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.