(This is a conclusion to a previous post about La Farge's historic ballpark, Calhoon Park.)
So, the 76th season of baseball at Calhoon Park will probably be remembered as the year that the ballpark was featured on LaCrosse’s WKBT – Channel 8 television station. The video segment first aired on the Channel 8 Sports’ 6 pm report on Monday, May 18. Charlie Clifford narrated the story of La Farge’s ballpark using video shot by cameraman Greg White. The story of La Farge’s ballpark was well told and the video soon was posted on WKBT’s webpage (www.News8000.com). From there it was posted on various Facebook sites and the story was passed around on the Internet for all to see. Folks from California to North Carolina contacted me about the video – all enjoyed the story.
It’s also an interesting story as to how the television coverage came to be in the first place. As usual, it’s Lyle Dorschied’s fault – just kidding. Recently, Liberty Mutual Insurance named Lyle the national “Fireman of the Year”. It was a big deal around here for Lyle and the La Farge Fire Department, which benefited from a $10,000 donation from Liberty Mutual in honor of Lyle’s award.
Greg White, Channel 8 cameraman and local sports aficionado, was in La Farge for the announcement of Lyle’s award. Driving on the way to lunch at Rockton, White spied the ball field next to the school and Lyle started to fill him in on some of the history of the historic baseball field. The cameraman returned to LaCrosse, pitched the idea of a story about the ballpark at La Farge to the WKBT sports staff, and as we are want to say in this column – the rest is history.
White and Clifford came to La Farge and filmed during a La Farge-North Crawford high school baseball game on Thursday, May 14th. White filmed the park from many different perspectives and Clifford interviewed several people about the park. Clifford particularly liked the idea of generations of La Farge family members who had played at the Calhoon Park. The video included interviews with Ben Jacobs, who played baseball that day for the Wildcats, and Maverick Nelson, a manager for the Wildcats, who was also keeping the scoreboard for the game. Both told about how generations of their families had played at Calhoon Park. I also ended up in the video to give some background about the history of the ballpark.
In the last Local History Notebook, I related some of the story of how the ball field came to be built during the 1930’s. It was not an easy project to complete, partly because of the on again/off again nature of the WPA federal funding for the project. Through the efforts of Village President Arch Davidson and Ray Calhoon, who designed the plans for the park, it was finally finished in time for the 1939 season. Let’s continue looking at this story of Calhoon Park, this time focusing on the efforts to add lights to the ball field.
It was 1950 when the lights were added to Calhoon Park. The communities of Soldiers Grove and Hillsboro (fierce town team rivals with La Farge) already had new lights for their ballparks and La Farge didn’t want to be left behind. In early March a public meeting was held at the village pump house to discuss the lighting project. The Calhoon Park Association was created to facilitate a fund-raising drive to collect money for the new lights for the ballpark. The new ballpark association then sold shares of stock or subscriptions, as they were called, to pay for the new ballpark lights. The shares would be redeemed after a time (estimated to be from six to ten years) with a 2% profit added on to the original subscription. It was hoped that projected admissions and rental fees for the use of the ballpark would eventually pay off the association’s stock.
Dr. Frank Gollin, who would give the largest contribution to the initial fund drive, and the members of the La Farge VFW post, spearheaded the ballpark lighting project, which had an estimated initial cost of $8,500. That number comprised the purchase and installation of the metal towers for the lights, the light fixtures, and wiring for the project, with the idea that much of the labor costs would be donated. After getting approval from the village board, the project was begun and the materials for the new ballpark lights were ordered. Many of La Farge’s business places donated to the fund and other people contributed their labor on designated workdays, usually held on the weekends, to help with the project.
Thirty-two holes were dug for the cement bases for the eight light towers. When the steel for the towers arrived, each tower was put together on the ground and the light fixtures attached. Then the towers were lifted into place and secured onto the cement bases. The last phase of the project was the wiring of the towers, with each tower having a separate switchbox. The lights on each tower were turned on and off from the switchbox. By the first week of June, the new lights were ready for use.
A special game between the La Farge “City” team and the touring “House of David” team would inaugurate the new lights at the village’s ballpark. A huge crowd packed the ballpark to see night baseball at Calhoon Park. Additional seating had also been added to the ballpark when the lights were put in. The new seating included sets of wooden bleachers above the concrete seating areas along both the first and third base lines, which increased the seating capacity of the ballpark to more than 1,500.
Unfortunately, the fund drive to pay for the new lights had not proven nearly as successful as the actual construction of the project. Spurred by donations of $1,000 from Dr. Gollin, $500 from the VFW and $400 from Arnie Widstrand and the Enterprise newspaper, the total amount of money collected shot up to $4,500 by mid-May. But there it stopped. Opposition had arisen during the fund-raising drive as some people objected to the private association taking over control of the public ballpark. By June when the first bills came due, the ballpark association approached the village board for help.
At a special board meeting, a decision was made to borrow $11,500 to pay for the lighting project as well as future maintenance and costs of the lights. A public meeting was held in late June to discuss the issue. If the village borrowed the money for the lights, they would then lease the ballpark to the VFW or the association for a yearly fee. That money and revenues from gate admissions would be used to pay off the village’s note at little cost to the taxpayers. After hearing the proposed repayment plan of the borrowing by the village, most of the people in attendance at the meeting favored the village board going ahead with the financing. However, the board decided to take the issue to a public referendum vote when presented with a petition bearing 330 names in opposition to the village paying for the lights. The election vote on the ballpark lighting referendum was held on July 31 and the measure failed by an overwhelming vote of 164-72. In an article about the special election in the August 3rd issue of the Enterprise, high taxes in the village were given as the reason for the failure of the ballpark referendum to pass.
Undaunted by the failure to secure help from the village, the ballpark association and the VFW continued to sell the subscription shares over the next several years to raise money for the ballpark lights. Eventually Dr. Gollin stepped in once again and contributed more money to finally pay off the bill for the ballpark lights project. (There was a saying around La Farge after the ballpark lighting payment controversy was finally settled that went, “It may be Calhoon’s Park, but those are Doc Gollin’s lights”.) In 1956, after the lights had finally been paid for, the Calhoon Park Association turned over the maintenance of the baseball field to the village once again.