Monday, April 30, 2012

Pearls of Wisdom

Recently, I read an entertaining article in the Spring-2012 issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, which is published by the Wisconsin Historical Society.  The article, written by George Johnson, was titled, “The American Pearl Rush – Its Wisconsin Beginnings”.  Johnson writes about the pearl rush that began in this country during the Gilded Age of the 1890’s and how its origins were spurred by the beautiful pearls first found in the Sugar River near the small Wisconsin town of Albany.  The craze and search for pearls then spread to other waters in southern Wisconsin such as the Pecatonica and Rock Rivers and Lakes Monona and Mendota.  As the demand and prices for Wisconsin pearls grew, the hunt expanded to the waters of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.  As I was reading this fascinating account, I started to wonder if the pearl craze had ever reached the Kickapoo Valley.
            Since most crazes and fads eventually settle into these parts and La Farge and the upper Kickapoo are as susceptible as anywhere for getting in on the latest action for making a quick buck or two, (the Bear Creek Gold Mine is a great local example of this get-rich-quick phenomena) I assumed some pearling has been done on our local river and tributary creeks.  That led me to thinking about the Kickapoo Pearls, those wonderful tabloids of local lore and legend published in 1979 as part of the Kickapoo Valley History Project.  As it turns out, the name of the newspaper published by the history project was derived from a beautiful cluster pearl found in the Kickapoo River.  A drawing of that famous pearl always appeared at the top of the cover page and again on the masthead of each of the Kickapoo Pearls publications.
            In the initial Kickapoo Pearls published in June 1979, reference is made to the magnificent pearl found in the Kickapoo.  In the lead article of that issue found on page 2, the cluster pearl, which is on a ring, looks like three shiny white pearls and is the size of a quarter carat diamond. Barbara Larson Wentz, who owned the pearl ring, related this story about the pearl’s past, “My great aunt lived in Soldiers Grove and was married to John Stelzman who ran a store with Ole Davidson.  My Uncle John got the pearl from a man around there and it was supposed to have been found in the Kickapoo River. Uncle John gave it to my Aunt Hattie in a ring.”  The article goes on to discuss how the famous pearl ring and its history passed through the family and concludes with, “The story that was always told was that it came from the Kickapoo”.
            The article on the Kickapoo pearl then goes on to relate a story told by a La Farge man in an oral history interview done as part of the history project.  It reads, “Fred Morgan of La Farge doesn’t remember pearls on the Kickapoo but he does remember the clams.  They were maybe four to six inches long, he says, and he and his cousin used to have a good time getting them.  They made a boat and they’d put it in the river and let it drift maybe two or three river miles in a day.  They drug a mesh of wire along the bottom of the river and some days they had quite a few clams raked up.  Fred remembers that he never ate many of those clams but his cousin did and as far as he knows his cousin never found any pearls in his supper.”
            Of course, when one reads about the clamming done by the Morgan cousins, you are reminded that the harvesting of clams was also a result of the pearl craze.  Initially those in the search for the prized pearls discarded the clamshells.  This waste was documented in George Johnson’s article as mounds of discarded and decaying clamshells littered the shores of the Sugar River and other streams.  Perhaps seizing on the waste of the shells in the pearling process, an ancillary business was developed where the luminescent nacre of the clamshells were used for the making of buttons.  Markets for Kickapoo clamshells were soon realized as a button factory was established at Richland Center and Prairie du Chien became a center for the clamming industry.  One can imagine the Morgan boys plying the shallows of the Pine River for clamshells to sell in Richland Center before the family moved to La Farge.  Later when they clammed on the Kickapoo, the boys could sell their shells to buyers who made regular pickups along the Valley’s railway line.  
