Friday, June 29, 2012

Dam The Water

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.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Waiting For The Waters - 1972

In 1972, the community of La Farge was in a state of transition as work on the Corps of Engineers’ La Farge Lake and Dam Project continued through the year.  Most of the land needed for the project, located north of La Farge to the Rockton area and beyond, had been purchased by the government agency by that time.  The families who had lived on those farms and in those homes were dispersed.  Some of those people remained in the La Farge area; many did not. 
There seemed to be a constant process of farm auctions stretching up the Kickapoo Valley as the people were displaced from their former homes.  Some of the previous owners rented their own homes back from the Corps on a short-term basis while looking for another place to call home.  Once the people were gone, the Corps listed the buildings on the vacated properties for sale to the highest bidder.  The pieces of the former farmsteads could be moved or razed; it didn’t really matter to the Corps, which simply wanted the land emptied of signs of human occupation.  The Corps continued the lease of agricultural fields on the project lands that summer and many former owners rented their fields back for growing crops of corn and harvesting cuttings of hay.
In the village of La Farge, the changes were also apparent as the town prepared for the coming of the waters of Lake La Farge.  In February, the new La Farge United Methodist Church had been dedicated and consecrated on the site of the previous church.  The old church had been torn down the previous year to make way for the new place of worship.
One block south from the new church, the village’s business district underwent significant changes in 1972.  Perhaps anticipating the affects of the dam project on the town, several new businesses opened in La Farge.  David Mick began a Mutual Services insurance agency that summer with offices over his father’s grocery store on the east end of the business district.  Kickapoo Gifts, a new gift shop featuring work by local artists, opened in the former grocery store building owned by Dick Gabrielson.  Colleen Sullivan operated the shop, which had hundreds of visitors on its first weekend of business.  Don Potter opened a new realty office in town to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding recreational real estate market.  Markee Soft Water, operated by Dick Heckart, opened a business in La Farge that summer as did Bobby Kennedy with his new carpet installation and cleaning service.  In addition to new business operations, several long time La Farge businesses saw changes that year.
A new lawyer came to town that summer as Phil Stittleburg, fresh out of UW Law School, bought Ralph Freeze’s law business and moved into the offices on south State Street on June 1.  Freeze had practiced law in La Farge for forty years, having bought the practice from Alva Drew.  By fall, Ralph and his wife Isabelle had left the village to retire in Arizona.
Russell Schroer bought the H & D Lumber sawmill operation in the summer of 1972.  Schroer bought the mill from Clair Russell, who stayed on with the business to buy logs for the new operation known as Schroer Hardwood Lumber Company.  Lee Hiles and Russell Davison had started the H & D lumber mill in 1953.  The Schroer family with two little girls came from Stevens Point and moved into a new mobile home placed on the west end of the Sherrill Huston trailer park next to the sawmill.
One of La Farge’s two remaining grocery stores changed hands in the summer of 1972 when Orval Howard purchased the Cash Store from Toby Funnell and Elmer Huffland.  Orval, with his wife Jan and two young sons, moved back to his hometown and the new grocery store was named Howard’s Village Market.
Lonnie Muller, needing to devote more time to his fledgling newspaper business (the Epitaph), sold his cable television system to Numsen Master Antenna Systems out of La Crosse.  The new cable owners soon upgraded the La Farge antenna system and expanded TV channel offerings to its customers.  More TV choices also meant a higher cost for cable subscribers in La Farge.  Those weren’t the only bills going up in La Farge though.  Vernon Telephone phased out the old party-line phone numbers that summer, and the new single-party system came with a higher price tag each month.  Earlier in the year, water and electricity rates increased in the village as the La Farge Utility Company petitioned for and received the approval to raise its rates. 
In August, the cheese factory business in La Farge changed hands as Warner Creek Cheese Factory owned by Jarry Glick of Hillsboro purchased the operation from Durward and Ethel Burt.  The new owners, who had run the cheese factory near Valley for thirty years added a Grade A market for La Farge area dairy farmers to access, while also keeping the cheese making operations going.  Richard Glick became the manager of the La Farge plant and plans were made to add a retail cheese store to the operation, which was up and running by the end of the year.  Richard, his wife and two little girls moved into the apartment above the cheese factory.
   By the next month, construction had begun on La Farge’s newest business – a motel.  Dick and Bea Gabrielson, with Gary Hall Realty of Viroqua as general contractor, built the new motel one half block south of Main Street just across the street and to the west of the La Farge Enterprise building.  Some delays in construction of the new motel were caused when flowing wells on the property proved difficult to cap, but by early November the new building, which featured a residence for the owners and ten motel units was nearing completion.
The motel became the second new commercial building on Main Street as Cecil Rolfe had opened his new facility for making cabinets earlier that spring.  Rolfe’s Cabinet Shop, a 24’ x 60’ cement block building, was located a block to the west of the new motel on the north side of Main Street between the Ed Muller & Sons Construction property and the welding shop.
Old buildings in La Farge came down that fall as well.  The building that had housed Casey Sanford’s Clothing Store on Main Street was torn down in October.  The 24’ x 40’store building located next to the Band Box Cafe was taken down by Pete and Robert Fish of Bloomingdale.  More demolition was happening less than a block away as the old Odd Fellows Hall, long a fixture in the village on the corner of Bird and Penn Streets was also being torn down.  The new Methodist Church, needing additional parking for their expanding congregation, purchased the old lodge building, located across the street from the new church.  Arnie Widstrand and his children took down the old 24’ x 44’ hall after an auction was held to sell off the old lodge furnishings.
But 1972 was a time for looking forward in La Farge instead of back to the past.  The dam project pointed towards the future.  In August, LaCrosse Concrete Company leased two lots from Art Nelson across Mill Street from Nuzum’s.  The company soon set up a concrete plant on the site to provide cement for the construction beginning on the dam project.  Art Nelson’s dump trucks were busy bringing in sand from Oxford, Wisconsin and crushed rock from Elroy to the La Farge cement plant site.  By November the first cement was poured at the dam site for the construction of the dam’s water intake tower.
Soon the waters of Lake La Farge would be lapping along the shores of the Kickapoo Valley as the community made plans for the future.