Monday, June 20, 2011

4th of July Festivities in La Farge

Another 4th of July is quickly approaching, a big day each year for the town of La Farge. I don’t know if La Farge’s celebration of Independence Day is the oldest in the area, but the little village on the Kickapoo has feted our nation’s birthday regularly for over 130 years. That would take us back to around 1880, twenty years before there was even a Village of La Farge. But at that time, the folks from Seelyburg, DeJean’s Corners and the Lawton District where the La Farge Post Office was located were gathering on July 4th to celebrate the day.

Many times the gathering for the 4th would take place on the property of Dred Bean, who owned what today is the northwest corner of La Farge. Sometimes the people would gather on his sloping front lawn for the festivities, that lawn today is Bean Park. In the 1880’s, people would gather for patriotic speeches given by politicians or county officials brought in for the day. Races and games would be held for children and adults alike to test their fleetness of foot or strength of arm. The La Farge Cornet Band, already one of the premier musical groups by the 1880’s, would play patriotic music. Perhaps some of the Civil War veterans would don their old military uniforms and caps and play some wartime lilts in the GAR Fife & Drum Band. They might play tunes like “The Girl I Left Behind Me” or “Let’s Rally Round The Flag Boys”.

The Star GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Post of Civil War veterans was established at Seelyburg in 1884. (Star was the official name of the place, but locally it was called Seelyburg after the mill owner who made the place a town.) The gathering of the veterans for a reunion became a yearly activity, which sometimes occurred on the 4th of July. Dred Bean was a charter member of that Star GAR Post and was very active in arranging the reunions of his former comrades in arms. Bean had a sugar maple bush on a hillside on the northern end of his property, which he would have cleared of weeds in the summer months for the veteran’s gatherings and the 4th of July Celebrations. It became known as Bean’s Grove and was a favorite for summertime gatherings like family picnics and the 4th of July celebrations because of its shade and cool breezes.

Mrs. R. E. Wolfgram provides us a wonderful account of one of those early Independence Day Celebrations in Bean’s Grove. Mrs. Wolfgram (nee Myrtle Griffin) wrote historic articles about Seelyburg and La Farge for the Vernon County Broadcaster & Censor and La Crosse Tribune for several decades. As a little girl, she grew up in the Seelyburg area and saw the lumber boomtown at its busiest as well as witnessing the birth of La Farge to the south. In 1974, she wrote an article titled “A Little Girl’s Memories: Seeleyburg’s 4th of July”, which detailed her recollections of those 4th of July festivities held in Bean’s Grove. Although Wolfgram gives no exact dates, the time that she writes would be around 1900 or a little earlier. Her article might be a compilation of several years of memories of the 4th from her youth.

Of course, a girl had to have a special dress for the big day and this little Seelyburg lass had one with “fine valenciennes lace edged the ruffles of the dresses worn with red saches”. She and five of her classmates dressed alike for the day because they were to sing patriotic songs at the celebration. The songs were taught to them by Alice Nixon (Wolfgram called her “Allie”), who taught many children in Seelyburg over the years. The chorus of one of their songs was “Hurrah for the flag, our Country’s flag, with its stripes and bright stars, too. There is no flag in any land like our own red, white and blue”.

The festivities for the 4th began with the shooting of a cannon at dawn. Wolfgram said she could not sleep after the shot and put on her fine white dress and red sash. The family packed a lunch of fried chicken, homemade buns and cakes and a lemon pie. Lemon pie was a special dessert made just for the 4th as the first crates of lemons came to Kickapoo Valley stores around the first of July. A dance bowery was set up in the Grove and around the dance floor were rows of planks nailed to wooden blocks for seating. She remembered a Viroqua politician giving a speech to the gathered crowd and her uncle saying that it was a good day for anyone running in the fall elections to speak to that many people.

Indeed, the crowd was immense for the time, measured in thousands of people and not hundreds. “People had come from South and North Bear Creek, Warner, Otter and Weister Creek, Rockton, Ontario, West Lima, and the Kickapoo towns from Wilton to Wauzeka.”

There was a baseball game played near the grove with young men from La Farge and Viola competing. She remembers the Rittenhouse boys and Ray Calhoon being good players for La Farge and Lee and Lester Griffin playing for Viola. Wolfgram didn’t pay too much attention to the ball game, but instead focused on the music and dancing in the Grove at the bowery. The music went on into the night and continued on even after a little girl from Seelyburg fell asleep under the plank seating and had to be carried home on the shoulder of her father. The last jig from the fiddles would often welcome in July 5th before the music would end.

Wolfgram remembered how her uncle praised Dred Bean for his patriotic spirit for having the celebration held in his Grove. “Mr. Bean was a staunch Democrat. His grove was open to Democratic and Republican groups alike, and for reunions of families. He would not accept a penny for the use of it.” Wolfgram did remember that Bean asked the girls to put a button on their new white dresses of one of his favorite political candidates. “Allie Nixon felt it would not be in good taste.”

Dred Bean passed away in 1913 and the family offered to sell the Grove to the village for a park. There was some anguish over the asking price for the parcel (After all, Bean had never charged a penny for its use!), but eventually a village referendum approved of the purchase. The Grove of Dred Bean was formally dedicated as La Farge’s Village Park on the 4th of July in 1916.

Over the years, structures were built in the park to facilitate the 4th celebrations. Wooden food stands were built to house the church ladies groups that provided the first food for sale at the festivities. Bandstands and speaking platforms were added. A wooden floor for dancing was laid at the bowery each year and larger outdoor bathrooms were installed in the park along the east border. Over the years, a midway of carnival games and sales tents stretched along a path from the north end of the park down the hill towards the school.

After World War II, the newly created VFW Post built a cement bowery for dances and an enclosed food stand next to it. The La Farge Firemen put up a ring toss stand that paid off better than most of the carnival games. Chief Whitehorse sold rattlesnake soap from his wheelchair and put on a remarkable show. A pony ring offered rides for the little ones in the bottom of the park.

The parades continued over the years, leading the crowds up to the “grounds” at the Grove for fun on the 4th. In the early 1970’s, the focus of La Farge’s 4th of July celebrations shifted to Calhoon Park when the Lions Shelter was built there. Softball tournaments, a beer tent, water fights and truck & tractor pulls drew people to the ballpark area and away from the Grove over the years. The bowery deteriorated from nonuse and other than some family picnics, the Village Park was no longer the focus on the 4th of July. Then in the mid-1980’s an effort was made to save the old bowery in the park. A new cement pad was laid to replace the old crumbling concrete and in 1986 a large shelter roof was built over the dance floor. Eventually music returned to the old park bowery on the 4th of July. The village built new bathrooms next to the bowery. The La Farge Lions Club started a free “Music In The Park” program in the Village Park on the 4th of July in 2004. The program, featuring popular area bands playing a variety of music, has grown in popularity and draws crowds back to the park. Crowds of folks once again return to enjoy the shade and cool breezes of Bean’s Grove on the 4th of July.

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