Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lost & Found - The La Farge Dam Project - Part 1

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. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Gassing Up In La Farge

One of the manifestations of the corporate merger movement of the American oil and gas industry in the latter half of the twentieth century was the gradual disappearance of places to buy gas in small towns like La Farge.  I was thinking about this the other day as I was filling up my pickup with petrol at the Z-Zip Stop, the village’s one and only gas station.  We used to have lots of gas stations in town, but those days are long gone. 
Awhile back, Mark Phillips encouraged me to write about all of the old gas stations in La Farge; seems his Dad, Blaine, who used to be in the gas station business in the village, thought it would be a good local history topic.  Recently Gary Hagen showed me a newspaper clipping from the early 1970’s.  It told about Carson Lawrence retiring after operating a gas station in town for nearly forty years.  Putting all of that together, it seems we may have an interesting story here.
  That term, gas station, is a term from the past, for today La Fargians buy their gasoline locally at a convenience store – the Z-Zip Stop.  It used to be that a gas station could pretty much run on its own in a small town like La Farge.  They were also called “service stations” back then and full service was how they all operated when the customer drove up to the pumps.  Gas would be pumped, oil level checked, windows washed and change made while the customer sat in the car – that was the service of that time.  There might be some candy and Cokes behind the counter for sale and some car maintenance services like oil changes were available to customers as well, but gasoline sales paid most of the bills for gas station operators back then. 
Today, the Z-Zip Stop operates a mini-general store, a propane outlet, a fast food restaurant, a mini-beer depot, and a mini-bank (ATM) for its customers besides offering gasoline for sale on La Farge’s Main Street.  It is a one-stop shopping place in the village for a business that operates seven days a week and sixteen hours each day.  In many ways, the multiple items for sale, being open every day and for long hours is an old fashioned model for a business in small towns like La Farge.  Since its’ beginning, La Farge has had many successful combination-type businesses offering multiple goods and services to its customers.  The convenience store model, like the Z-Zip Stop, is almost a throwback to those earlier times.  However, having only one place to buy gas in La Farge is a relatively new phenomenon in the town’s history.
When I was growing up in La Farge in the early 1950s, I believe there were eight or perhaps ten places where you could buy gas in the village.  There were five gas stations and four or five other places where you could stop to fill up if you needed to, all located on La Farge’s Main Street.  If you would care to join me, let’s go back to those times of sixty years ago and take a look at those gas peddlers from yesteryear.  (I hope to hear from blog readers on this trip back in time – let me know if you have any memories of the old gas stations and other places that sold gas.)  Let us begin our little gas station survey from the ‘50s by starting on the village’s west end, down by Nuzum’s.
At that intersection of Main & Mill Streets there were two gas stations.  Carson Lawrence’s Sinclair station was on the southeast corner (where the car wash building is today).  Carson ran a gas station there on that corner across from the cheese factory for over thirty years.  Across the street on the northeast corner (a vehicle lot for the truck center today) was a Cities Service station, which featured an outside car hoist for oil and tire changes.  Gene Campton may have been running the station at that time although there were lots of operators, Dave Burocher and Don Nida to name a few, at that location over the years.
Moving east up Main Street, there were gas pumps at the Clarks Brothers Garage on the southwest corner of Silver & Main (across the street from the present Z-Zip Stop).  Leo & Clanus Clark sold Chryslers, Dodges, and Plymouths from the garage, so pumps were needed to fill up all of those new cars. (There may have been gas pumps at the Ed Muller & Sons Construction building back down the street a half a block, where Jeff Kennedy now changes tires now for the truck center, but I’m not sure the public could buy there.)  At this intersection of Silver & Main Streets, I think there was once a gas station on the northwest corner (the present apartment building owned by George Wilbur), but I cannot remember one there in the early 50s.  Across the street at the Major’s Feed & Equipment Store (Now Penny’s thrift store and Potter’s Realty), I think they had gas pumps as well, but again, I’m a little fuzzy as to when they took them out.  The La Farge Oil Co-op gas station was to the east of Major’s where Heartland-Cenex Co-op store is now located.  (I think the gas pumps there were taken out after Cenex purchased the local co-op business.)  Now let’s continue our tour as we move east up Main Street.
On the southeast corner of State & Main Streets was the Mobil gas station.  This station was built at the end of World War II and was the newest facility in town.  Jack Dempsey may have been running the station at that time, but there were a number of operators, Floyd Stoleson, Pete Evans, Alvie Sandmire were some, at that location over the years.  There also were gas pumps next door at the garage that housed the Chevy-Buick dealership.  Ed Deibig was the owner of the garage then, which is now owned by LaVerne Campbell.
 Continuing to move east, Neil Donaldson had gas pumps in front of his hardware store located on the northwest corner of Maple & Main Streets (the current location of Bergum’s Food Mart).  Neil’s gas pumps were probably the oldest in the village.  They were tall pumps with clear glass tanks and they were run by manpower.  Neil cranked a handle that pumped the gas into the glass tank so one could see and measure the gas being purchased.  When the glass tank was full, the hose drained the gas by gravity down from the pump into the car’s gas tank.  If you were buying more gas than the tank on the pump could hold, the whole procedure had to be repeated.
Kitty-corner from Donaldson’s Hardware will be our last stop for gas at Leo Smith’s Sinclair station (now Irv Gudgeon’s woodworking shop).  (Another feature of the gas business in those earlier times was multiple stations in the village selling the same brand, like Sinclair.  At one time in the 1930s, there were three Skelly stations in La Farge.)    Leo’s building had been one of the original blacksmith shops in the village, which was converted to a gas station as horsepower overtook “horse power”.  The conversion provided a bay for service work on cars where the blacksmith shop had been.     
That concludes our little gas pump tour through La Farge’s Main Street from yesteryear.  In those four blocks on the village’s main thoroughfare there were lots of places for gassing up back then.
Looking back, it is hard to understand how all of those places of businesses in La Farge could make it selling gas during that time.  But it was a different time – a time when two hundred more people lived in the village.  In addition, nearly every farm around La Farge was in production back then and those rural folks did most of their shopping in La Farge.  That shopping trip to town, usually on a Wednesday or Saturday night, often included topping off the tank on the family sedan before heading home.  Many of those farmers also brought their grain to the two mills in La Farge to be ground into feed.  Those trucks and pickups loaded with sacks of feed for the farm animals were gassed up in town as well.  More customers created a demand for more gas stations to provide the service to the people of the community.  

