For the next two installments of my history blog, I am presenting an edited version of a presentation that I made at the Wisconsin Book Festival held in Madison during November 2012. My book, THAT DAM HISTORY – The Story of The La Farge Dam Project, was chosen for the book festival as part of a program titled “Loss & Discovery on Wisconsin’s Waterways”. Surprisingly to me, nearly 150 people attended the session when I made this presentation. The theme of the book festival was “Lost & Found” and this talk will focus on a couple of aspects of the dam project that I thought fit into those categories. This entry is from the first part of the talk, where I give some background and a brief history of sorts of the dam project at La Farge. In the next entry, I will get into the lost and found part of the dam project. - BDS
The story of the dam project at La Farge in western Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Valley is one that stretches out over nearly three-quarters of a century. It all began after the great Kickapoo River flood of 1935, when the communities of the valley, led by La Farge, sought help from the federal government for the nearly constant flooding problems of the Kickapoo River. At that time, Congress was formulating a new federal water policy, which included plans on a national scale for providing help from the federal government to areas prone to flooding. When the new water bill was passed in 1936, it included a call for a study of the Kickapoo Valley and its’ flooding to be done by the Army’s Corps of Engineers and the Department of Agriculture. By 1940, preliminary plans were presented from that initial study for the construction of a flood-control dam north of La Farge and levees at the downriver villages of Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills.
In October 1962, Congress passed a bill authorizing the construction of the dam at La Farge and the two downstream levees. After five years of further study by the Corps of Engineers, a larger dam at La Farge with a 1,800-acre lake and thirteen recreation sites around it had become part of the plan and money was authorized to begin purchasing the over 9,000 acres needed to complete the project. In 1968, final plans were released for the Corps’ Kickapoo Valley flood-control project, which still included the downstream levees for Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills and the process to purchase the land needed for the project began a year later.
Opposition to the La Farge Dam Project began soon after the larger-lake plan was introduced in 1967 and intensified when Patrick Lucey was elected Wisconsin governor in 1970. Governor Lucey called for an “Intensive Review” of the project in the spring of 1971. The stated purpose of the review was to look for alternatives to the dam and lake at La Farge and an all day session at the State Capital was held in which both those against and for the dam & lake project spoke. The Governor eventually agreed to support the dam project and ordered the Corps of Engineers to proceed. Despite the Governor’s decision to support the project at La Farge, the opposition to the dam project did not stop.
The Madison-based John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club then tried to stop the La Farge dam and lake project by filing injunctions in federal court. In the legal filing, the Sierra Club cited suspected water quality problems in the proposed Lake La Farge and the Corps’ failure to adequately provide for the environmental impact of the project to meet new federal laws as reasons to stop the project. The Sierra Club and other individuals opposed to the project took the dam project to court on three different occasions between 1971 and 1973 and lost all three of the attempts to stop it.
In 1972, construction on the dam, located a mile north of La Farge, was begun. By 1974, the nearly 9,000 acres for the entire lake and recreation areas had been purchased, the dam was nearing completion and plans were being made to start the process to fill the lake. By this time, Senator Gaylord Nelson had become a vocal opponent of the lake behind the dam because of water quality issues raised by a University of Wisconsin study completed in 1974. Nelson had supported the La Farge project when he was governor of Wisconsin and again as senator before the larger lake had been proposed. Senator Nelson called for a stop to the project and Governor Lucey, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups soon joined him.
By 1975, due to delays, the numerous studies that were conducted, and add-ons to the original project, the cost for the dam project had escalated from an original $18+ million in 1968, when the Corps had first unveiled the larger-lake project, to an estimate of over $50 million to have it completed. This sharp escalation in costs, which was largely caused by the inflation and high interest rates of the Vietnam War era, caused Senator William Proxmire, the last supporter of the dam in Congress, to withdraw his support in October of 1975. With Senator Proxmire’s refusal to further support the appropriation of funds for the project, the dam and lake project at La Farge was stopped. The dam, three-quarters completed, sat by the Kickapoo River north of La Farge. The dam’s water-control tower, rising over 100-feet above the Valley floor, became a silent sentinel to the failed project. The nearly 9000 acres of land purchased for the project sat dormant and started to be reclaimed by Mother Nature. Those in the Valley knew it as “the government land” or “the dam land”.
For the next twenty years, politicians presented a number of different options and alternative plans for what to do with the dam and the project’s lands, but all of those plans floundered and failed. A group of former landowners, Vernon County and others sued the federal government to either get the lands back or to finish the dam construction, but none of those efforts were successful either. The dam never held back any flood waters and the levees never were built downriver to protect Soldiers Grove or Gays Mills.
Finally a new effort, led by Governor Tommy Thompson and State Senator Brian Rude, was brought forward. A bipartisan political effort in Madison and Washington DC transferred “the government land” back to the State of Wisconsin in 1998 and the Kickapoo Valley Reserve became a reality on “the dam land”. In that transfer process, 1,200 acres of the government land was placed in trust for the Ho-Chunk Nation. The Kickapoo Reserve Management Board and Ho-Chunk Nation would co-manage the land taken for the dam project. Today the Kickapoo Valley Reserve draws tens of thousands of visitors annually to use the land and waters for a variety of public recreation and education purposes.