You can contact me via e-mail at for more information on the ordering of this book or my earlier book on the history of La Farge.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


To order my latest book, "THAT DAM HISTORY! The Story of The La Farge Dam Project", please send your address and $19 per copy to me at P.O. Box 202, La Farge, WI 54639. The price is for a signed copy and includes all mailing costs.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dam Land Acquisition Problems

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rolled out a revised plan in 1967 for a flood control dam on the Kickapoo River to be located north of La Farge, many felt that the project would bring some sort of prosperity to the region. The revised plan, which expanded the size and scope of an earlier 1962 proposal, called for the construction of a much larger dam on the river. The larger dam would create a 1,800-acre lake between La Farge and Ontario, designed to draw tourists and outdoor recreation enthusiasts to the area. Thirteen recreation areas would surround the lake to offer the visitors to Lake La Farge camping, fishing, boating and other recreational opportunities.

In a public information meeting held at La Farge in 1968, the representatives of the Corps of Engineers explained the process for the construction of the dam and the creation of the lake and recreation areas. The process to be used for acquisition of the nearly 9,000 acres of land needed for the dam and lake project was also explained at the meeting, held at the new gymnasium of the local school. At the November 19th public meeting, representatives from the Corps of Engineers land acquisition office in Rock Island, Illinois were introduced. People at the meeting who had questions about the land acquisition process were referred to a Corps pamphlet, which had been mailed earlier to land owners that would be affected by the project.

The Corps representatives present in La Farge that night assured the local people in attendance that the land acquisition would take place in an orderly fashion starting at the dam site and progressing up the Valley. All of the land for the project would be purchased by 1972, which was also the date for the completion of the dam and the beginning of the process to fill the lake. In 1969, landowners north of La Farge began the process of selling their land to the federal government for the dam project.

In the earliest phase of the project, nearly all of the land purchased for the project was located in the Town of Stark. As the acquisitions by the Corps for the dam project were completed, the tax rolls for the township began to shrink. As more and more people in Stark sold their land to the federal government, the property tax burden for the remaining landowners in the township became greater. As the Corps representatives negotiated the purchases of land in the Town of Stark for the dam project, they were doing more than just acquiring lands. The process was also shifting the resulting loss in property tax revenue over to the remaining landowners in the township. As names like Rush, Shumate, Rankin’s, Anderson, and Trappe disappeared from the tax rolls of the Town of Stark, others would have to assume the lost tax revenue for the township, school district, and county. It was an unintended consequence of the land acquisition process.

By December of 1970 when the property tax rolls were published by the local government units, the property owners in the Town of Stark would see firsthand the unintended consequences of the La Farge Dam Project. Most landowners in the township saw their taxes increase by more than 25%. Property taxes for Virgil Thomas, who lived along Bear Creek, increased from $413 in 1969 to $537 in 1970, an increase of 30%. Thomas’ neighbor Don Potter saw his taxes go up 24%, while up the road, Ralph Steinmetz’ property taxes increased 28%. It was the same throughout the township. Van Aumuck’s property taxes rose 37% and Dale Fish’s went up 26%. The largest percentage increase in the township for the 1970 tax year was felt by Howard Anderson, whose taxes rose from $348 to $652 – a whopping increase of 87%. Ironically, Anderson’s negotiations with the Corps of Engineers for the sale of his property probably figured into the huge increase.

Anderson owned the farm where most of the eastern end of the flood control dam would be located. In the process of negotiating with the Corps Rock Island land acquisition office, Anderson had improved the value of his property, which had probably been under assessed previously. By whitewashing several farm buildings and making repairs to others, Anderson not only increased the value of his farm for purchase by the government for the dam project, but also for tax assessment. Anderson paid the tax increase for one year, but by the following year had sold most of his farm to the federal government and saw his property taxes decrease to only $97 – a drop of over 85% from the previous year. Other taxpayers in the township would have to make up the loss. The shift of the tax burden weighed heavily on the community.

In the February 11, 1971 issue of the La Farge Enterprise, editor Arnie Widstrand addressed the local property tax problems in a front page editorial titled “Construction and Acquisition”. The editorial was prompted by an announcement from Washington D C a week earlier that $1.73 million was to be included in the proposed federal budget for the La Farge Dam Project. The announcement said that the money would be used for construction of the dam and further land acquisitions. In response, editor Widstrand wrote, “That this money NOT be used to purchase any more land to the north of the project. We do not need any more land taken off the tax rolls in this area. It is too much of a burden on the remaining taxpayers. (Every taxpayer in the Town of Stark knows of what we speak as their taxes soared this year.)

