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.