Tuesday, December 24, 2013

La Farge's Chistmas Past - 1923

Recently I received a message from a lady in Antigo asking about some history of La Farge that was related to her family.  She was seeking the name of a veterinarian who lived near La Farge between the years 1921 and 1924.  I didn’t have any information in my research, but wrote back to her that I would do some digging to see what I could find.  I went though the copies of the La Farge Enterprise from those years, but still didn’t find anything on a vet from the La Farge area.  However, I did find several other bits of interest about La Farge's history, which is often the case in these searches.  I came across some interesting observations on Christmas in La Farge in 1923, so let’s go back ninety years and see what was happening in that Yuletide season.
            All of the following excerpts are from the December 27, 1923 issue of the Enterprise and are contained in the “News About Town” page of the paper.  I am presuming they are the writings of a man named J. E. Rockhill, who was the editor and publisher of the newspaper at that time.  Each of the excerpts relates to particular things happening in La Farge during that Christmas season from long ago.  The first tells of the Christmas program given by the grade school children.   

The operetta given by the children of the grades of the La Farge schools at the opera hall last Thursday evening was a very nicely carried out and altogether successful event, well attended and likewise well enjoyed by the audience.  The children had been very well trained in their parts and rendered them in a commendable manner, that reflected credit both on them and their instructors.

            The “opera hall” was in the upstairs of the building that currently houses Phil & Deb’s Town Tap.  The entire upper floor was used as an opera house and it was the main entertainment venue of the village for several decades.  Those were the days before there was any gymnasium at the school, so most of the schools events held before the public – school plays, basketball games, declaratory contests, graduation exercises, and grade school Christmas operettas – were held at the opera house.  Here is another Yuletide event held there in 1923.

A fine time is reported at the Christmas night dance held in the opera hall here Tuesday night.  The attendance was larger than usual, and the enjoyment of the occasion from all accounts was in proportion.

            Community dances were popular events held at La Farge’s opera house.  This dance held on Christmas night may have been sponsored by the La Farge Cornet Band, which often played at these events and used them to raise funds for the musical group.  Although the language is rather stilted, it appears that a nice crowd attended and had a good time at the dance, but I’m not sure if the editor was actually there.  That’s not to say that the man didn’t have the Christmas spirit, as evidenced by the following observation.
The Christmas shopping has all been done and the results distributed, and there are quite a few weeks ahead of us now that we won’t have to give any thought to the perplexing problem of what to get.

            Apparently, finding that perfect Christmas present for that special someone could be a little hectic and trying for some folks long before Black Friday’s, round the clock store hours and Amazon.com.  This 1923 reflection seems to hint at a little “thank goodness that’s over” thinking that some still feel to this day.  The next bit of reporting really evokes some great memories of Christmas past in old La Farge.

The Christmas tree treat given by Pit Andrews to the children, held on the street in front of his market on Monday afternoon, was one of the nice features of the Christmas time and one that should be appreciated not only by the crowd of children who gathered in answer to his invitation to come and partake of the sacks of candy and nuts that had been provided for them, but by their elders as well, as it was a treat to see their enjoyment.  It was also a treat to listen to the excellent music furnished by the band for the occasion, and the tree itself, decked out with red and green streamers and tufts of cotton snow and lighted by colored electric lights, was an ornament to the street for several days and nights before and after the event.

            Andrew’s Market was located in the building that currently houses the Indigo Thrift Shop in La Farge.  Now owned by Nick Burnard, the store previously housed his mother’s store, Muriel’s Variety Store, which had followed Jennie’s Variety Store in the same place.  Pitt Andrew operated a meat market and then a grocery store in his building before that for over thirty years.  In 1923, Andrew put a decorated Christmas tree on the sidewalk in front of his store and on Christmas Eve day had the local band play carols and gave out bags of candy to the children in town.  Andrew’s Christmas tree might have been the village’s official Christmas tree for that year though as the editor seems to hold it in high regard.

Ivan Swancutt and family are spending the holiday season at his boyhood home on Hopewell Ridge, he having arrived at the Neefe home here last Thursday evening from Madison and his father coming over after them Saturday.  Mr. and Mrs. Swancutt were to drive to Ithaca to get Juanita, his sister, who is principal of the high school there, intending to return to Richland Center to call on another sister, Mrs. J. Green.

            I have some idea who these people are, but the excerpt was chosen because it is typical of many in the newspaper about folks coming home to La Farge for Christmas.  I presume the Swancutt’s came to La Farge from Madison on the train.  I might also presume that Ivan married a Neefe girl from La Farge since they were staying there.  Ivan’s father coming over after them on Saturday to go back to their home between Viola and Richland Center for Christmas also might indicate their coming to La Farge on the railroad for the visit – perhaps not having an automobile to drive.  I also found it interesting that Ithaca High School had a woman principal in 1923, progressive stuff for that little burg.  From the next excerpt, we can assume that Christmas Day was a glorious one for that family.
Christmas day fulfilled the promise of the proceeding weeks in the weather line, being clear and as nice as could well be desired, the air just nippy enough that one could realize what season of the year it was, and just enough of the light snow of a few days previous to lend the appearance of Christmas, the hill sides being white among the bare timber.  Christmas of 1923 was one beautiful day, fine for those who wished to go visiting and enjoyable for all no difference where they were, with roads good for traveling, and the ground bare or practically so, weather bright and sunshiny and just right for all outdoor enterprises and exhilaratingly pleasant for those who did not venture forth from the environs of the Christmas gladdened home.

