Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Saturation Point!

During September, the Kickapoo Valley was awash in floodwaters.  It was not a record-setter like we had back in 2008, but it was a significant flooding event for the Valley.  If one watched the weather patterns over the last few months, this flood in the fall season could almost be anticipated.  The Kickapoo Valley has a saturation point and once that is attained, then flooding is almost sure to follow.
            The flood of September 22-24, 2016 reached a height of a little over 14 feet as recorded at the measuring station on the Kickapoo River at La Farge.  This is almost two feet below the record setting flood of June 2008, but it still qualifies as a “100-Year Flood” according to the flood measuring system adopted by the Corps of Engineers.  Now, we must remember that the “100-Year Flood” label does not mean that type of severe flood comes along every century or so.  What the designation does define is that type of severe flooding has a 1% chance of occurring on a yearly basis.  Clear as the muddy waters of the Kickapoo, right?
We need to back up a few months to see how this all set up for the Valley’s saturation point to be reached.  That term “saturation point” has been in the state news a lot in the past few weeks.  After the heavy rains in southern Wisconsin of this past September, the National Weather Service office out of Madison has released figures to show that water saturation is at record levels in area topsoil.  Although these measurements have only been kept since 1995, the September 2016 figures are record setters for the month and some of the top saturation levels ever recorded.  Here in the Kickapoo Valley, those record saturation levels have been quite apparent for a while.
Here at our place on Bear Creek, there is a field next to the highway that is jokingly referred to as a hay field.  Filled with weeds and marsh grasses, the field has relinquished several big bales of “horse hay” to cousin, Mike Steinmetz, over the past several years.  Mike even has baled up two cuttings of the marshy mixture in the good dry years.  “Good years” are the ones when it is dry enough to get the hay machines on the field to get the hay crop harvested.  This has not been a good year.
I talked to Mike about possibly baling up the marsh hay before the 4th of July.  It was a little wet then from several heavy rains in June, so the harvest was delayed some.  That was really not a good idea, as it seemed to rain every other day in July.  Meanwhile the weeds in the field soared to the sky as the harvest was delayed – a bumper crop of Yellow Rocket, Wild Parsnip and Globe Plant.  Finally, on July 25th, Mike cut the “hay” in the field.  When he was done driving through the marshy morass of muck, he told me that I should grow cranberries in the field next year.  He waited a week for the cut grass to dry out.  It never did.  As he baled up the soggy mass of weeds and grasses, water was spewing from the baler.  Saturation point had been attained – and that was on August 1st.
The month of August was another rainy one, with some type of rain on nearly half the days – precipitation was much above average for the month.  Then came the real rains of September.
There was 4.25” of rain on September 6-7, another inch on the 9th, another couple of inches in the week of September 12th thru the 16th, on the 19th we had a rain shower with hail just for a little change, and then to make things really interesting, we had 6.25” of the wet stuff during the week of September 19th thru the 25th.  Although we are on the last day of the month as I’m writing this and it looks rainy, September’s rains will total in the 14-15” range – record setting for the month.  And that was AFTER the heavier than normal rains of the previous three months had put the Kickapoo Valley at the dreaded SATURATION POINT!
There was a “Preview of Coming Attractions” for us back after those early torrential rains the first week of September.  The creeks were out of the banks everywhere and Bear Creek went over Highway 131 at the bridge on the south end of town.  That day, September 7th, was also the day that La Farge hosted a regional conference on development of small towns.  Government officials from though out southern Wisconsin descended on the village for the forum.  I gave a little history bus tour of the town that morning, prior to the forum’s beginning session.  As I herded several dozen people onto the bus in a pouring rain, some mentioned that they had gone through floodwaters that morning to get to La Farge.  Then they boarded a bus with the name “TITANIC” on the side!  When I told them that only special town tours of La Farge included a Kickapoo Valley flood while on board a TITANIC bus, some failed to see the humor in the morning’s situation.
Face Book and IPhones give a whole new perspective to Kickapoo Valley floods.  The photos are much more plentiful and the news travels much faster on a personal level.  The photo of Ken Choninger’s car buried in a washout hole at the bridge in Valley went viral on social media.  Scenes of washed out driveways taken from many different vantage points has an eerie end-of-the-world quality to them.  People who once lived in the Kickapoo Valley, but who now are high and dry in more secure locations, sent frantic messages wondering if everything had been washed away.
 Truth be told, it was a rather run-of-the-mill flood by old time standards.  Yes, the water went across Highway 82 between Nuzum’s and the cheese factory like it always does.  Andrews Flat filled up with the overflow floodwaters of the river and some of it flowed down Mill Street past the new clinic.  The water did run over old Highway 131 at Seelyburg for a couple of days.
But there were NOT any logs floating along Main Street like in 1907, 1935 and 2008.  As a matter of fact, we do not have any sawmill in town any more for the logs to float out of.  The edge of the floodwaters did not edge up to the parking lot of the Co-op like in the really big ones of the past.  It was not a “GREAT” Kickapoo River flood in La Farge although it was much more of a river-flooding event downstream in Viola, Readstown and Gays Mills.  Another reason that this year’s flood had less of an impact on La Farge was that over twenty former residences in town are no longer in the path of the floodwaters.  Those houses located in La Farge that used to sit in the floods’ path were bought out using FEMA and DNR funds after the 2008 flood.  Most were razed and hauled away to the landfill.
Another lively discussion that took place about the flood, concerned the Corps’ dam located north of La Farge.  If the dam had been finished, would it have curtailed the effects of the flood?  OF COURSE IT WOULD HAVE!  The main purpose of that federal project was to control floodwaters in the Kickapoo Valley.  It would have held back the floodwaters coming down from Ontario and that would have meant less flooding for La Farge, Viola and Readstown.  Remember that part of the La Farge dam project also included levy systems to protect the villages of Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills.  If those had been completed and the six retention dams had been built north of La Farge, also part of the federal project, the flood of September 2016 might have been looked at with yawning indifference.  But the big dam at La Farge, the down-river levy systems and the up-river retention dams never were built, so now we just keep backing away from the rising floodwaters.

