Friday, May 22, 2015

La Farge's Calhoon Park

Last week I received a phone call from Tim Slack. Tim is the guidance counselor at La Farge Schools and also is the coach of the Wildcat baseball team.  It seems that he had just talked to a sports reporter at WKBT-TV in La Crosse who was interested in doing a story for his sports show about La Farge’s baseball field – Calhoon Park.  He wanted to know all about the history of the ball field and since Tim has only been around La Farge for a couple of years, he didn’t have much information on the baseball field.  I said that I would help.
            I started digging into the research notes for my La Farge history and found some information on the construction of the ballpark, which took place back in the 1930’s.  I copied some material that I had included in the first volume of my La Farge history.  The construction of the park makes for an interesting story because it did not come easy.  The driving force behind getting the ballpark completed was Ray Calhoon – a legendary figure in the history of baseball in this little river town.  I also had information on Calhoon so I made a copy of that story as well.
            On Thursday afternoon, Charlie Clifford, the WKBT (Channel 8) reporter and a cameraman, Greg White, met me at the ballpark.  Roger Hooker joined us.  Roger had the original plans for the ballpark as drawn up by Ray Calhoon.  (It is said that Calhoon used Chicago’s Wrigley Field as the model for the ballpark in La Farge.  Ironically, Charlie had been at Wrigley Field the night before to watch the Cubs-Mets game.)  Roger was also the LHS baseball coach for nearly two decades so he had his share of stories to tell about the ballpark.  The cameraman filmed the baseball game going on that day between North Crawford and La Farge from every angle imaginable.  He particularly liked shooting the game from the football press box beyond the centerfield fence.  Charlie Clifford conducted several interviews with people about the ballpark. 
            So what’s the fuss all about to draw all of this media attention about La Farge’s old ballpark?  We will need to go back to the 1930’s, to a time when Works Progress Administration (WPA) federal funds were available to use on local projects.  La Farge, like many of the villages along the Kickapoo, made use of the WPA funds to hire local men to work on a variety of projects.  Arch Davidson, the village president of La Farge at that time, used the first influx of WPA money to hire crews to fix up the village’s streets.
            But another federally supported project in La Farge would have an even more lasting impact on the village.  Using money from the WPA, La Farge would construct a new baseball field that would be a marvel lasting to the present.  The new field was the dream of Ray Calhoon, a longtime player, manager and backer of baseball in La Farge, and the new ballpark was named in his honor when it was completed.
            The Kickapoo River flood of 1935 played a large role for La Farge to get the new ballpark.  The town’s old baseball field was located south of La Farge on ground right next to the river, which made it very susceptible to flooding by the Kickapoo.  That ball field, originally a pasture on the Slayback farm, was rented and maintained by the La Farge Athletic Association.  (The group would later incorporate as the La Farge Baseball Association with Ray Calhoon as a prominent member and officer.)  That group laid out a baseball diamond along the river, built wooden grandstands with seating for several hundred people, and mowed the outfield and a parking area for automobiles.  Periodic flooding from the river caused a near yearly battle by Calhoon and others to keep up the ball field.  The 1935 flood was the last straw as the field was devastated by the record high floodwaters.  The grandstands were wrecked beyond repair and the baseball diamond was completely washed away by the floodwaters.  The La Farge town baseball team, which was in the process of trying to win a county championship that summer, would never play on the old ball field next to the river again after that great flood of August 1935.  (The story of how that 1935 La Farge town baseball team went on to win the county championship without the benefit of a home field to play on is an amazing one.)
            In the summer of 1936, the town team played all their games at the baseball field located to the east of the school – what was then known as the high school field.  Perhaps that location gave Calhoon and Village President Davidson the idea for the new ballpark because in October of that year the village purchased six and one-third acres of land to the west of the schoolhouse for a new athletic field. 
Using WPA funds, work was begun immediately on the new facility.  Twelve men working with six teams of horses broke ground that fall on the new athletic complex.  Original plans called for a baseball field with covered grandstands and dugouts, a six-lane, quarter-mile cinder track for holding track & field meets, and a swimming pool to be located on the grounds.  The baseball field and track were to be constructed first with the pool coming as a later phase of the project.  The athletic complex would lie adjacent to the new high school gymnasium, also being built with the help of WPA funding, which was nearing completion in the fall of 1936.  In two months of work before the snows came, the work crews leveled the area, moving thousands of feet of dirt for the track and ball field areas.