            That concludes our little Christmas tour through that old issue of La Farge’s town newspaper in 1923.  I hope our Christmas Day here in the Kickapoo Valley is “as nice as could well be desired, the air just nippy enough” in 2013. 
May you all make it home for the holidays!

Friday, December 13, 2013


The strands of history about this little Kickapoo River town reach out to other places.  The history of a place like La Farge is really a compilation of many stories about people and families – people and families who came to this place, lived in this place and moved from this place.  Those family stories may be entrenched in the lore of the Kickapoo Valley or they may stretch out to places far away.
            There is a condo unit on Curtis Lane in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.  Inside the condo, a thirteen-year old boy slouches in a lounge chair in the downstairs den.  He is killing time until he has to go off to hockey practice, trading Tweets with his friends on his phone and casually watching TV.
            In a corner of the room, off to the boy’s left, is a cabinet.  It is a corner cabinet constructed a half century ago.  It is a cabinet of that time; its purpose to show off prized dishes, photographs or other keepsakes of the family.  Some would call it a fancy knick-knack shelf, but its purpose was nobler, so perhaps corner china cabinet could be used when identifying it.
            The cabinet stands forty-two inches high and is nineteen inches wide.  It has four triangular shelves including its base piece.  The front of the cabinet is mainly a wooden door with a frame around it.  The door is affixed to the frame with brass hinges and a clasp to secure it for opening and closing.  The door itself is a large pane of glass supported by another wooden frame.  The other two sides of the cabinet, hidden from view when it is placed in a corner, are pieces of tin tacked onto the front frame.  The two tin back pieces are wrapped around a wooden support piece that forms the ninety-degree angle that allows the cabinet to fit into a corner.  Each of the shelves is also anchored to the support piece.  One end piece on the cabinet is also made of tin.  The other end piece, either the bottom of the cabinet if it is hung from the ceiling in a corner or the top of the cabinet if it is placed on the floor, is made of the same pinewood as the front.  All of the wood is stained a dark brown.  The interior wooden shelves and tin backing has been painted a pale yellow-green to show off the contents displayed in the cabinet.
            The cabinet was made over fifty years ago in the workshop of a house on Maple Street in La Farge.  The corner cabinet was one of several made by the retired farmer for family and friends. The man who constructed the cabinets in the spare time of his old age was named Emery.  The boy who sits next to the corner cabinet in Eden Prairie is also named Emery.  He is the great-great grandson of the Emery who made the cabinet.  The cabinet is a strand that connects the two, as is the name.  (Another great-grandson of the cabinetmaker also carries the name.)
            The man who made the cabinet was the first son born in Wisconsin to a family who moved from Ohio.  He grew up on a farm on Morning Star Ridge and as a young man, he and his brother, carrying axes on their shoulders, walked down to the Kickapoo Valley to do winter work at the lumber mill there.  As they trimmed the fallen trees, they earned fifty cents a day.  When they brought a horse from their farm along to help skid the trimmed logs to the river, their pay increased to a dollar and a half a day.  It was hard work, not in this century, nor the last, but in the century before that.  The man who made the corner cabinet spent most of his life working with wood in one form or another.  His skills with wood became a strand that still reaches us today – whether in the barns that he helped build or the corner cabinets he made.
            The boy named Emery jumps up when he hears the sound of a car horn and an SUV stopping on the street out in front of the condo.  He picks up his duffle bag and dashes out the door into the garage to catch his ride to practice.  As the door slams, the vibrations reach to another corner of the downstairs den, where the branches of a Christmas cactus shudder.  The plant is flowering for the season and is another strand that is connecting families, places and time.
            The Christmas cactus is a cutting from a plant, over a century old, that is in a house on Highland Street in La Farge.  That host plant is also blooming with flowers to mark the season.  A mother passed a cutting from the cactus on to her daughter.  It is a strand connecting two members of a family and two places far apart.  The Christmas cactus in La Farge now has main branches larger than a man’s thumb and covered with bark like on a tree. The cactus has served for the host of many other cuttings for family and friends and reaches back to another time in the past.  It is a strand of history reaching back to a house on the hill overlooking the Kickapoo River at a place called Seelyburg.
At one time or another most of the men who lived in the house on the hill worked for the vast operations producing lumber at the mill located there on the river.  One of the sons, Jesse, married and his wife Millie brought the Christmas cactus to their new household.  Jesse lived for a century and most of the one hundred years of his life was spent near the Kickapoo and La Farge.  His family formed a fife and drum corps to help celebrate those who had fought in the Civil War.  Jesse was born in 1865, the year that the war ended.  The family fife and drum corps played for GAR Reunions and 4th of July Celebrations in Seelyburg, La Farge and in many other places around the area.  Jesse’s drum that he played in the fife and drum corps at those celebrations remains as a strand to that time.
  The cactus had been in Jesse’s family for generations, perhaps brought to the Kickapoo Valley from a former home in the East.  It always seems to have been in the Kickapoo Valley as part of the family.  Jesse and Millie’s granddaughter now has the Christmas cactus (with its red flowers starting to bloom) in the house on Highland Street, passed on to her by her Aunt Esther. Now a great granddaughter of Jesse’s has another part of it in Eden Prairie.  So the cactus in its various forms connects the members of the family, moving back in time to the time of first settlement of the Kickapoo Valley from other places and forward to the thriving suburb of the Twin Cities.
History is the telling and sharing of the stories of people and places.  The corner cabinet and the Christmas cactus have stories to tell – strands to the past that continue to connect us to a former time and another place.