At previous meetings the Corps made it known that the plan was to buy some land, then build the dam, and continue buying land northward as the dam progressed. It is estimated that 47% of the land needed for the project has been purchased. That is plenty. Now start the dam. If all the land were bought it would be very easy to lose the project through, inefficiency of our bureaucracies, public apathy, lack of interest of public representatives, change of public interest in and attitude toward the project, or just plain difficulty in getting money for it through the Congress.

At any rate, if the $1.7 million goes through and is used to acquire land, it will do us more harm than good. What we need now is more employment in the area, not more land taken off the tax roll.”

By March the federal budget had been approved by Congress and signed into law by President Nixon. The nearly $2-million appropriation for the La Farge project was included. In April 1971 the Corps of Engineers announced that 1,646 acres of agricultural land in the Kickapoo Valley purchased for the dam project was available for lease. In addition, the Corps Rock Island land acquisition office released a list of buildings and personal property available for purchase on the lands purchased for the dam project. Included in the list of items for sale were 12,500 mink pens. All of the listed property, buildings and items had once been assessed for payment of property taxes in the township. Eventually, the federal government would own over twenty per cent of the land in the Town of Stark, over eight sections of land on which no property taxes were paid.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Dam Book Release!

I might say that it's the best dam book that I've ever written, while others might contend that it isn't that good of a dam book after all! Regardless of the reviews, you're invited to the grand official release of THAT DAM HISTORY! The Story of The La Farge Dam Project. The author, Brad Steinmetz, will read selections from the new book and take questions from the audience. Copies of the book will be for sale and for the author to sign. Refreshments & socializing begin at 6:30 PM on Friday, December 2 at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center, Highway 131, two miles north of La Farge

The Ottevale Railroad

I was interested in reading the recent story about the reincarnation of the Ottervale Store taken on by the Alderson’s living up Husker Hollow way. There was a nice little article on the history of the store that was put together by Patsy and Kevin Alderson included in that issue of La Farge’s local newspaper. Reading the articles and looking at the many photos of the moving of the store building stirred memories of the story of the ill-fated railroad line from La Farge to Ottervale. As with many a tale told on the Kickapoo, it started with the best of intentions.

It was the winter of 1901-02 and by January the snow was piled so high as to scrape the telegraph wires running along side the Kickapoo Railroad line. In those days, when the snow was piled that high, folks stayed indoors more and gathered to talk at the stores on La Farge’s bustling Main Street. Sitting around the pot-bellied stoves at Chase Brothers Mercantile, Millard’s Store and Post Office or Pott’s Hardware Store, the local wags would pontificate on the latest news and gossip.

A story of interest all that fall and running into the winter was the decision by the Kickapoo Railroad officials to not extend the line north beyond La Farge. Original plans had called for the railroad line to continue north towards Rockton and Ontario, then on up the Valley and over the hill at Briggsville to Tomah. There it would connect with the main east-west rail line running to La Crosse. Good intentions indeed, but the Kickapoo railroad line was always short of funds and did not have the money to pursue expansion beyond La Farge, so the plan for extending the railroad line north to Tomah was scuttled. Although that decision left La Farge in the envious and financially lucrative position of being the northern terminus of the railroad line, some in the community saw a need for more connections to the outside world. Soon the idea of a branch line to bustling Ottervale was being bandied about.

With tongue firmly in cheek, the La Farge Enterprise newspaper came out strongly for the Ottervale branch line in its January 31, 1902 edition. An article on the front page of that issue, Railroad To Ottervale, outlined the positive benefits of the plan:

What is the matter with having a railroad from La Farge to Ottervale? For our part we can’t see anything of importance to hinder, and what little obstacles there may be in the way are not of enough account to prevent the carrying out of such an important project as this. The benefits to be received from such a road are too many and great to be enumerated here, but we will mention a few which we think will set at rest any doubts in the mind of the reader as to the advisability of the plan.

· 1st It would make La Farge the junction of two of the most important railroads in Vernon County.

· 2nd If Ottervale should ever happen to grow to be a large city like Milwaukee or Chicago it would be a great advantage to this town to have direct railroad connections.