Quoting from Volume 1 of my history book about La Farge, one resident who had barely survived the great flood of 1935 said, “I will never sleep in that house again.  Get me away from that damn river!”

Memories of the "New" Old 1936 Gym at LHS

With the recent reincarnation of the 1936 gymnasium at La Farge Schools back into a usable gym, the memories of times in that place have been flooding back for many of us.  Under the guidance of Al Oaklief, I learned the basics of basketball in that old gym.  When my time to play basketball for La Farge came, it was in that old gym where those first junior high school games were played.  Moving on to my high school years at LHS, I played two seasons in the old gym.
            Oddly, I have few actual memories of the games that I participated in (perhaps caused from my very modest skills at the sport), but I have lots of distant recollections of watching games in that old gym.  As a little kid, our seats for basketball games were in the northwest corner of the 1936 gym on seats made by piling up the sections of the disassembled stage. That stage was rarely used, mainly for student plays, concerts and graduation ceremonies, but when disassembled and stacked in the corner, it was the place for youngsters to view the games.  
            I think I went to some LHS basketball games during the 1955-56 season when my brother Dick played on the Wildcat team in his senior year.  That Wildcat team of 1955-56 arguably had the finest season in school history.  They won every game in their home gym that year, won the Kickapoo Valley Conference title with a 13-1 mark and advanced to sub-sectionals in WIAA post-season play.  That LHS team compiled a 22-2 season mark.  Perhaps being an eight year old at the time, I don’t seem to have any specific recollections about the gym from that season.
            But the next season was a whole different story.  There is one game in that 1956-57 season that stands out for me yet to this day.  My brother Kent played on that team, but my memory is about a shooting exhibition put on by LHS Senior Rod Kennedy.  Rod Kennedy was a prolific scorer for the Wildcats that season.  He scored 30 or more points in fourteen games that season with a high of 42 against Soldiers Grove!  La Farge had a good team that finished second in the KVC and had a season record of 18-4.  The game that I remember was the last home game of the season played against Readstown.  It was a hard fought 67-61 victory for the Wildcats and Rod Kennedy scored 37 points.  I remember that Rod kept shooting fade-away jumpers from the corner right near where we were sitting.  It seemed that we could look right down on Rod as he fell out of bounds just as he released his shot.  And it seemed that they all went in!
            There is another game like that one stuck in my memory from the 1960-61 season.  It was again from the last game of that season in the old gym and the conference champion Soldiers Grove Cardinals had come to La Farge.  Grove had beaten the Wildcats earlier in the season by a score of 89-74, but they had no chance on this night as they ran into a buzz saw named Dean Hamilton.  “Hambone” poured in 37 points and dominated the boards with 27 rebounds in one of the more impressive performances ever played by a Purple & White clad player in that old gym.  LHS won by a score of 80-64.  (I remember that there was a record hop after the game and the scoreboard was left on with that score gleaming through to the dancers below.)  La Farge would finish that season with a 13-6 record.
              Those memories of Wildcat players scoring nearly forty points in a game in the 1936 gym are understandable for the wide-eyed youngster who usually didn’t score forty points in a season.  But perhaps my favorite memory from that old gym are of a shot made by a player who rarely even played in most games.
            It was the 1961-62 season and La Farge did not have a good basketball team.  The Wildcats A-team struggled offensively for most of the year in compiling a season record of 4-14.  I played on the B-team as a freshman that year and that team had a 5-10 mark, so there wasn’t much great happening in the old 1936 gym during that season.  But for one wonderful Friday night on December 1, 1961, the stars in the heavens aligned and the Wildcats were victorious over their downriver foes, the dreaded Viola Bluejackets!