            Fred Morgan is one of the main contributors to that first edition of the Kickapoo Pearls.  Later in the newspaper there is a featured seven-page article on the Kickapoo Valley Railroad.  Morgan, who came from a family of railroad workers, was the main source for much of the material in the articles.  The lead story called “Working on the Railroad” featured Fred Morgan’s recollections of the old Kickapoo railroad from the time in 1911 when the family first came to live in La Farge when his father took a job as a section hand on the railroad.  Fred’s father was killed in 1914 when he drowned while working on clearing flood trash from the railroad bridge south of La Farge near the tunnel. 
Later both Fred and his brother went to work for the Kickapoo line.  Both of the brothers and their cousin worked with the railroad right up to the end when it was taken out in 1939.  In another section of the railroading article, Fred told about the experience of working on the railroad including the bathing rituals in the Kickapoo for the railroad workers.  Morgan related about those earlier days, “After I got big enough to work on the railroad I worked in the summer and then, in the fall, I’d get laid off.  Then my brother got on as section foreman.  Well, I worked steady for him - me and my cousin both.  We worked an eight-hour day and we got $49.92 every two weeks.
“On Saturdays we’d only work half a day and all of us on the section crew quit at noon, see.  And we come down here by the second railroad bridge out of La Farge, my brothers, my cousin and all of us, and we’d strip off and get out in that water.  Always had some soap along and we’d take a bath.  Ted Fields was along, too, but he wouldn’t go swimming.
‘Come on Ted, take a bath’, we’d say.  ‘Aw, naw,’ he’d say, ‘I haven’t taken a bath in so long I don’t want to get that water dirty before it gets run into Violey’.
“He was a comical old guy, anyway.  But every Saturday we took ourselves a splash.  Where we went swimming, that was the same place my Dad drowned.  I used to think about that when I was down there in that water.”
            When the history project started looking for people to interview about the old Kickapoo railroad, Morris Moon, long time Vernon County Sheriff and Clerk of Court said, “If you’re interested in stories about the old Kickapoo railroad, go talk to Fred Morgan of La Farge”.  At the time that Morgan was interviewed as part of the oral history project, Morgan and his wife lived in a little white house on the north end of La Farge.  It was in a part of town where the train tracks used to be close by and many of the railroad workers and their families lived.  So many of the Morgan family lived in that section of little houses that it was often referred to as “Morgantown”.
            When they built the new baseball park next to the schoolhouse in 1937, Fred’s little house was right across Mill Street from the new field.  Being an avid ball fan, Fred went to many ball games across the street from his house.  Around the time that Fred was interviewed for the local history project in the late 1970’s, softball was flourishing in La Farge.  Every Tuesday and Thursday night when the men’s league played, Fred (who also went by the nickname of “Jap”) could be found sitting in the lower seats between the dugout and grandstand along the first base line.  He would join Gordon Waddell, Ray Young, Boob Sandmire and others who sat in that section to watch the ballgames, cheer on the proceedings and offer free advice and concern to the teams playing. 
As he watched those ball games on warm summer evenings, Fred could gaze out beyond right field and see the Kickapoo River beyond the highway and perhaps remember some of the pearls of his life spent around that old stream.
If you would like to contribute to this little history project on a Kickapoo River town, contact me at or P.O. Box 202, La Farge 54639.  Working together we can continue to tell the story of La Farge.
If you are interested in getting a copy of the Kickapoo Pearls, a republication of these gems of local history is available for sale at the Visitor Center gift shop at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  Published in 2009 by the Friends of the Reserve, this Kickapoo Pearls Rediscovered edition includes all of the original four-plus volumes of the Pearls plus a foreword and prologue by Dail Murray and Dana Strobel Van Hoesen, who both worked on the original project.  If you cannot drop into the Reserve for your copy of this classic collection of local history, call 608 625-2960 or check the Reserve’s website for more information.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