· 3rd If a gold mine should ever happen to be discovered over at Ottervale our citizens could go over there to dig and come back on the evening special and in this manner we could get rich without depopulating the village any.

· 4th It would be of great advantage to La Farge to be the junction of two important railroads and might induce some large manufacturing establishments to locate here and help build up the town.

· 5th If the railroad was successful we could build other roads out to West Lima, Muncie, Rockton and other points and make La Farge a great railroad center.

· 6th The Enterprise could be carried to Ottervale by mail without taking it a whole week for it to get there as it does now.

We trust that there are none of our readers who do not yet see clearly the advantages of this road and we will go on to explain why we think the road can be built just as well as not. There is nothing as we can see lacking to build the road with except the money, but there is no use in getting discouraged for the lack of that when everything else necessary for railroad building can be found right in the village. A good set of officials can be picked out here and we would suggest the following persons as being, according to our best judgment, in every way capable and competent to serve as a good set of railroad officials:

Jonathan Gift President

M.O. Morris V. President

Dr. Butt Sect.

Dr. Gaines Treas.

G.E. Tate Train Master

J.H. Potts Engineer

H.C. Plimpton Fireman

R.P. Dalton Brakesman

D. H. Bean, Mike Ward, and Sam Hook could furnish the money. To show that we are in earnest and are willing to do our part we will agree to furnish the hot air for the airbrakes. If there is anything else necessary for building a railroad just let us know and we will find some way to get it. We hope that all those who wish to take stock in the road will get together soon and get the work started as soon as possible so that we can have it completed before all the snow melts away.

That mention of snow in the last line of the article was probably a key to the idea of the fictitious branch railroad running up Otter Creek. In an earlier issue of the Enterprise that winter, the correspondent from Ottervale had mentioned that the snowdrifts were packed so hard on the road leading to La Farge that you could drive a train over them. At around the same time, there was some grumbling about the deep piles of snow on La Farge’s Main Street, which made it hard to maneuver around with horse & sleigh or on foot. Somebody mentioned that they should haul the huge piles of snow out of town, so why not use them for a firm bed for the proposed new line running to Ottervale? The idea was hatched to lay the track of the proposed line across the firmly packed snow and within a week of the original article, a notation was made in the local newspaper that “stock for the Ottervale railroad was going as fast as pancakes & honey” and that William Riley would run the new railroad eating house.

Two weeks later in the February 21 issue of the Enterprise another article appeared titled Our Railroad. The article read:

“We found the following article with no signature attached in front of our office door one day the first of the week. As we first read it over a suspicion crossed our mind that the writer was trying to make fun of “our” railroad, but upon sober reflection we deemed it incredible that anyone could be so trifling and frivolous with the serious things of this life and so we concluded that the writer must have ment (sic) it all for the best but was probably not as well posted on railroad building as we are. Following is the epistle:

Mr. Editor: The Enterprise seems very enthusiastic over the R.R. to Ottervale, as the stock is nearly all sold and the balance will be well watered and the new road will be christened the U.C.& L.C.R.R. The grade stakes will be set as soon as the first train passes over the line. The tickets will be good on all divisions of the drop in and catch on line. The conductor will take up all passes by anyone not holding the same and the lucky person who holds a pass will be entitled to ride on foot or horseback from any place in the whole wide world clear up to Ottervale.

The railroad to Ottervale wasn’t the only fanciful proposal circulating as winter turned to spring in the Kickapoo Valley in 1902. In the March 14 issue of the Enterprise, the following piece of local news appeared, “This is the time of the year when railroad building takes its usual boom. On of the latest railroad projects is to run an electric line from Union Center to La Farge, taking in the towns of Rockton, Valley, Hillsboro and Dilly. Hillsboro has long been wanting a railroad but the present scheme of running an electric line clear through to here originated with some of the men over at Valley who would also like a road for their town. It is said that all the businessmen in the towns along the line are in favor of it and they claim to be able to raise $100,000 among themselves toward carrying out the project.”

Alas, the electric line through Dilly was never to be (But at least we know where the idea for those postcards that showed a train line running down that little ghost town’s main street came from.), and alack, the line to Ottervale met the same fate. In the April 11, 1902 issue of the Enterprise a brief mention was made of the demise of the phantom line when it was noted that the Ottervale RR was abandoned due to not enough snow. Hot air will do that some times to even the best of ideas.

