Sunday, July 5, 2015


(This is the third and last part of a narration that was used with the trolley rides scheduled to run through La Farge on the afternoon of July 4th.  We begin this last segment of the tour at the corner of south State and Snow Streets, heading east.)

As we turn east onto Snow Street, notice the second house on the left.  That used to be the old schoolhouse at Seelyburg, located up on Plum Run Road.  When Seelyburg combined its school district with La Farge’s in 1895, a new school was built midway between the two communities at the present site of La Farge’s school.  The old Seelyburg schoolhouse was then moved to this location over one hundred years ago and made into a residence.
As we approach Main Street again, notice this old gas station building on our right.  Carson Lawrence last ran a gas station here in the 1970’s.  Before that, Lovell North and Leo Smith had a gas station here for years.  The building was originally built as a blacksmith shop and is over one hundred years old as well.
Across the street is Bergum’s Food Mart, the last grocery store in town – actually, one of the last in the Kickapoo Valley.  Before this store was built, this was the site of Donaldson Brothers Hardware, which operated as a business at that location for nearly half a century.
To our left is another brick building, the former home of C and S Motors that was also constructed in 1916.  J.E. Neefe had this building erected beginning in 1915, putting up the brick walls of the new garage first, then had to wait for over six months for the steel I-beams to arrive on the train.  When they were lifted into place, tying the walls together, the roof was added last.  Neefe’s immediately began selling new autos and repairing the same here.  Others who had a garage and sold cars here were the Jantz Brothers, Ed Deibig and lastly, C and S Motors.  My Dad, Earl Steinmetz, was the “S” in C and S and sold lots of new Chevys and Buicks from here.
Across the street is the old grocery store and feed mill building.  Today it is the home of the “Episcope” newspaper.  Donna and Lee Gudgeon were the last to run a grocery store here, then built the new store across the street and moved over there.  The Wheeler Brothers from Viola last ran a feed mill at this site.
We’re moving out to the east end of La Farge now.  Notice that most of the houses along Main Street here are quite small.  When built in the early 1900’s, they were called “bungalows” and were built as fast as they could obtain the lumber for the men working in the lumber mills here in town.  See the old Free Methodist Church on the corner; originally dedicated in January of 1903, the church has been lovingly converted to a residence by the Albright family.
This is the new Emergency Services Building for La Farge and it houses the fire department, police department and the Ambulance Squad.  The village received a large grant after the 2008 flood to move their emergency services away from the flood plain and they were all relocated to this new location in 2010.  Village board meetings, elections and many community events are held here.
Across the street is the new Free Methodist Church, dedicated in 2004.  A local lad, Mark Phillips leads the active congregation here in this new place of worship.  That’s the bell from the old church that sits just to the north of the new building.  Looking down towards Bear Creek to our right, this was once the home of the brickyards in town.  All that Bear Creek clay was fired in kilns there to make the bricks to build the new houses and stores in the growing town of La Farge.
Heading back west on Main Street, notice Deb Moore’s barber’s pole in front of her beauty shop.  On the corner, we see the old building that housed the barbershop when I was a kid growing up here.  It was where Eston Major and Everett Parr cut hair for the men in the community.  The building was originally La Farge’s first hotel, the Belcher House, and later was a ladies hat and millinery store for years.
This is Bean Park on the left and the original site of the home of Dredsel Bean, a founding father of “The Corners”.  The Masonic Temple was built in 1927 when the Rockton Chapter of Mason’s closed and merged with the one in La Farge.  The village bought this temple in the 1980’s (another of Glenn Alderman’s ideas) and with much help from the members of the local Lions Club the building was converted into this fine community center.
On our left is the Lawton Memorial Library, opened in 1990 thanks to a generous donation by Dr. Jim Lawton (an LHS alum). This will soon be a construction site, as work on an addition that will double the size of the present library will begin later this summer.  Funds are still being raised for that addition – stop at the information table at school if you would like to contribute to the cause.
Remember when I said that the Methodist congregation moved from Seelyburg to La Farge.  This is where they built their new church in 1902.  This newer church, dedicated in 1971, replaced that original church.  But look!  There is the bell from the old church, still ready to peal out to the village.
We’re heading up the hill now and as we ascend, we pass this house on the left that once housed one of the first beauty salons in La Farge – where women could have their hair done.  This was Lathrop’s Salon and further up the hill here on our right was the Maple Street Salon, operated by Joyce Steinmetz until her retirement last year.
