Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Strange Political Bedfellows

Whenever I am giving a talk or leading a history hike about the La Farge Dam Project (which usually occurs at least several times a year in my capacity as unofficial historian for the Kickapoo Valley Reserve), a question that invariably comes up will relate to why the project was stopped. What were the reasons for stopping the project when it was nearly three-quarters completed? I have a pat answer, which I use in my presentations, that there were three general causes for the stoppage of the project in 1975 – financial, environmental and political. Looking at the politics of the failed dam project is an amazing gaze in many ways, rather murky on the surface at times, but it is a look that can become much clearer when viewed with some historical perspective.

A project of the magnitude of the La Farge Dam Project as designed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers can only become a reality through political sponsorship in both houses of Congress and the endorsement of the governor of Wisconsin. These kinds of massive public works projects only happen when congressmen and senators at the national level and the chief executive of the home state where the project is located “sign on” with their approval and political endorsements. Congressman Gardner Withrow was the politician who made the La Farge project happen.

Withrow, from La Crosse, made flood control for the Kickapoo Valley one of his political priorities in 1935, when the project was initially envisioned after the great Kickapoo River flood of that summer. The Kickapoo Valley was part of Withrow’s congressional district (then called the 7th District of Wisconsin) and he soon had Congress authorize studies for the river system and its flooding problems. These studies, conducted over several years by the Army Department’s Corp of Engineers and the forestry and soil conservation branches of the Agriculture Department, yielded a plan that included a dam and levees to protect the villages of the Kickapoo Valley. When the first plan was released in 1940, which included a proposed dam at Rockton and a levee for the village of Gays Mills, Withrow was no longer in Congress. As the Progressive Party candidate, Withrow had been defeated in the congressional election of 1938 and would remain out of national politics for a decade.

Reelected to Congress in 1948 as a member of the Republican Party to represent Wisconsin’s 3rd District, Gardner Withrow once again championed flood control efforts for the people of the Kickapoo Valley. Working closely with leaders from the Village of La Farge, Withrow organized meetings with the Corps of Engineers officers from the Corp’s regional office in St. Paul. His efforts would continue for more than a decade until finally in 1961, the Corps released another plan for flood control of the Kickapoo River. The new plan called for a dam to be built north of La Farge and levees for the downriver villages of Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills. When Congress authorized the spending bill that included the La Farge Dam Project in October of 1962, Withrow was nearing the end of his political career. He retired from Congress at the end of that session, deciding not to seek another term in the November election. Vernon Thomson, a Richland Center Republican, who would take up the task of sheparding the Kickapoo River project to its conclusion, replaced him in the 3rd District congressional seat.

In the U.S. Senate, Senator Alexander Wiley had championed the Kickapoo River project for many years. Wiley, a Republican and the senior senator from Wisconsin (Democrat William Proxmire was Wisconsin’s other U.S. Senator at the time, having been first elected in 1957 to fill out the term after the death of Joseph McCarthy), would also be ending his time in Congress in the fall of 1962, but not by his own choice. Wiley had been a Wisconsin Senator since 1939 and was an influential member of several committees including the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. When the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out in October of 1962, Wiley remained in Washington, hoping to be seen as a key figure in the foreign relations nightmare, and did little active campaigning in his home state. It was not a wise political move on his part, as his opponent, Wisconsin’s popular Governor Gaylord Nelson, carried the day in the November election and ousted Wiley from his Senate seat.

In a remarkable few weeks for the Kickapoo Valley, the appropriation bill for the La Farge Dam Project passed Congress in October of 1962, and a few weeks later, the political leaders who had championed the project, Gardner Withrow and Alexander Wiley, were out of office. In Washington D.C., that left the project’s fate in the hands of Thomson, the new 3rd District Congressman, and Nelson and Proxmire, the state’s senators. How these three politicians, a Republican and two Democrats, would come together in the nation’s capital at that particular time is an interesting story of Badger state politics.

The saying that goes, “Politics makes strange bedfellows” would certainly fit as Vernon Thomson, Gaylord Nelson and William Proxmire settled into their Congressional seats in January of 1963. For the three to work together on the La Farge Dam Project might have been doomed from the start if one looks at their previous political connections to one another. Those connections, mostly adversarial, go back to the 1950’s and center on the gubernatorial elections of that decade.

William Proxmire is remembered locally as the man who stopped the La Farge Dam Project in 1975. By many he is seen as the biggest political villain in the dam story, perhaps unfairly cast in that role by the infamous and hilarious “Proxie Funeral” that took place in La Farge a few months after his announcement to pull the plug on the dam. Many remember that the Wisconsin Senator served for thirty-two years in the U.S. Senate, finally retiring in 1989. Few realize that Proxmire was a three-time loser in Wisconsin elections for governor, losing gubernatorial races as a Democrat in 1952, ’54 and ’56. In the 1956 election for governor, Proxmire lost to a long time assemblyman from Richland County, Vernon Thomson. A year later, Proxmire would finally win a statewide election in the special election called to fill Joe McCarthy’s seat. The following year in 1958, Proxmire would be elected to his own six-year term as Wisconsin’s Senator.

Vernon Thomson served as Wisconsin’s Governor for one term from 1957 to 1959 (The governor’s term was for two-years at that time.), but was defeated in 1958 in his bid for reelection for governor by Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic State Senator from Clear Lake. Nelson, a staunch conservationist (the term environmentalist wasn’t used yet in those days), was reelected as governor in 1960. While running for the state’s highest office in that election campaign of 1960, he visited La Farge and expressed his support for the La Farge flood control project. In 1962, when Congress authorized the La Farge project, Governor Nelson gave his endorsement to the project (although he would say later that his endorsement was given guardedly and perhaps too quickly as he was leaving his position as governor, campaigning for Alexander Wiley’s U.S. Senate position and preparing for his move to Washington D.C. to take his Senate seat). In that same election, Thomson became the new 3rd District Congressman, replacing the long-time representative, Gardner Withrow.

And so there they were in Washington D. C. together, Thomson, Nelson and Proxmire – names that would become all too familiar around La Farge for the next decade and a half. The three had been winners in those previous races for governor (Thomson and Nelson), but losers as well (Proxmire and Thomson). During those campaigns, they all must have had some familiarity with the La Farge project. Could any of them imagine how familiar the project would become to them all in the upcoming years?