Although the idea of the mythical Ottervale Railroad had drifted away like the cigar smoke from whence it was hatched, the Kickapoo Railroad made plans to expand in La Farge. By later in April, the real railroad company was building side tracks to facilitate easier loading and shipping from the La Farge mills and stockyard, further positioning the village as a main transportation center in the Valley.

Later in the spring, Ottervale was dealt another blow when the U.S. Postal Department announced that the Ottervale Post Office. (probably housed in the store there) was being discontinued as of June 30. Mail would be hauled out to Otter Creek on a new rural mail route from La Farge after that date. It must have seemed as if the whole world was shrinking away from Ottervale, what with the loss of their post office and mythical train line. But good news arrived that November when Alex Hill, the owner of the La Farge Telephone Company revealed plans to string telephone lines out Otter Creek and up to Salem Ridge. By the following spring, Ottervale was connected to the outside world with the latest telephone communication devices. You win some and you lose some.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dam Book Finished!!

THAT DAM HISTORY!: The Story of The La Farge Dam Project has been written. At this time, Chuck Hatfield, good friend and co-publisher, is working at imbedding the photographs, maps and newspaper headlines into the text and getting the first draft ready for the printer. It now appears that the book will be a little over two hundred pages long. The book is dedicated to Bernice Schroeder, who provided me with an amazing amount of information for my research on the project. Marcy West, Executive Director of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, has written a foreword for the book.
If we can keep on our publishing and printing schedule, the book will be released at a program to be held at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve's Visitor Center on Friday evening, December 2. The book will be available for sale and signing that night and there will be a short program with readings by the author. More specific information will be coming along later.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dam Nightmare

I’m sitting in a conference room with several dozen “suits” surrounding me. There is a discussion going on about a report that needs to be written to complete the research and study that has been conducted. Judging from the discussion, I can tell that all of the people in the room are well versed on the topic of the report. The discussion is focused on the organization of the study report, which will be divided into three different phases. Phases I and II are apparently nearing completion and are about ready to go to the printers. Phase III is not done and that seems to be a problem as the group’s discussion suddenly turns toward me.

The chairman of the meeting turns to address me and asks when the third phase of the report, which I have apparently been working on, will be ready to go to the printers for publication. There is a politician on the speakerphone, Senator Somebody-Or-Other in Washington or Madison, who is squawking at me that I have had plenty of time to complete my portion of the report. He wonders why I’m not ready to publish my findings. All of the people in the conference room glare at me and wait for my answer.

After fidgeting in my seat for a few eternities and as the sweat starts to trickle down my brow, I slowly respond to the inquiry.

“What is this Phase III that I am responsible for all about anyway? I have no idea what any of this is all about.” The conference room breaks into pandemonium. All of the bureaucrats in their suits are yelling at me, fingers are being pointed at me; papers are flying into the air. The Senator is screaming at me over the speakerphone.

I awake with a start; terror fills my heart; my nightclothes are soaked with perspiration. Awake, my mind starts to retreat from the terror of the nightmare; the early morning coolness dissipates the quagmire of the dream. Reality starts to overcome the subconscious fear raised in the nightmare. I think to myself, “What was that all about?”

I swing up and sit on the edge of the bed. Staring out the window at the fog that stretches out from the Kickapoo, I try to clear my own mind of the fog of sleep. As focus starts to come to my conscious mind, I see the volume laying on the nightstand beside my bed. The recognition of the title on the volume that lay there in the early morning light jars me awake some more.







NEW YORK, N.Y. 10017

When writing on some books, you never want to stop working on them. For me it was that way with the first volume of the history of La Farge. I loved to write on that book. The only thing I liked better than writing on that history was researching the material for which I was writing. I was in Seventh Heaven when it came to researching and writing on La Farge’s history, but eventually the volume of material and scope of time became too vast to include in one book.

At a certain point, I had to make a decision to stop writing on the history of the village and publish the first volume of what I had found. Picking a spot to stop that history then became a question that I had to answer. Eventually I chose to stop volume one of the La Farge history in 1962, which is the year that the La Farge Dam Project was authorized by Congress. I chose that point at which to stop because I knew that there was a whole other story to tell when one came to the dam project. Little did I know how compelling that story would be for me to tell?