We are now entering Lakeview Addition, a housing development created by some local men in response to the Lake La Farge project.  With the wonderful 1,800-acre lake coming to La Farge, promising all sorts of recreational opportunities for tourism, new houses would need to be built in town.  The group purchased Whitey Barclay’s mink ranch, plotted out the property for sale and had the village add the streets.  It was already to go in 1973 and Lonnie and Gail Muller, who were operating the “Epitaph” newspaper from a building on Main Street and living in an apartment overhead their business, built the first house in the new addition.
As we round the corner of Lakeview Addition, we see again the Organic Valley headquarters.  The addition on the right of the headquarters building was added in 2012.  In May of 2013, a fire completely destroyed the west wing of the headquarters building – it was the largest fire, money-wise, in the history of Vernon County.  But within a year, the west wing had been rebuilt, and the OV employees who had spread out to various sites in the area to do their jobs during the rebuild, were back in their own offices once again.
The Village Park, dedicated in 1916 (so much happened in that year), was once known as Bean’s Grove.  It was here on this forested hillside on the northern most part of his farm that Dred Bean had his sugar camp.  In the summer, he would keep the weeds cut back so that his Civil War veteran pals could hold reunions here.  It was also a favorite picnic spot for all kinds of family and community gatherings.  Try to catch the “Music In The Park”, playing in the park’s big shelter beginning at three this afternoon.
Now, we are back at the school and as we look at the old two-story building, we should remember that this 1901 brick schoolhouse replaced that original two-story wooden schoolhouse built in 1895 when La Farge and Seelyburg merged their schools.  That original schoolhouse, which housed grades one through eight being taught by three teachers, burned down in 1900.  If you want to know more about the school’s history and when some of the other parts of the school were built, there are self-guided tours in the school available all afternoon.  Looking towards a bright future in 1901, the citizens of La Farge decided to build a new school, twice as big as the one being replaced and one that could possibly serve a brand new high school!
We are back where we started now and our trolley tour is over.  If you would like to learn more about the village’s early history and the Lake La Farge project, both of my books that tell some of the stories are for sale today in the gymnasium.



(This is the second part of a narration that was used on the trolley rides
 through La Farge as part of this year’s 4th of July Celebration.  As we begin this second part of the town’s story for the tour, the trolley car is approaching the corner of Main and Mill Streets, heading south.)

            Looking across the back lot to our right, we can see the old cheese warehouse and the old railroad freight house.  The train depot was just to the south of these buildings, but that building was torn down and hauled away shortly after the last run of the Kickapoo Stump Dodger in August of 1939.
As we pause at this busy intersection of La Farge, we have one of the oldest businesses in town just to our right.  Nuzum’s has been operating in this town for over one hundred years.  Originally, it was located here to be near the railroad and back in the day, there was a branch rail line running into the big shed so that railroad cars full of lumber could be offloaded in the storage building.  Nuzum’s also had a big coal shed in the back lot when the railroad was running.  Across the street is the old cheese factory building, which up until the 1980’s was still processing cheese on location using milk from area farms.  Both the cheese factory building and the Nuzum buildings were finished in 1916, constructed as World War I was being waged far away from the Kickapoo Valley.
The cheese factory is now part of the Organic Valley presence in town and because the building once sat empty is why those first organic farmers came here in 1989.  They formed a co-op to market their organic farm products, calling it CROPP, and packaged products here for retail sales elsewhere.  Stop at the OV retail store located there for great buys on their products.  As we move down Mill Street, notice that most of the houses in this lower part of La Farge are now gone.  After the terrible flood of 2008, over twenty houses were purchased using FEMA and DNR funds.  Most of the houses were torn down and the people living in them had to relocate out of the floodplain of the Kickapoo River.  Some of the people stayed in La Farge, but many relocated elsewhere.
As we look at the old railroad bed to our right, we are coming upon the newest addition to our village’s extensive park system.  “The Kickapoo Stump Dodger Trail”, with historic signs and mowed walkways, will lead visitors along the river here.  Eventually there will be a new fishing pond here with a handicapped-accessible pier and places for family picnics.  This weekend, the brand new “Disc Golf Course” is being inaugurated and play will continue here throughout the day.
As we turn left and drive out Pearl Street here, we should remember the people who used to live here – family names of old – DeJean, Norris, Potter, Sokolik and other more recent ones – Rush, Campton, Walker and Clements – they all used to call it home.