            The plans called for the ball field to “rival even those in the big leagues”.  The dimensions for the new fields were 365’ to the left and right field foul poles and 472’ to dead centerfield.  A cement amphitheater with a wooden cover was constructed in an oval shape directly back of home plate with cement wings, which included more seating extending along each baseline towards the dugouts.  Seating capacity was to be just under one thousand at the new park, with ample parking for automobiles behind the grandstands.  Calhoon had a local artist paint a wall-sized mural of the new ball field.  The painting was displayed in the Chase Brothers store (where Calhoon worked) on La Farge’s busy Main Street intersection and it showed a ball field that would be the show place of western Wisconsin.
            1937 was a tough year for WPA projects all over the country as the newly elected Congress in Washington D.C. struggled with the various spending bills.  The La Farge ball field project stalled when federal money didn’t come through as promised and eventually the track and pool construction was shelved due to this lack of federal funding.  To keep the new ball field project going, La Farge President Davidson spearheaded an appropriation from the village to help pay for worker’s wages and materials for the new ballpark.  The use of local tax money on the project caused a furor from opponents of the new ballpark.  Once again letters appeared in the La Farge Enterprise newspaper condemning a “work welfare” project and the use of local tax dollars on the “Big Mud Hole” next to the school.  One letter writer referred to the project as “Calhoon’s Folly” and the editor of the newspaper called for a new village president.  The 1937 spring election races were heated and the local newspaper supported Lester Wood for village president to replace Arch Davidson, who was running for reelection.  In a campaign letter published in the Enterprise, Wood voiced guarded support for the new ball field project, but questioned the use of local tax dollars for the project.  With the most voters ever participating in a village election, Davidson retained his village president position by a mere handful of votes.
            In 1938, the village would have to spend additional money on the ball field project, but as that summer ended most of the stone work on the grandstands, walkways, retaining walls and dugouts was completed.  The following spring, the finishing work of grading and graveling the parking areas and putting up the fence around the ballpark was done.  On April 28, 1939, the La Farge town team played its first baseball game at Calhoon Park.  (The local lads lost that inaugural game in their new ballpark to a team from Melvina.) 
Ray Calhoon helped manage the local nine that day at the new ballpark; his dream had become a reality.  

Sunday, May 3, 2015


Every once in a while, something happens in this little burg on the Kickapoo that makes a person proud.  Yes, we Kickapoogians have our faults, which can often cause us to be cast in a less than pleasant light.  Then, lo and behold, the local folks will band together for a particular cause, carry it through with appropriate gusto and √©lan to such a degree, that it makes everyone puff up with pride.   So, let’s take a look at something that has transpired in the last few months regarding the lands of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.
            Yup, We have trouble right here in River City and it starts with a capital “C” as in a controversy once again concerning the “government land”.  That damn “dam land” has risen up another time to capture the headlines of the local press.  Most of us denizens of the upper Kickapoo Valley had thought that the issues associated with the land taken by the federal government for the La Farge Dam & Lake Project were put to rest some fifteen years ago when the land was legally transferred over by the Feds to state control.  Since then, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, which was created from that “government land” (This was a local name bestowed on the dam project lands during that time starting in the 1970’s when the dam project was in legislative and bureaucratic limbo for nearly thirty years as the powers to be tried to figure out what to do with the nearly 9,000 acres.  That name for the property is not heard nearly as often in these parts as it used to be.), has grown into one of the most popular public lands in southern Wisconsin.  Tens of thousands of people use the Reserve every year to hunt, hike, bike, fish, camp, canoe, ski, bird watch, and cool out.  Thousands of school children from all over western Wisconsin come to the Reserve each year to hike its trails, learn about the wonders of nature and become aware of the history of the land.
            So what could possibly interrupt this idyllic transformation for these Kickapoo Valley lands from a bad situation into a good one?
            Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced his proposed state budget to a joint session of the state legislature on Tuesday evening, February 3rd.  It was a snowy evening in Madison and there was also a Badger men’s basketball game at the Kohl Center that same evening that I was attending.  The combination of the snowy and slippery streets, the crowd coming in for the UW basketball game and the Governor’s budget address made for a traveling gridlock for people driving into the Downtown Madison area.  By tipoff time for the Badger game, more than half of the seats were still empty – an extremely rare occurrence.
            Eventually the snow stopped and the streets were plowed and salted.  Bo Ryan’s Badgers played superbly in dispatching an over matched Indiana team by a score of 92-78. By halftime of the game, the Kohl Center was packed as usual.  Everything returned to normal except for that pesky budget presented that evening by Governor Walker.