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Waiting For The Lake

When one is putting together a book that tells the story of a particular town, the details of how to organize that story can become a problem.  Perhaps the story flows naturally through the era of time being chronicled, one part of the story following the other in a logical neat order.  Or perhaps the story is disjointed, wandering off in one direction for a while before lurching suddenly back in another.  When you come to the end of the story, after all of the writing has been done, then one has to figure out where the divisions or chapter breaks will fit into that story.  An editor can start to dissect the story and look at presenting it in the form of a published book.  Where are the chapter breaks; where should the graphs and maps go; which photographs should be included with the story – these are all questions that need to be answered as the book is edited and prepared for publishing.
            As I write at volume II of my history of La Farge, I need to think about some of these editing questions as I move through the time period of 1962 to 2013.  I am tempted to just write the story from beginning to end and disregard any consideration for organization while I write.  I basically did that with my dam book, That Dam History – The Story of The La Farge Dam Project.  Once I started writing that story, I just rammed forward with the writing and paid little attention to the format of the book or how that story might look in book-form.  Interestingly, for that writing on the dam book, I wrote the story of the dam project first and then wrote the “Prelude To The Story” introductory chapter afterword.
            I have received criticism from some about how the dam book was organized and I think those people who question the format and how the book was put together have valid points.  Some have said that my “Prelude” chapter, which includes many of my opinions on the dam project in its eleven pages, should have come at the end of the story.  I thought about putting it there, at the end of the story, but decided to put it up front in the book to sort of clear the air of my opinions on the topic.  I hoped that after reading the “Prelude”, the reader would look at the rest of the dam story and see that it was hopefully written without too much prejudice or bias.  As Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, sir.”
            Something else that I hear from readers of the book has to do with the length of a couple of chapters in the book, particularly chapters 3 and 4.  Chapter 3 - “Parallel Paths – 1968-1975” is sixty-six pages long and Chapter 4 – “The Wilderness Years On The Government Land – 1976-1996” is forty-four pages in length.  None of the other four chapters in the dam book are longer than thirteen pages.  There is some inconsistency there, to be sure.  But as far as the story flowed, the chapters and their length seemed to be logical divisions of the telling of the tale.  Looking back, I think the chapters could have or should have been divided better, especially chapter 3, but, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.
            Now I’m working on another book, and am trying to use some foresight in telling this story of my hometown.  The story covers a fifty-year period, so there could be a simple way of dividing the book by coming up with a chapter for each of the five decades that the story covers.  The story may play out that way, but I’m already looking at the first chapter as covering the years 1962 to 1975.  Those are the years of the story framed by the first unveiling of the Corps of Engineers dam project at La Farge (1962) and the eventual stopping of the project by political forces in 1975.  As far as how the dam project affected La Farge over that time frame, there is a lot of story to tell.  It is a long and convoluted trail that has to be followed in telling that part of the story.  Not only do I have to relate the amazing run of events that played out in the telling of the dam story, but the effect of those dam project twists and turns on the village has to be told as well.  The loss of population and rural communities is one aspect of how the dam project affected La Farge.  But perhaps of equal or even greater importance is how the divisiveness of the debate over the dam project tore at the town and its leaders for decades.
In addition, there were other things going on in La Farge during that time.  There was a physical transformation of the town during that time.  The town started the process of moving away from the river and relocating on higher ground.  There was a great deal of change in the business community during that time, some of which carries through to the present.  There was also a migration of new people to the community during that decade, people who would eventually make up the foundation of the town.
All of these aspects of that time frame need to be told.  Is telling all of that part of the story too long for one chapter, especially the first?  I’m not sure; we will see how it all plays out when I take keyboard to fingers and start putting it all down on the Word document.  Regardless what I end up with in telling that part of the story, I think that I have a good chapter title for that first one.  It is the title of this blog entry.  So what do you think; does the chapter title do anything for you?