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.  

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