This is the second part of a presentation that I made in November 2012 in Madison as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival. The theme of the festival was “Lost & Found” and my book was chosen as part of a presentation titled “Loss & Discovery on Wisconsin’s
Waterways”. In the last blog entry, I focused on the history of the dam project at La Farge from the first studies done after the great Kickapoo River flood of 1935 through the creation of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve from the lands taken for the dam project. In this entry, the presentation focuses on some discoveries and losses that were a result of the dam project. Parts of that presentation have been edited for this entry. – BDS
In keeping with the theme of this book festival, I would now like to look at what was lost and found for the Kickapoo Valley from this dam story? I would like to focus on two aspects of the story of the La Farge dam project, one - a story of an extraordinary discovery found in the Valley and another of a lost opportunity. First let’s look at a rather amazing discovery that was the result of the dam project at La Farge.
I find this discovery so intriguing because it deals with the history of the land and of the first people to live in the Kickapoo Valley. Being a former high school history teacher and an avid researcher and occasional writer in local history, I found the discoveries in these areas brought about by the dam project to be most interesting.
In the 1950s, the Corps of Engineers entered into an agreement with the Wisconsin Historical Society to do an assessment of the archeological and historic significance of the lands that would be submerged beneath the waters of the lake at La Farge. Beginning in 1959 and continuing through the late 1960’s, archeologists from the State Historical Society and students from the University of Wisconsin would come to the Kickapoo Valley each summer to conduct archeological studies.
First led by archeologist Donald Brockington and later William Hurley, the studies of the northern Kickapoo Valley lands provided an amazing catalog of archeological significance. From those initial surveys, a total of 132 sites were identified in the lands north of La Farge and forty of those sites were tested and found to contain significant archeological artifacts. Sixteen of the sites that were tested during those summer surveys were rock shelters. All of the sites that were surveyed yielded artifacts and specimens that were removed and archived in Madison at the State Historical Society.
This archeological research that was conducted in the northern Kickapoo Valley in the early 1960s was the beginning of nearly thirty years of continued study in the area. As the dam project was delayed into the 1970s & ‘80s, the studies could continue as more teams from the historical society and UW came to the La Farge area to search for evidence of the earliest people in the Valley and state of Wisconsin. The number of significant archeological sites grew from the original eight listed in 1959 to a total of 596 found after the last assessment in 1998. The sites included ancient campsites and farming areas, linear and conical mounds, once-occupied rock shelters and many petroglyphs. The findings from this research were so significant and detailed because the La Farge Dam & Lake Project lands became one of the most intensely studied localities in the Driftless Area. Nearly half of the sites, 282 to be exact, were of such archeological significance that they are now included on the National Register of Historic Places as the Upper Kickapoo Valley Prehistoric Archeological District at La Farge.
Since the Ho-Chunk Nation became closely connected to 1,200 acres of the dam project lands when those lands were transferred back to the state from the federal government in 1999 (the land parcels are part of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve and are held in trust for the Nation by the Bureau of Indian Affairs), the study of the cultural and historic significance of these lands by the Ho-Chunk and others continues today.
Another aspect of this intensive research of the dam project lands has been the recognition of the truly unique geologic nature of the northern Kickapoo Valley. Senator Gaylord Nelson realized this very early on when he first opposed the lake aspect of the dam project at La Farge. In 1974, he called for a study to see if the Kickapoo Valley lands purchased for the dam project could become a national park. He said that the Valley land formations located along the Kickapoo were some of the best examples of the unique geologic features of the Driftless Area that could be found anywhere. Partly because of this research on potential national park status, nearly 6,000 acres of the Valley including a portion of the former La Farge Dam & Lake Project have been designated a National Natural Landmark through a program of the National Park Service. This land, known as the Kickapoo Valley Natural Area by state designation, is also the third largest natural area in Wisconsin. The awesome beauty of the magnificent seeping sandstone cliffs along the river and other geologic formations in the Valley are still there for all visitors to see – a magnificent discovery for all to enjoy.
Loss is another aspect of the story of the La Farge dam project. There was great personal loss for all of the families who had to sell their homes to the federal government for the dam & lake project. Some people had to sell farms that had been homesteaded by their family over a hundred years before the time of the dam project; had to leave their family home. As I say in the beginning of the dam book, I cannot adequately tell the story of the loss felt by those people.
But another loss that all the people of the Kickapoo Valley shared was the loss of any type of flood control and I would like to comment on that. What was considered to be the main reason for the dam from the very beginning and throughout the project – flood control – never really materialized in any form or manner. When you consider how much money was spent on the project, it is mind boggling to think that flood control for the Valley was never attained in any fashion. A study was done in 1992-93 by two UW professors on the negative impacts felt in the Kickapoo Valley from NOT finishing the dam at La Farge. The study concluded that the total cost of the economic damage from not finishing the La Farge dam project was $83-million! That total included lost family income, loss of recreational benefits and damages to private property from flooding. It did not include costs for repairing roads and bridges from flood damage. Adding in the costs of flood damages to town, village, county and state transportation systems would certainly boost the economic damage total over $100-million.
In 2007 and 2008, the Kickapoo River unleashed two floods of epic proportions in the Valley and the Kickapoo flood of June 2008 remains the greatest ever recorded. The Corps of Engineers dam at La Farge was designed to contain the waters of such floods and keep them from causing devastation downriver. An unfinished dam stops no floodwaters. The people of the Kickapoo Valley still continue the struggle to recover from those floods.