I have been compiling information on the story of the La Farge Dam Project for some time. For more than a decade I have been teaching groups of students and adults about the dam project. I don’t really know how many groups I have led out onto the Kickapoo Valley Reserve for a tour of the largest unfinished dam in the state of Wisconsin. Over the years I have talked to people on both sides of the dam project controversy about their involvement in it. When the interviews for “The People Remember” oral history project were being conducted in 2000-01, I was listening closely as the people told their stories about the dam project. Over the years, I have made several research trips to St. Paul, where the Army Corps of Engineers keeps their records on the project. As I was researching for the La Farge history, I was compiling separate files of material that I found on the dam project.

In January, I began the process to write the dam project book. It was a familiar story to me; after all, I lived and worked here in La Farge through much of the story. The story had a beginning and an end, which I was quite sure of how to tell. It was the middle of the story that got to me. How does a project of this magnitude get started and then never finished? How does a dam project not become a dam project? What made this project at La Farge play out the way that it did? I had some big questions to answer, so I started to pore through the press clippings on the dam project. The mountain of material in the studies and reports about the project became my favorite reading material. The deeper that I dug, the more engrossed I became in what I was finding.

Some of my findings were almost too good to be true, so I had to write them down for the book almost as soon as I found them. Reading over the press clippings and reports and writing on what I had read became my passion. The process of the researching and writing started to consume me. At a certain point, it was all that I really wanted to do and it pretty much consumed my waking hours. I couldn’t remember conversations with people because instead of listening to what they were saying, I was thinking of some dam project minutia. I would sit quiet in committee meetings, paying no attention to what was being discussed and yearning for them to end so I could return to my dam project research and writing.

I would read until my eyes clouded over and I couldn’t see properly anymore. I would type on the dam project manuscript until my fatigue would prevent me from putting sentences together. Sleep would help clear the mind and eyes and restore some strength, but then the dam project started to creep into my somnolence as well. As I slept an idea about the dam project story would form and I would awake with the idea fresh in my mind. I would race to the computer keypad to get the idea down in my manuscript. Later I could return to the concept or idea and flesh it out to better tell the story. This happened many times as story ideas would leap from my subconscious while in slumber.

Then the dam project dreams began. I did not even know what they were when they first started to form in my sleep. There is a nightmare that teachers have that goes like this: You are in a classroom, but you don’t know any of your students and you don’t know what you are supposed to be teaching. Usually the students are terribly uncooperative in this nightmare scenario, which makes the dream even more frightening. Occasionally when I taught social studies classes at La Farge High School for over thirty years, these types of dreams would happen. However, since I stopped teaching on a fulltime basis, the dreams have rarely occurred. Then this summer, the nightmares started to reappear in my sleep, but in an altered form. In the new nightmare classroom, I would be trying to teach the students about the dam project and I could not seem to convey to them what I wanted to say. I could not get the story across to them.

Then the nightmares morphed into the conference room scene that I described at the beginning of this writing, where I became an active member of the group doing a study on the dam project – except I didn’t seem to have any idea what my job was supposed to be.

As it turns out, my job was to tell the story. When I finished telling the story of the dam project and getting it down in written form, the nightmares and weird dreams about the project ceased. I have my version of the story of the dam project told. Now I’m working with my co-publisher Chuck Hatfield to get the book put together and ready for the printer. I plan to release the book to the public on the weekend of La Farge’s Small Town Christmas in early December.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Follow The Money

On October 13, 1978, the CBS Evening News aired a segment on their national news broadcast about the La Farge Dam Project. The segment was researched and narrated by Bob Faw, a reporter who worked for the CBS affiliate station in Chicago. Faw had been canoeing on the Kickapoo River earlier in the fall with his family when they paddled past the dam tower north of La Farge. The concrete monolith piqued the veteran newsman’s interest, so when he landed in La Farge, he asked about the tower and talked to some people in town. They told Faw about the long history of the dam project, including the great Kickapoo River flood of the previous July.

Faw thought that he might have a good human-interest piece for his station, so he ran it by his boss when he returned to Chicago. Soon Faw returned to La Farge with a cameraman and started conducting interviews and shooting footage of the Valley. A one-day stay turned into two and more footage was shot for the piece. The CBS national desk heard about the story of the Kickapoo dam at La Farge and it was scheduled for the big show to be broadcast nationwide. Local residents Bernice Schroeder, Lonnie Muller and Ward Rose were featured in the broadcast segment, telling of the turmoil that the project caused to people living in the Kickapoo Valley.

