Friday, August 22, 2014

Saving The Stories

(This is a continuation of a previous post about
 “The People Remember” oral history project.)

The mission of this group of students and community members is to collect and archive the stories of area residents affected by the La Farge Dam Project so that future generations will better understand its history and impact.  The La Farge and Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton schools and the Kickapoo Valley Reserve are sponsoring the group.  The Wisconsin Humanities Council and the UW-La Crosse Oral History Program are providing funding and technical support.  The oral collection will be transcribed and archived at the UW-La Crosse for historical documentation.
- Mission Statement: La Farge Dam Oral History Project

            In September of 2000, the final plans and organization were being put into place for an oral history project to collect and save the stories of those affected by the La Farge Dam Project.  Two meetings had been held earlier that summer at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve offices on Mill Street in La Farge.  At those meetings chaired by KVR Executive Director Marcy West, the support of the project was secured from Ron Johnson, President of the Reserve’s management board, and La Farge superintendent of schools Lee Bush and N-O-W school superintendent Al Szepi.  In addition, through the efforts of Marcy and Fritz Cushing, a grant was received from the Wisconsin Humanities Council to help finance the project.  Fritz was chosen to coordinate the project and he soon had three professionals on board to help with the training.  With that support, the project moved forward and it was decided to team students with adult volunteers to conduct the oral history interviews.
            I was teaching a local history class at LHS that fall comprised of juniors and seniors who had an interest in the oral history project.  I “volunteered” the students in the class for the project.  Kristi Campbell and Robin Lee, who had interviewed James Daines about the dam project the previous spring, were joined in the local history class by Jessie Lee, Amanda Andrew, Deanna Ewing, Rene Widner, Kayla Muller, Shannon Thompson, Mary Beth Sarnowski and Ximena Puig.  Adult volunteers who would team with the students on the interviews included Brian Bufton, Chuck Reynolds, Geri Hall, Margaret Lee, Chuck Hatfield, Rosanne Boyett, Fritz Cushing, Deb Rolfe and Cyndee Baumgartner.
            Four training sessions for the students and volunteers, each lasting nearly three hours, were held at LHS in October and early November.  Harvey Jacobs, from the UW-Madison’s school of Urban & Regional Planning, talked to the group about land issues in general, giving an overview about other federal projects like the one at La Farge and how the federal government could take some people’s lands by using the power of eminent domain.  He also led discussions on the importance of land ownership and public vs. private land ownership issues.  With Jacobs’ leadership, the interview topic was divided into four areas - community, property, decision-making, and environmental protection.  From those areas, over fifty questions were developed that could be used for the interviews.
            Chuck Lee, a history professor with UW-La Crosse’s Oral History Program, trained the students and adult volunteers in interviewing techniques.  Lee taught the basics of beginning an interview, choosing a good place in the home for an interview and how to properly use the tape recorder. He provided samples of forms that included a confidentiality agreement form and informed consent form to be used with the interviews.  After the interviews were conducted, the tapes would be copied and transcribed by UW-La Crosse students so that they could be archived at the Area Research Center at UW-L’s Murphy Library.  In the final training session with Professor Lee, a student and adult volunteer interviewed me about the dam project and that interview was used in a discussion on interviewing do’s and don’ts.
            Stuart Stotts, a renowned storyteller and author (who also happened to own a vacation cabin on land adjacent to the Reserve), worked with the group on developing a presentation to the public after the interviews were concluded.  He asked the students and volunteers to listen for poignant stories and interesting quotes from the people who were being interviewed and to note those on the reporting sheets that were kept.  As the taped interviews came in, Stotts would glean those highlights for use in a public program to be given by the interviewing team.
            As the training sessions were being held, Fritz Cushing was compiling a list of people to be interviewed.  The former landowners of property taken by the government for the dam project headed that list.  But others in the La Farge community were added to get the impact of the dam project on the local school districts, towns, villages, and county.  Other people were included to show the social and economic impact of the dam project on La Farge.  As the list of potential interviewees was being made and contact was started with people on the list, one thing became apparent.  Some of the people would not consent to being interviewed!  As a matter of fact, several people said that they didn’t want to have anything to do with such a project.
            More on that next time as we continue to look at “The People Remember” oral history project.

My Presentation At Portage

            On Tuesday evening, July 29th, I gave a little talk at the Historic Indian Agency House in Portage.  The historic house sits right next to the old Portage Canal and both are linked to a time before Wisconsin even became a territory.  The Agency House is running a series of programs this summer on “How Non-Traditional Research Helps Capture Our History”.  I was invited to present the story of the La Farge Dam Project and the oral history project discussed in this column.
            There was a nice crowd on hand for the presentation and I was particularly pleased to see some former residents of La Farge in attendance.  When Carolyn and I walked into the room of the Visitor Center, Becky Oliphant Goleuke, her husband Paul and daughter Gwen immediately greeted us.  Becky graduated from LHS and was an outstanding student in my history classes.  Later, two of the Vosen girls, Lisa Jernander and Lynne Clark (with her husband Wayne) came up to the front table to check in with their old history teacher.  Their Dad, Bob Vosen, had been very active in the village’s effort to get the dam project completed.  Lisa and Lynne said that their parents, Bob and Anita Vosen, had been in Wisconsin the previous weekend for a family wedding.  Another couple of former Kickapoogians joined the audience later – Cindy and Jack Heal.  Cindy’s Mother, Maxine Shird, was interviewed for “The People Remember” project and her interview was included in the book that was published about the project.  It was fun to catch up with some of those who had lived through those years of dam trouble in La Farge. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The People Were Remembered

(This is dedicated to the memory of James Daines, who passed on July 27, 2014.)