So, did you know that a lad from La Farge once coached his high school boys’ basketball team to a state championship? Well, neither did I, and I have been going to every WIAA boy’s basketball state tournament for over fifty years. But if you get out your state tournament program and open it to the front where the state championship games are listed (that’s page nine in this years program) and go to the year 1944, you will see that Waukesha defeated Eau Claire by a score of 23-18 in the championship game that year. Lee Saubert, who was a La Farge boy, graduate of La Farge High School, Class of 1912, coached the Waukesha Blackshirts.

The only reason that I found out about this basketball revelation was because Virginia Evans sent me a newspaper clipping that she received from an old friend who lived in Waukesha. The clipping from the Waukesha Freeman was in reference to Coach Lee Saubert being one of the initial inductees into the Waukesha South High School Coach’s Wall of Fame in ceremonies held on February 7. The Freeman article written by Daniel Mike went on to include many quotes from former players of Coach Saubert and listed many of the coach’s achievements. Those included over 900 victories by Saubert-coached teams at Waukesha in football, basketball, swimming, golf and track. Saubert’s teams won six football conference championships and four basketball titles as well as a state championship in both sports. He coached at Waukesha from 1920 until 1953 and then served as the school’s athletic director until his retirement in 1963. In his article, Daniel Mike added, “Saubert was a three-sport athlete during high school at La Farge, earning eight varsity letters in football, basketball and baseball. He received a teaching degree from La Crosse State Normal School in 1920.”

I wanted to know more about Coach Saubert. Having attended every WIAA boy’s state basketball tournament for the past fifty-two years and been a basketball coach at LHS for a number of years, my interest was naturally piqued. So I started to do some research on the man.

Lee Pearl Saubert was born on January 17, 1893 on the family farm in the area known as Tunnelville located south of La Farge. His parents were John and Sarah Saubert and he had an older brother, John. Growing up in the Kickapoo Valley he went by the name of “Pearlie” and all references to him in the local newspapers were always as Pearlie and never as Lee.

Pearlie went to grade school at Tunnelville, where his first teacher was Grace Tuttle. Eventually, his folks rented out their farm and moved to La Farge. In the 1910 La Farge census (conducted by Ray Calhoon of local baseball fame), the Saubert family was living on State Street in the village. At LHS, Pearlie was in a small class, which only graduated five students in May of 1912. His classmates included Anna and Howard McLin, Eber Houston, and Emory Thayer. In my research, I focused on that senior school year of Pearlie’s to see what he had been doing in his final year at LHS.

In September of 1911, Pearlie was playing on the La Farge High School baseball team. The school did not field a football team that fall, but did have earlier teams that Pearlie probably played on as an underclassman. In that fall baseball season of Pearlie’s senior year, he enjoyed success for the LHS nine. In a win over Viroqua, Pearlie pitched a one-hitter for La Farge. Although that LHS team lost more games than it won, Pearlie was one of the leading players on the team. He was also elected secretary of his school class that fall. In November, he read an essay at the LHS Literary Society Program held at the Opera House.

The boys at LHS were all ready to begin the basketball season in December when the principal (who would become immensely unpopular by the end of his tenure at LHS by the following May – but that’s a whole other story to tell at a different time) discontinued the sport at the school “for several reasons”. There was a town basketball team of sorts organized that same month and I imagine Pearlie played on that team.

Principal Schroeder left the spring baseball season at LHS alone and Pearlie was back on the diamond. In a game against Hillsboro, Pearlie was the winning pitcher, went three for five at the plate and scored three runs. He also was busy in other activities at school and participated in the choral reading for the LHS German Circle in April. Pearlie had a lead role in the Senior Play, “A Daughter of The Desert”, performed before a large crowd at the Opera House in May. After graduating from high school later that month, Pearlie played baseball for the La Farge town team, which was no mean accomplishment.

In 1912, La Farge’s town baseball team, managed as a corporate entity by the businessmen of the village, was loaded with talent from near and far. Some of the players on La Farge’s town team were paid for their services. Pearlie was on the team for most of the summer and pitched the team to many wins. One game of interest that season occurred in their opener played in early June when the La Crosse Normal team, where Pearlie would be headed to attend in the fall, came to La Farge to play an exhibition game. Playing on the La Crosse Normal team were former LHS grads Jean Rolfe, Chester Newlun, Hallie Roberts and Carson Hatfield. The Normal team prevailed by a score of 5-3. The La Farge town team went on to a superb season that culminated in the claim of a state title (but that’s another one of those other stories to be told later).

In September, Pearlie joined five others from La Farge to attend La Crosse Normal School. He was soon playing for the Normal teams there and played on the La Crosse baseball team each season. He was a crafty college player, but being small in stature - he only weighed 135 pounds, he was described as, “Short on size, but long on desire”. World War I interrupted Pearlie’s college days and he spent several years in the country’s military service. After the war was over, Pearlie returned to La Crosse and graduated from the Normal School in 1919. He taught one year in West Salem before taking the physical instructor and coaching job at Waukesha High School in the fall of 1920.

