Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Building A New School In La Farge

I attended a meeting at the school several weeks back where a pair of design schemes was presented to the La Farge Schools facilities committee to ponder.  After the two plans, which featured various new additions to the present school buildings in a variety of forms, were presented and discussed, more information was presented to those gathered about the costs for such construction.  The total projected cost of ten-plus million dollars for the construction of the new school buildings sent more than one pair of eyebrows arching towards the ceiling of the high school library.
            At a later school board meeting there was discussion about the demolition of the 1901 schoolhouse building to facilitate some of the plans for construction of other buildings.  Tearing down the old school landmark has triggered some opposition from preservationists and others who want to save the historic building.
            The whole exercise currently being undertaken by the local school district is one originated to look at future building needs for the school.  What will the district need for buildings in order to function ten or twenty years from now?  Looking down the road into the future can be a pretty tricky business for small school districts like La Farge in this day of open enrollment, voucher programs and declining state aids.  It is a difficult task made even more strenuous due to these times of shrinking enrollments, local tax levy limits and other constraints on public schools in Wisconsin. 
Perhaps some history of previous attempts to construct new school buildings in La Farge might aid this process a little.  After all, it is much easier to look backward than to try to peer very far into the future.  So let’s travel back to some other times when folks were considering whether to build some new school buildings in this little town along the Kickapoo.
In 1894, the newly minted hamlet of La Farge (the place known as DeJean’s Corners had only had the “La Farge” name for a year as the La Farge Post Office had been moved from Sam Green’s house north to “The Corners” in 1893) needed a new schoolhouse.  The old log schoolhouse constructed in 1880 by Thomas DeJean and located a block from the original corners (at the present site of the post office) was bursting at the seams.  As more and more families moved to the La Farge area during that last decade of the 19th Century, the need for a new school was evident.  By 1894, the leaders of La Farge were ready to build a new school and grand plans were envisioned for the construction of the best schoolhouse in the Kickapoo Valley.  To help make that happen, La Farge reached out to its neighbors to the north at Seelyburg to see if they would want to join in the venture.
Seelyburg also had an old log schoolhouse (located at the mouth of Plum Run where it joins the Kickapoo River) that had seen its better days.  It was also overflowing with students at that time.  However, as the leaders of Seelyburg were approached about the idea of a new combined school by their downriver neighbors, there was some trepidation towards the move.  Several Seelyburg businesses including Brown’s Photography Studio and Millard’s General Store had recently relocated to La Farge.  Other families who had lived in Seelyburg had left their homes there and moved to higher ground in La Farge (mainly fleeing the near constant flooding that was starting to occur in Seelyburg at that time).  So Seelyburg residents were a little leery about partnering with La Farge on this new schoolhouse venture.
Another problem with the merger of the two schools was the location of the new school.  The leaders of La Farge were demanding that the new building, a two-story structure that would be a fully graded school (housing students in grades 1 through 8), should be located near their hamlet’s growing Main Street.  La Farge argued that their location was superior for drawing the most students and that there was plenty of good land available for a site on which to build the new school.  Seelyburg had few building sites to compare to La Farge, unless it was on the hills north of the old mill town.  These land parcels, though, would be far from centrally located and thus, of not much serious consideration.  Seelyburg residents, already chafing at the thought of losing their school to the newer community to the south, balked at the thought of having the new school located so far away in La Farge.  It appeared as though the idea of the joint school venture was not going to happen.
At some point in these negotiations, the Vernon County School Superintendent entered the discussion and helped broker a compromise for the joining of the two districts.  It was probably pointed out that neither district had a sufficient amount of students to warrant a larger fully graded school, but that the two district’s combined enrollment would foster such a move.  The tax base for the two combined districts would also make the construction of a new schoolhouse more financially feasible.
The location of the new school building still seemed a major sticking point until Dred Bean offered a compromise.  The founding father of The Corners offered to sell to the proposed new combined school district a parcel of land in the north pasture on his farm, just across the road from Bean’s Grove (now La Farge’s Village Park).  This proposed site was centrally located between the two communities and also was located along the main road that connected both.  The location satisfied most of the people of Seelyburg, since the new school was going to be very near the south side of their hamlet.  La Farge could accept the location proposed by Bean, even though it was nearly a half-mile from its busy main intersection.  The ambitious southern hamlet expected their town to expand north to the school in a short time anyway, so it would be in La Farge soon enough.
So, the new Joint School District #15 of La Farge was created and a two-story wooden schoolhouse was built in Dred Bean’s north pasture, opening in November of 1895 for students of La Farge, Seelyburg and the surrounding areas.  The new schoolhouse was built with the intention of being the best and word of the new school at La Farge quickly spread throughout the area.  The new school was a two-story wooden structure with double sized classrooms on both floors.  Equipment and desks from both of the former schools was moved to the new one, while the newest supplies were added to make the new schoolhouse the best in the Kickapoo Valley.
In 1896, the county superintendent of schools said, “The La Farge schoolhouse is the finest in the county outside of Viroqua and I doubt if any village in the state has a nicer school house.”  The new school was soon the pride of the little town on the Kickapoo.  It also became a boon for the growing town as students were drawn to the new school and its enhanced educational opportunities.  Being a “fully graded school” meant that students could now complete the 8th grade at La Farge.  The curriculum for the eight grades was taught in a seven-month school year stretching from September through April.  Graduates of the new La Farge School could then move on to high school studies at other places that offered that curriculum (Viroqua, Hillsboro and Richland Center were the nearest).  La Farge’s 8th grade graduates were also qualified to teach at rural schools, an especially appealing opportunity for young women of that time.
  It appeared that La Farge was educationally prepared for a long future of growth with their new schoolhouse.  Or were they?