            James Daines did not want the stories to be forgotten.  He would tell his own story to anyone who would listen, but he wanted all of the stories to be told and remembered if possible.
            In September of 2000, a group of La Farge High School students and adult volunteers from the community gathered to begin a most remarkable oral history project here in the northern Kickapoo Valley.  Their objective was to gather information from people regarding their memories and experiences with the La Farge Dam Project.  The students and adult volunteers involved in this unique oral history project were trained in interviewing techniques and learned about the history of the dam project.  Then, they set out with tape recorders to get the peoples’ stories of this turbulent time in the history of La Farge and the Kickapoo Valley.
            How the oral history project came to be in the first place is intertwined with James Daines’ wanting the stories of the people involved with the dam project to be remembered.  When the “government land”, the nearly 9,000 acres of land purchased by the federal government for the dam project, was being returned by the federal government to the state of Wisconsin in the mid-1990s, a Citizen’s Advisory Committee deemed that the land should be used for the public good.  The land should be a place that all people could use.  After a lengthy process of looking at possible uses, it was decided that the land would be preserved in its natural state for everyone to enjoy.  The idea of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve was born and an initial management board was created to oversee the operation.  The management board soon hired Marcy West as the Reserve’s first executive director.
            Soon after taking the job, Marcy found herself in James Daines’ pickup being given a tour of the lands that made up the Reserve.  James was giving the new Reserve director a personal tour of where people used to live and how many of those folks were passing on due to old age.  He was telling her the story of his family farm and the time when all the farms were bought up by the federal government.  Each of the farms and homes that were taken for the dam project had the story of the family that lived there.  It became imperative that those stories needed to be saved and the sooner the better.
            Marcy soon gathered a team of interested people to look at what could be done to save the stories.  Her bosses, the Kickapoo Reserve Management Board, supported the need for such a project, as did the schools at La Farge and Ontario.  Meetings were held to get a team formed to tackle the task of collecting the stories.  Fritz Cushing was brought on board to head up the project.  A grant was secured from the Wisconsin Humanities Council to help pay for costs for training and equipment.
            About this time, which was the spring of 1999, several students in an American History class that I was teaching at La Farge were very interested in learning more about the dam project.  All of the publicity that had accompanied the transition of the land from federal back to state and local control also had created a renewed interest in the project.  For high school-age students, who hadn’t even been born yet when the dam project was stopped in 1975, this time was bringing to life a new facet of local history for them.  They wanted to know more about the La Farge Dam Project.  I told them to talk to the people who had been affected the most by the project – the former landowners.  Two of the students, Robin Lee and Kristi Campbell, set up an interview with James Daines.
            It was arranged that Robin and Kristi would take a couple hours from their regular morning school-day schedule and meet James at his former farm on Weister Creek.  Robin had a sheet of questions to ask and Kristi toted the video recorder and tapes to record it all.  They would leave around 10 am and return to school at noon, in time for their afternoon classes.
            They never came back.  By 12:30 Principal Mert Pederson stopped into my room asking if I knew where the two students were.  I didn’t.  So we waited, another hour passed and then another.  Shortly after three o’clock and around dismissal time for the day, Robin and Kristi made it back to school. And what a tale they had to relate!
            When the students met James on Weister Creek, they started the interview at the flowing well on his family’s farm.  Robin asked the questions and took written notes, Kristi kept the video recorder going.  When asked about the process of dealing with the Corps of Engineers when it came to selling his farm, James became agitated and angry.  His emotions startled the students (later James would relate to me, “I think I scared the kids a little.”), but James calmed down and told the convoluted story of selling the farm, which had stretched out over a span of two years.  When he was finally done with his story, he offered to give the students a tour of the area to hear stories of other families that had sold out for the dam project.
            Having a little time left before they had to return to school, Robin and Kristi hopped in James’ pick-up and off they went.  Kristi was scrunched behind the front seats, videotaping the narrative from James and panning the former farms through the windshield.  Robin was furiously taking notes and asking questions as they came up.  They drove up Weister Creek Road; they drove west on County Highway D all the way to Dell; they went up 24-Valley and Wolfe Valley, then back down “D” to the old state highway, where they turned north and headed toward Rockton.  At every former farm, James would stop and tell about the people who used to live at that now vacant place.
            Robin ran out of paper on which to take notes, Kristi ran out of videotape.  Finally, nearly two hours after starting their little tour they returned to the Daines’ farm on Weister Creek.
            The next day, Robin and Kristi had quite a tale to tell their classmates in history.  The word “kidnapped” came up jokingly more than once.  Robin showed everyone the reams of notes that he had taken on the interview.  Then the class began to look at the videotape that Kristi had shot the previous day.  The students were mesmerized as James passionately told the story of losing his family’s farm.  As the tape played, Robin and Kristi would interject comments about the process of getting the story.  It took most of the rest of the week for the class to watch the entire set of videotapes.  Some of the students started making a map of the journey taken in James’ pickup and plotting out where people used to live along the route.
            With that interview, a facet of the emerging oral history project started to take shape.  High school students from La Farge should be part of the process in gathering the stories from the people affected by the dam project.
            Next time, more on “The People Remember” oral history project.
  If you would like to learn more about the La Farge Dam Project, an autographed copy of my book, That Dam History: The Story of the La Farge Dam Project can be sent to you for only $20 (which includes mailing costs).  I just received another shipment of my La Farge history book after running out again (I think this is the 5th re-order of that book).  If you would like a copy of La Farge: The Story of A Kickapoo River Town – Vol. I send $25 to me at P.O. Box 202, La Farge, WI 54639 or contact me at