There was another interview that Faw included on that CBS piece that drew my attention when viewing it recently. Colonel Forrest Gay, the head of the Corps of
Engineer’s district office in St. Paul at that time was interviewed for the television story and he answered a question pertaining to the escalating costs of the La Farge project. The costs for the project had been one of the reasons why the dam project had been stopped. In 1975, Senator Bill Proxmire had cited those escalating costs as to why he had withdrawn his support for the dam at La Farge. Without Proxmire’s support in the U.S. Senate, the project was essentially stopped.

When talking to Colonel Gay, Faw wanted to know why the costs for the La Farge Dam Project had gone up so much. Interestingly, the Corps’ Colonel laid the blame on the State of Wisconsin. He cited the insistence of the Wisconsin DOT on “high quality highways and bridges” for the project area as driving up the costs, and the DNR’s demands for enhanced recreational facilities for the La Farge Lake as another contributing factor. Gay said that those kinds of add-ons, mandated by the state, had helped drive up the cost of the project to more than $55-million. The Colonel’s contribution to the CBS piece is another interesting part of the story about the financial costs for the dam project.

Last time, we began to look at the financial reasons that included those escalating costs, for the stopping of the La Farge Dam Project. Financial, environmental and political are the three general categories of reasons to look at when explaining the stoppage of the project. Previously it had been mentioned that the dam project at La Farge had started as a $14.5-million project when first authorized by Congress in 1962, but had grown to a cost of over $51-million in 1975 when Senator Proxmire withdrew his support. Despite what the Colonel said, some better roads and bridges along with nice bathrooms and picnic areas at some lakeside campsites doesn’t quite explain the difference between $15-million and $50+-million. So, what does?

That man in the movie, you remember him hiding in the shadows of the parking garage, said, “Follow the money”. “Deep Throat” might have had good advice for those Washington Post reporters in the Watergate Scandal, but it is not so easy when following the money in this winding tale about the dam on the Kickapoo. Following the money when looking at the escalating costs of the La Farge Dam Project still might not lead one to a final answer. One problem with the trail of following the money is that the books might have been cooked from the get-go.

When the Corps of Engineers plans for a project like the dam project at La Farge, they have to be careful that the costs of the project do not outweigh the benefits. A benefit/cost (b/c) ratio was used when figuring the financial viability of projects such as the one on the Kickapoo River. In the end, for the project to be justified and more importantly to be authorized by Congress, the benefits for the project have to be financially greater than the costs. The Corps knew about how much the dam project would cost, that is a fixed cost that can be readily arrived at using standard projections. It is important to remember that by keeping actual costs low, the Corps can fit projects within a positive benefit/cost ratio more easily.

The price tag on the benefits for a project like the dam at La Farge is somewhat more elusive to figure. The Corps has to figure in the savings from Kickapoo River flood losses, which would be prevented with the dam being in place. Historic flood cost averages on the Kickapoo have to be used to establish these dollar amounts. Figures have to be developed for flood losses in agriculture as well as damages to houses and businesses in the villages along the Kickapoo. Local government costs for bridge and road damage also have to be included. Obviously, the more flood damages and costs that you can list, which then can become benefits of the dam’s flood control, the better it will be for the b/c ratio of the project.

The same is true with recreational benefits. The more money spent by those folks coming to visit Lake La Farge, the greater the dollar amount for the benefits for the project. If the lake increases the economic base of the Valley, those numbers have to be included into the ratio. The problem with the recreation and tourism dollars is that they are not hard and fast numbers. To arrive at a figure for the dollar value of those benefits, some extrapolations have to be made. Extrapolations are like gazing into a crystal ball; what you see may depend on what you want to see. What you see doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s actually there. There’s a certain amount of hocus-pocus in this whole process of developing a favorable b/c ratio for a dam project like the one at La Farge.

In the late 1950’s, when the Corps was putting the numbers together on the La Farge project, they were having a hard time getting a favorable benefit/cost ratio. For every dollar spent on the project, the Corps had to show a benefit return greater than that dollar cost. If your cost is $1, your benefit must be greater than $1. A b/c ratio of $1.30 to $1 is an excellent one for the project to move ahead, but a ratio of $.80 to $1 will stop it in its tracks. Remember that the benefit return in dollars has to be higher than your cost of construction. In the early planning stages of the dam at La Farge, the Corps was having trouble with getting a favorable b/c ratio for the project.