As we stop here at State Highway 131, remember that this is place is the very beginning of the town, as Thomas DeJean had his original sawmill over there at the mouth of Bear Creek.  Thomas and his son Anson later converted it to a gristmill and it ran for several decades.  The DeJean family was the first family here in La Farge (arriving in the 1850’s), but back in the 19th century, it was known as “The Corners”.  After Thomas Dejean died in 1877, this place came to be called “DeJean’s Corners” in his honor.
As we turn left onto Snow Street, the village’s root beer stand used to be on this corner.  It was open each summer for nearly half a century and many fond memories of root beer floats and “Brown Cows” still linger here.  Before that time, the Hotel Ward, La Farge’s largest hotel once occupied this corner until burning down in the late 1930’s.
This medical clinic building was constructed in 1962 after over $40,000 had been raised for the project through donations and fund-raising in the community.  The building was known as a Sears Foundation building and specifically designed for medical facilities in small rural communities.  Roger Gabrielson supervised its construction.  Dr. Connie Lee was the first physician to have a practice in the building.  Later, a wing was added for a dentist’s office and the medical clinic was further expanded in the 1990’s due to the increased number of patients being seen by Dr. Deline.  Dr. Rose Wels, the town’s dentist, has her practice in this front wing of the building and new tenants are planning to move into the space that was the medical clinic.
The old Burt apartment building, which used to be down the street on the left, where the new house has been moved in, was another casualty of the 2008 flood.  The apartment building, which was once the parsonage located next to the Methodist Church, sat in floodwaters for several days and when the electrical power was turned back on, the water-soaked and damaged wiring caused a fire that destroyed the building, and three more families were looking for a new place to stay.
To our left is the village motel, built in the 1970’s by then village president Dick Gabrielson and originally called the Lakeland Motel – designed to provide rooms for all those tourists visiting Lake La Farge.  To our right was once the home of the former “Enterprise” newspaper – La Farge’s town newspaper for 75 years, operated for much of that time by the Widstrand family.
The new post office here on our left is where the old fire station was at one time.  Before that it was Mac Marshall’s hotel, which burned down in the 1940’s during World War II.  Before the hotel was built, The Corners’ first school was here and Anson DeJean was the first teacher in that log schoolhouse. 
The hotel annex next door remained after the fire to Mac’s Hotel and that building was the site of the town’s post office for forty years.  The old brick-veneer building, one of La Farge’s first of that type, started to fall down a couple of years back.  Eventually it was torn down to make more parking for the Z-zip Stop, La Farge’s only gas station.  The brick building across the street that now houses some apartments was the first brick store building in La Farge – the bricks made out of clay taken from the banks of Bear Creek.
That’s the old Mars Theater across the street, built in 1947 by the Callaway family.  After the theater closed down, it was a bar for several decades beginning in the early 1970’s.  Now it is one of several second-hand stores in town.
On the left at the Indigo Thrift second-hand store is the former home to Muriel’s Variety Store and before that Jennie Adams’ variety store.  Across the street, where we used to have the Cash Store and the drug store, we now have a realty office and Sisters’ Place restaurant.
The hardware store building on the corner is the oldest in town, built be the DeJeans in 1875 and used as a general store.  Some type of business has been operating in that building for 140 years.  The lawyer’s office on the left was built in the 1890’s as a farmer’s co-op store.  Dred Bean, one of the original residents of The Corners, supplied most of the money for the construction of the store building.  When the railroad came into town in 1898, the Chase Brothers bought the building, modernized it and ran a mercantile store there for decades.  Later it was a grocery store, furniture store, second hand store, and feed mill.  When CROPP/Organic Valley expanded operations in La Farge in the 1990’s, they had offices on both floors of this building, as well as any other available vacant space for offices on Main Street.
As we drive down State Street, the old river road heading down to Viola, look to our left and we can see a couple of buildings constructed by Sam Green.  After Sam let the “La Farge” name and his post office move north to DeJean’s Corners in the early 1890’s, he followed and opened a store in the nearest building.  He eventually moved his general store north to Seelyburg and this building became the cobbler’s shop and shoe store in town for decades. 
Phil Stittleburg’s lawyer’s office located in this second store building built by Sam Green, now has been in the law business here at this site since 1899 and qualifies as La Farge’s oldest office site with a continuous business.  Previously, Alva Drew and Ralph Freeze had their law practices in this building.