            By the time that we had returned home from Madison that evening, my e-mail started to fill with messages about a particular provision in the Governor’s budget.  That policy provision (always a bad deal when included in a budget bill, but Walker isn’t the first Governor to do it) called for a change in the administration of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, moving it from the Department of Tourism over to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  The Governor’s proposal for the Reserve caught everyone by surprise.  Neither the staff nor the management board of the Reserve had been consulted.  The Ho-Chunk Nation, which jointly manages part of the Reserve, knew nothing about the proposed change.  Even the DNR, the state agency designated to administer the Reserve in the Governor’s proposal, was unaware of the proposed change.   
What was apparent with the proposal was that it had been included in the budget by Governor Walker without proper communication to those most directly affected by the change.  Soon a strategy was developed to voice opposition to the proposal.  To provide some historical perspective to the story of the lands involved in the Governor’s proposal, I wrote a letter-to-the- editor and sent it off to a few area newspapers.  I titled the letter, “Walker’s Proposal a Slap In The Face to the People of the Kickapoo Valley”.
  In the letter, I wrote,
“The recent proposal in Governor Scott Walker’s budget to transfer administrative control of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve to the state DNR caught nearly everyone by surprise.  The move by the governor was obviously done with little thought to the complex and troubled history of these lands.
            In the early 1990’s, a move was made to return the nearly 8,600 acres of land purchased by the federal government for the failed La Farge Dam Project to the State of Wisconsin.  Governor Tommy Thompson, State Senator Brian Rude and Assemblyman DuWayne Johnsrud (all Republicans) worked to involve the people of the Kickapoo Valley in that process.  A committee of local citizens met with Al Anderson from UW-Extension to see what could be done with the huge section of land located north of La Farge.  Meetings were held throughout the Kickapoo Valley to hear from the people.  Overwhelmingly, the people demanded that the property NOT be controlled by the DNR.
Eventually the Kickapoo Valley Reserve was created by state statute and the property was administered by the Department of Tourism.  It has since developed into one of the most popular public lands in southern Wisconsin.  It draws tens of thousands of horseback riders, hunters, hikers, campers, winter sports enthusiasts and others to the northern Kickapoo Valley every year.  Thousands of students and adults participate in the Reserve’s education programs and special events each year.  This excellent public use of the lands has developed as the people of the Kickapoo Valley had hoped.
            Yet, Governor Walker now wants to turn the administration of the Reserve lands over to the DNR – an agency that he also guts of nearly 70 job positions in his same budget message.  Due to the governor’s enforced under staffing the DNR cannot manage the lands that it now oversees.  How will the DNR administer the proposed new lands of the Reserve – one of the largest areas of public land in southern Wisconsin?  Chaos and mismanagement can be foreseen.  More importantly, why did the governor go against the wishes of the citizens of the Kickapoo Valley with this “Slap in the Face” move?  Perhaps he was too busy being out of state courting his billionaire campaign backers for his presidential bid?  He obviously wasn’t studying the history of the Kickapoo Valley.
            This shortsighted blunder by the governor can be stopped by the legislature.  If you would like to see that happen, contact Assemblyman Lee Nerison and State Senator Jennifer Shilling to get them behind the opposition to Governor Walker’s insult to the Kickapoo Valley.  Act now before it is too late!
            My rhetoric was a little fiery and over-the-top perhaps, but I intended it to rally some outrage over what the governor was proposing.  It may have worked.
            Within a week the letter had been printed in newspapers from Baraboo to LaCrosse.  Soon it was posted on various Face Book pages and the message spread throughout social media.  I was hearing from both old friends and people that I had never met about how to help save the Reserve.  Phone calls and e-mails poured in.
  On Thursday evening, February 19th, the Management board of the Reserve met with Rep. Lee Nerison and Sen. Jennifer Shilling to see what could be done.  It was standing room only that night at the Reserve’s Visitor Center as 150 people crowded in to see what they could do to oppose the governor’s proposal.  Both of the elected officials in attendance pledged their opposition to Governor Walker’s proposal and instructed everyone to contact the members of the Legislative Joint Committee on Finance and tell them to pull the proposal from the budget. 
The rallying cry was heard and the people responded.  By late March, the members of the Joint Finance Committee were starting to indicate that the proposal would be pulled from the budget.  Senator Shilling’s office staff said that they had heard from more people about the Kickapoo Valley Reserve proposal than any other issue ever.  At a Joint Finance Committee hearing held in Reedsburg on March 26, Co-Chairman Rep. John Nygren spoke to a group attending from the Kickapoo Valley and hinted that the governor’s proposal about the Reserve was coming out of the budget.
On Wednesday, April 22nd, the Joint Finance Committee, by a vote of 16-0, removed Governor Walker’s proposal to change the administration of the Reserve to the DNR from the budget.  Once again, the people had remembered the special lands of the northern Kickapoo Valley.
They had spoken and they had been heard - So Far, So Good