Part of the problem was the economic reality of the Kickapoo Valley. The region has traditionally been a poor, economically undeveloped area of Wisconsin. We’re not talking Beverly Hills when we look at La Farge and Viola will never be mistaken for Bel Air. There had not been any mansions washed away with the Kickapoo floods, which is too bad. Mansions washed away in Kickapoo floodwaters would have meant higher figures when calculating damage costs. The more property that was lost or damaged in Kickapoo floods meant better numbers for that b/c ratio because those flood costs turn into benefits when the dam prevents the damage from happening. But the Kickapoo Valley was a relatively poor region, so the flood damage numbers didn’t add up as well as other flooded places might. It’s easier to build dams for richer areas and communities than the Kickapoo Valley.

Remember that the Corp’s Kickapoo Valley project, with a dam at La Farge and levees at Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills, was strictly a flood-control project at its inception. The levees for those two down-river villages were added to the project by the Corps to enhance the flood damage numbers. By adding the levees, the flood damage benefit numbers for the two villages could be added to the total to enhance the b/c ratio.

So if the dollar benefits for the flood prevention of the dam and levees did not exceed the costs for building those structures, the Corps had a problem on its hands. To get a better b/c ratio, the Corp’s planners had to bring in some more benefits to exceed the cost of the construction of the dam and levees. The benefits to be added to the ratio came in the form of recreation and tourism.

Recreation was an easy addition to such a project as the dam at La Farge. Besides providing flood protection, dams back up water that can be used by people for recreational purposes. Fishing and boating is a natural set of recreational activities in such a water reservoir. With a little work along the shores of the reservoir, swimming, picnicking and camping can be added as well. You need people to come to the water, so the Corps calculated usage from local people in the area of western Wisconsin. That number of people would be your base group because they would have little distance to travel. By expanding the distance traveled to places like Minneapolis, Dubuque, Rockford, Madison and Chicago, the Corps could add more dollars to the recreational benefits and make the La Farge project more feasible. The more people that could be projected to come to La Farge to recreate in the waters behind the dam and spend some money locally in the process, the better for the Corps’ plans. By adding these recreational benefits to the dam project at La Farge, the b/c ratio changed to a greater amount of benefits received than the money spent on construction of the dam. The ratio was tight, but by 1960, the Corps was ready to go to Congress for money to build.

The 1960 Census threw a monkey wrench in the dam work plans. When the census was released, it showed that most of western Wisconsin had decreased in population from the previous census. The village of La Farge as an example had lost seventy-two people from the 1950 census, while the Town of Stark, where the dam and reservoir would be located had lost 197 in the ten-year period. The numbers were the same for most of the rest of the Kickapoo Valley, Vernon and Crawford Counties and most of the surrounding area. Less people in that area meant less people to recreate on the waters above the La Farge dam. That base group for potential recreation dollars spent on the reservoir at La Farge had shrunk with the new population numbers. Due to the shrinking local population and its potential recreational dollars, the benefit/cost ratio of the dam project was off kilter again, with the costs greater than the benefits. (The decrease in the population in the Kickapoo Valley also affected the flood protection benefits. Less people in the Valley meant less potential loss from floods, which adversely affected the ratio.) The Corps had to come up with some new numbers to make the project go.

With new calculations for the lower populations numbers so greatly affecting the b/c ratio, the Corps’ planners looked to cut on the costs side. Previously, the development of the four recreation areas that were to be around the lake was a cost figured for the federal government to pay. Another part of the costs originally to be assumed by the federal government of the 1962 project was expenses incurred to relocate roads and utilities around the reservoir. The section of Highway 131, which ran along the Kickapoo River from La Farge to Rockton, would have to be relocated to the east of the reservoir. Vernon County Highway P and roads in the Town of Stark would also need to be moved with the expense picked up by the federal government. As the 1961 deadline for submitting the project for authorization by Congress approached, that all changed. A positive b/c ratio had to be found and that could be accomplished if the Corps dropped the federal costs of recreational development and road and utility relocation from the formula. When the project was announced in late 1961 and then authorized a year later, a positive b/c ratio of $1.2 to $1 had been achieved for the La Farge Dam Project. However, those costs did not go away. Somebody had to pay for those aspects of the project and that burden would fall upon the state and local governments. Which was a problem for the State of Wisconsin DOT, Vernon County, the Town of Stark and the Village of La Farge. Suddenly this long-awaited federal flood control project was not coming cheap.