Across the street, the turreted building was originally a general store built by Henry Millard.  His father, Oscar Millard, had the original general store in Ontario and Henry had come down the river to open a general store in booming Seelyburg.  He relocated to La Farge after the great Kickapoo River flood of 1899 badly damaged his Seelyburg store.  This store was also the site of the La Farge Post Office for nearly half a century.  Dr. George Chambers, La Farge’s dentist for many years, had his office upstairs in this building for many years and also became the postmaster when Henry Millard moved from town. 
This corner building on the right was an original Millard store building first located in Ontario.  In the early 1900’s, Millard had the Ontario store deconstructed, the building sections hauled down the old river road by teams of horses and then reconstructed here in La Farge.  Millard rented out the first floor to people for a variety of businesses.  The second floor became the meeting hall for La Farge’s chapter of the Knights of Pythias – the KP’s and their auxiliary women’s organization.  Eventually the KP’s took over the whole building and used it for meetings, events such as wild game feeds and pancake suppers and even as a place to shoot pool and play cards.  Recently, the building has been used for a second-hand store and as the headquarters for a motorcycle club.
Next time, we will finish this trolley tour through the history of our little town on the Kickapoo River.


            This year as part of La Farge’s celebration for Independence Day, and in conjunction with the All-School Reunion, there were trolley rides offered on the afternoon of the 4th of July.  I was on board to provide a little commentary on the history of the sites as we traveled through town – talking about the past, present and not too distant future.  For those of you who  couldn't hop on the trolley, here’s a little purview of the tour.
            Please remember as you read this; the story is being delivered in a trolley car full of folks on July 4th, 2015.
            As we pull out of the school parking lot, notice the kids playing ball over at Calhoon Park.  It’s seventy-six years and counting for La Farge’s historic ballpark, which was recently featured on LaCrosse’s Channel 8 TV.  Built as a WPA project in the late 1930’s, the iconic ballpark has been home to ball games for kids of all ages for three-quarters of a century.  Don’t forget there’s an Alumni Softball game at five this afternoon and then the Icons vs. Legends game tonight at Calhoon Park.
            As we turn on to Mill Street and head north, view the childcare center and other buildings along this road.  I used to refer to these buildings as “Glennville”, because Glenn Alderman – a man who served La Farge as village president, constructed them back in the day.
            This large industrial building on the left was built in the 1970’s to house the Kickapoo Stoveworks factory.  Paul Bader’s BBR wood-burning stove, one of the best ever built, was constructed here by the thousands  (Paul told me that he wanted to build four of those stoves and ended up making 14,000”).  Organic Valley (OV) now uses the building as a warehouse.
            This area to our left as we turn off the highway used to be called Morgantown.  When there was a railroad in La Farge, the railroad workers lived in small houses here.  The Morgan family always had men working for the old “Kickapoo Stump Dodger”, as the train was called and many of them lived here.  That house, once the home of Jap Morgan, is the only original railroad worker’s shanty that’s left.
            We are heading down Seelyburg Road now and back into La Farge’s beginnings.  Chapel Hill Cemetery on our left is located where the first church in town was – a log chapel that housed the Methodist congregation.  Eventually, the Methodists built a new church a block off Main Street in La Farge and the old log chapel was sold to some Norwegian Lutherans, who moved it from here.  As we descend the hill, we are heading into old Seelyburg, the lumbering river town that has a history stretching back to before the Civil War.  This old river town that is no more is featured in the book, Ghost Towns of Wisconsin.
            The house on our right is the oldest in La Farge.  Originally constructed in 1865, it was the first wood-frame house built in the community.  Ed and Alice Nixon first lived here.  Alice was the daughter of Dempster and Juliette Seely.  Dempster Seely built a sawmill here and a town grew up around it. 
Back in the 19th century this road was lined with businesses and houses.  Chauncey Lawton was an original founder of this place, which he called Star.  He had a store and law office here on the right, just before we cross the Kickapoo River.  If you look to your left, you can see some of the foundation of the original Seely house.  During the 1935 Kickapoo River flood, there was a dramatic rescue of a family from the second floor of this house.  That amazing story made headlines around the nation and began the federal government attempts to control the floods of the Kickapoo.
            On our right is the Star Cemetery, another of Seelyburg’s burying places.  It was also the site of an Adventist Church, which operated a grade school here until after World War I.