Coach Saubert soon had success at his new school as the 1923 Blackshirt football team went undefeated and beat a strong La Crosse team by a score of 14-13 to claim a mythical state championship. It’s somewhat ironic that Saubert won a state title while coaching basketball. Waukesha did not participate in the WIAA post-season state tourney series from 1928 through 1942, mainly because Coach Saubert felt the WIAA tourney series was too strenuous, playing games on back to back to back nights, and took away from school time. Perhaps because the WIAA’s basketball tournament was greatly scaled back during the years of World War II, Waukesha was back in the tourney series in 1943, when the state tournament was only a one-day affair. The Blackshirts didn’t qualify for state that year, but did make it to Madison in 1944.

In the run-up games to state in 1944, Waukesha disposed of 1942 state champ and Milwaukee Suburban Conference rival Shorewood and then beat 1943 state champ Racine Park by a score of 30-27 in the sectional finals. In the two-day 1944 state tourney played at the UW Field House, Waukesha beat Tomah by a score of 28-13 in the opening semi-final game played before a crowd of 2,976. Using Coach Saubert’s trademark zone defense, the Blackshirts limited Tomah to 3 for 23 shooting from the field for the game. In the other semi-final game, the Ole Abes from Eau Claire defeated New London 36-23. Coach Saubert’s zone defense again dominated in the championship game played the next day. Despite making only 2 of 31 shots in the first half of the championship game, Waukesha only trailed the Old Abes by a score of 6-5 at half. The Blackshirts tight zone continued to thwart Eau Claire in the second half and when the Old Abes all-state center fouled out of the game in the third quarter, the tide turned to Waukesha. Coach Saubert’s all senior team increased their lead in the last quarter to win by five.

Although the Waukesha coach enjoyed the state title, he held other team qualities in high regard as well. In an interview with the Milwaukee Sentinel conducted before the WIAA tournament play started that year, Coach Saubert, when asked about Waukesha’s chances, said, “I don’t know what we’ll do, but I’ll tell you what they have done. Nine of the first ten are either A or B students and two of them have straight-A averages. That’s playing in a pretty fast league, too.”

Waukesha had another fine basketball team in 1945 and returned to Madison for an expanded eight-team, three-day state tourney. The Blackshirts won their opening game at state that year, but then lost to tiny Lena in the semi-final game before capturing the consolation game trophy on the last day of the tourney.

When Lee Saubert retired in 1960, after forty years of coaching, Milwaukee Sentinel sports writer Lloyd Larson wrote a long tribute column to the Waukesha coach. He mentioned that Saubert had been a founding member of the group of coaches that created the Suburban Conference in 1924. Later he helped plan and design the Waukesha Field House, then one of the finest athletic facilities in the Milwaukee area. Larson thought Saubert’s greatest achievement might have been the creation and leadership in running the Waukesha Relays, started by Saubert in 1934, which was considered the premier high school track meet in southeast Wisconsin.

Coach Saubert was not without his flaws. He was known in the Milwaukee Suburban Conference as, “The man who never smiles”. Larson said of the long-time Blackshirts coach, “He called a spade a spade, with no double talk designed to play both sides of the fence. Everyone with whom he came in contact with knew exactly where he stood and what Lee meant”. Another article said of Saubert, “If he has an opinion to express, he will not pull any punches”. Saubert was notorious for berating basketball referees, to the point that conference rivals thought the Waukesha coach intimidated basketball officials to favor his Blackshirt teams. The Shorewood-Waukesha games were particularly acrimonious and for several years the Shorewood fans led a “Let’s Kick Waukesha Out of The League Crusade” aimed specifically at Coach Saubert.

But Coach Saubert’s players saw a different side of the man. One player said of Saubert, “He was a no-nonsense guy, but he had a heart of gold. Away from school he smiled. He was definitely a different guy away from coaching”. Another player said, “He had a terrific sense of humor, he kept us laughing, and he was a very good coach, very likeable”. Another of his former players described Coach Saubert by saying, “I really respected the man. He was quite a guy and a great coach.”

Lee Saubert passed away in 1969, six years after he retired from Waukesha High School, where he worked for forty-three years. The lad from the Kickapoo Valley known as “Pearlie” lies in St. Joseph Cemetery in Waukesha next to his wife Esther and their infant daughter Madeline.