In 1908, the State of Wisconsin published a book titled, The Water Power of Wisconsin. The book was written by Leonard S. Smith, a civil engineer and was published as part of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey that was being conducted at the time. The state-funded survey was used to assess where Wisconsin was at the time in regards to water power availability and use, which was an offshoot of the geology and natural history study. The book was divided up into various chapters based on the different geographic regions of the state. In the chapter covering southwest Wisconsin or the Driftless Area, a listing of the dams and their water power capacity on the Kickapoo River were charted. The dam at La Farge was listed as the largest capacity power producer on the Kickapoo. Harnessing the power of the waters of the Kickapoo River near La Farge had been a constant goal as settlement began in the northern part of the Valley.
When white settlement first came to the northern Kickapoo Valley in the late 1840’s, the availability of the rushing waters of the river was a prime inducement for the development of dam sites for creation of water power. Isaac Lawton built the first dam in the area of what would eventually become La Farge in 1848. Lawton was a lumberman from the state of New York and came west to the brand new state of Wisconsin located between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. Lawton used the Great Lakes to get to Wisconsin and he and his large family settled in the Genesee area in Waukesha County. He worked in and co-owned a lumber operation there for a few years before moving to the western part of the state and the Kickapoo Valley.
Isaac Lawton found some desirable land along the Kickapoo River in what today is section 31 of the Town of Stark. He was looking for a site to dam up the river and operate a sawmill. After hiking down to Mineral Point to make his claim and pay his fee to the government for the land, Isaac and some of his oldest sons cleared his newly acquired land and built a cabin. When that was done, he brought his wife and the rest of the children west from Genesee to live in their new home. Lawton constructed a brush and log dam on the river where it turned west, installed an “up and down” saw and started milling out lumber. He and his sons were some of the first in the Valley to raft the lumber down the Kickapoo and out to Midwestern markets. It was said that a selling price of $7 for the raft of lumber made for a profitable venture in those early days of lumbering on the Kickapoo.
Isaac Lawton would eventually turn the lumber rafting over to his sons and son-in-laws, as they would operate sawmills in many different locations on the Kickapoo River and its tributaries over the years. (Indeed, we could call Isaac Lawton the “Father of Lumbering in the Kickapoo”, but that is another story to tell at another time.) After a few years, the dam located on the Isaac Lawton place was removed. The next dam built in the immediate La Farge area was a product of the efforts of Thomas DeJean.
Thomas DeJean, who could be dubbed “The Father of La Farge”, came to the Kickapoo Valley in 1853 and claimed land along the river just to the north of Isaac Lawton. By 1855, DeJean and his adopted son, Anson, were clearing their land along the Kickapoo River. At the mouth of Bear Creek, the DeJeans established a brush and log dam for a sawmill operation on the creek in 1857. The location of the DeJean dam was unfortunate as it was nearly impossible to float the logs on the river to the mill for sawing. Eventually, Thomas and Anson DeJean built a gristmill upstream on Bear Creek to better utilize the waters from their dam and that gristmill business was a success for many years. Anson DeJean stayed active in the lumbering business and he owned vast tracts of land in the area for the harvesting of trees for lumber. He and his crews would use another dam and sawmill built upstream a couple of miles from the DeJean dam, for it would be Dempster Seely who would build the dam that would eventually become the largest in the Valley.
In 1863, Dempster Seely, another transplanted New Yorker, purchased land from John Anderson that contained a section of the Kickapoo River with a strong flow as it dropped to the west and then south. Anderson, originally a Scotsman from Glasgow, had come to the Kickapoo Valley in the 1840’s and worked on the first lumber crews, felling trees and rafting the lumber down the river. He eventually grew too old for that vigorous work and retired to his farm overlooking the river, where he established an apiary and made sweet honey for sale.
Seely, who had earlier operated successful sawmills in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, built a house and a large barn on his Kickapoo Valley property with lumber sawn at his mill. Soon he was employing crews of men to harvest lumber for his milling operation, which utilized a circular saw. Chauncey Lawton, a son of Isaac, operated a general store and law practice nearby and soon plotted the growing river town as Star. Because nearly everyone worked for Dempster Seely in his expanding lumber operation (they were known as “Seely Men”), the place came to be known as Seelyburg. Those were boom times for Dempster Seely’s business and by 1870 the mill had added planing and shingle milling capabilities.
To provide adequate water power for all of these milling operations, Dempster Seely enlarged his dam on several occasions. He replaced the original brush and log dam with a larger dam made with logs and plank to create more headwater for the milling operations. Eventually, Seely and his son Charles would expand the milling business to include a gristmill, which required more water power. The Seely’s moved the dam downriver and anchored it to a sandstone rock wall on the north side. Here at the new dam site the flow of the river narrowed and turned to the southwest. The new dam required a more sturdy timber and plank construction to harness the river’s water power. This was the dam that was in place when the state survey was done and the water power book published in 1908.
In that book on page 167 in the section, Water Powers of the Kickapoo River, the dam at La Farge was described as, “The La Farge Milling Company maintains an 8 foot dam built on natural rock foundation. Three turbines 56, 40, and 35 inches in diameter rated at 160 horsepower are used in the day time to run a flour mill, and during the night to run a local light plant. The owners report that they can count on only 125 horsepower.” Other dams on the Kickapoo River were listed at Gays Mills, Soldiers Grove, Readstown, Viola, Rockton, and Ontario and north of Ontario. With its 160 horsepower capacity, the La Farge dam exceeded all others in the Valley.
By the time the state report on water power was written, Charles Seely was a minority owner of his father’s dam and mill operation. When the light plant was begun in 1904, a group of investors bought Seely’s La Farge operation, closed down the lumber mill, increased the capacity of the grist mill, improved the timber dam and installed additional power turbines for the light plant. Most of the investors in the La Farge dam and mill were from Soldiers Grove and included the Wisconsin governor at the time, James Davidson. With the influx of investment money, the La Farge dam, mill and power plant was a state of the art operation serving a thriving modern community.