            As we turn here at the former Gale Huston mink ranch (now owned by his nephew Earl Nelson), notice Norris Ridge ahead of us.  This is where the federal government’s Corps of Engineers built the La Farge Dam to create Lake La Farge back in the early 1970’s.  The building with the red roof was to be the Corps maintenance building for the crew working at the dam.  The building with the green roof is the town hall for the Town of Stark.  It was constructed in 2012-13 to replace the old town buildings located on La Farge’s Main Street, that were damaged by the 2008 Kickapoo River flood.
            Notice the sign that identifies this place as once being the home of the Huston’s.  Those signs (This year, there are brand new signs made especially for the day) are put out every 4th of July, when the Kickapoo Valley Reserve opens old Highway 131 so vehicles can drive along it from here to Rockton and know who used to live along the old river road.  The old river road now serves as a main trail for the Reserve, which is off limits to cars except on special occasions like today.  The road will be open the rest of the afternoon until 4 o’clock.
            As we again cross the river, we are reminded of a prior 4th of July Celebration when La Farge’s famous “The Human Cork” performed his floating skills here.  That’s right, Bill Claybrook, La Farge High School Class of 1914 and known as “Non-Sinkable William”, gained national fame for his floating prowess.
            Looking up on the hill to our left, we see a new house built last year by Greg Lawton, a descendant of the founder of this forgotten little river town and the 5th generation of Lawton’s to live here in Star or Seelyburg.  Beyond look at the green roof of the Organic Valley headquarters in the distance.  OV is the largest marketer of organic products in the world and had total sales of $992 million in 2014.  Organic Valley employs 400 people here in La Farge at the present time to help make all those sales happen.
            When Seelyburg was thriving back in the day before the floods washed it away, Dr. Amos Carpenter had his office and apothecary here. Dr. Carpenter was known for using Indian potions and medicines in his practice and each fall, the Winnebago (now Ho-Chunk) would stop and sell their natural medicines to Dr. Amos.
            This is the site of the last store in Seelyburg, owned by Sam Hook.  The popular storeowner died when his store burned down in 1917.  He was found floating in the spring-fed cistern in the store’s basement and that cement vault still lies over there in the weeds.  Everybody who lived in Seelyburg back then claimed that Sam was murdered most foully.  Alas, poor Sam could not call for help on that fateful night in 1917 because he was a deaf mute.
            That is new State Highway 131 to our left.  This road was put in to go around Lake La Farge and replace the old state highway, which we were just on.  When the dam project was stopped in 1975, the community, as a way to protest, held a mock funeral here in town for Senator William Proxmire.  An effigy dummy of the senator, riding in a manure spreader pulled by two jackasses, took the funeral parade up to the dam site where the dummy was thrown down toward the river.  Reverend Red Alderson intoned, “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.  Lord, give us a senator that we can trust.”  La Farge once again made national headlines. 
            Looking up at the school building, the old two-story 1901 school building is at the center of a current struggle by the people of the school district as to what to do with the ancient structure.  Do we tear it down, since it has outlived its usefulness as a school building, or do we convert, retrofit or restore it for other uses for the community?  That is the question.
            The story of how La Farge got its name is an interesting one.  Because of the names derivation, many people like to make a connection with the early French fur trappers, who plied the Kickapoo trading for furs with the Winnebago.  That would be a good story, and another is that the name was chosen because there is a place to ford the Kickapoo River here.  The French la farge fits with the proximity with the river.  Another great story, but alas, the name La Farge was simply picked out of a book supplied by the U.S. Post Office.  A young girl, blindfolded for the process, ran her finger down the page and stopped at La Farge.  This took place at Sam Green’s place, a mile south of town.  That was the first La Farge post office; now it’s the Green Apple Inn B&B and the owner serves organic breakfasts.  What a connection between the past, present and future of this town.
            As we approach the new VMH medical clinic on our left, it’s important to remember that this is the site of the last sawmill in La Farge.  Schroer’s Hardwood Lumber ceased sawing operations here in July of 2013 marking the first time in the 150-year history of the town that La Farge did not have an operating sawmill.  The new clinic will have three doctors and a pharmacy as well as two birthing rooms.  Dr. Jim Deline has been delivering Amish babies for decades and his renowned research on Amish health issues will continue in the new clinic.  The new clinic is hosting an Open House for the public until three this afternoon.