            Up to that point in the young season, La Farge had not won a game at either the B-team or A-team level.  Viola traveled to La Farge with a good team, one that would challenge for the league title before eventually finishing third in the KVC.  The Bluejacket A-team was undefeated for the season, but things would change after that evening.
            To begin, the Wildcat B-team won their first game by defeating Viola by a score of 21-16.  I’m sure that I had nothing to do with the win as I generally played very little, but I do remember the euphoria of that victory.  As the La Farge B-team players poured out of their new locker room, it was all smiles.  We took up seats in the southwest corner bleachers (after all, that’s where the cool high school students sat) to watch the A-Team game.
            La Farge got off to a good start and led 14-8 after the first quarter.  It was still the Wildcats in the lead 22-16 at halftime, but the Bluejackets caught fire in the third quarter.  Viola outscored La Farge 18-10 to take a 34-32 lead heading into the final quarter.  It remained tight for all of that last quarter and Viola was nursing a 42-41 lead as the old round score clock hanging high on the east end of the gym turned red to signal that the end of the game was near.  La Farge had time for one hurried shot and it would come from a very unlikely source.
            Sources vary as to when that fateful last shot was taken.  The account in the story of the game written for “The Windjammer”, the LHS section of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper, said that there was less than thirty seconds left in the game.  In the account of the game written for the 1962 “Memories” yearbook, the time is listed as seven seconds left.  I thought the shot was taken as the game ended, but then I remembered that the Viola team did have an unsuccessful try at a last shot of its own, so that seven seconds is probably right.  Who would take that last shot for La Farge surprised everyone in the old gym that night.
            Floyd Waddell was a nice guy.  Personable, friendly, and good-looking, Floyd was liked by most everyone who ever met him.  However, he was not a good basketball player.  Floyd was a junior on the Wildcat team that season, but he seldom played.  He was forced into action that night against Viola after senior guards Butch Donaldson and Leonard Nottestad fouled out of the game earlier in that last quarter.  As the final seconds to the game ticked away, Floyd was the last person most people expected to shoot.  But as fate would have it, somehow the ball was in Floyd’s hands at the end.  Standing some twenty feet from the basket, he was unguarded so Floyd let fly from the right wing. 
            That shot was not a thing of beauty as Floyd’s shots seldom were, but at this time in the history of the 1936 gym it would shine!  As Floyd’s high arching shot descended, the basketball hit high on the backboard’s right side then caromed straight down through the basket!  To the astonishment of everyone, including Floyd, the bank shot had found its mark to give La Farge a 43-42 win!  The place went nuts – the first win of the season had been accomplished over our biggest rival!  The Viola bluejackets were undefeated no more!  Floyd Waddell was the hero of the night!
            I think that there was a record hop held after the game that night.  I seem to remember sitting up in those bleachers in the southwest corner of the old gym looking down at the dancing couples below.  I think that I can recollect Floyd dancing with his girlfriend (and future wife), Karen Miller, basking in the sweet aura of victory.

            Ironically, that basket in the old gym to beat Viola that night was the only basket that Floyd Waddell scored all season.  It was a rare shot indeed, but it has lasted in my memory to this day.

Thursday, September 8, 2016


It is a metal spindle nearly three feet long.  It extends from an antique metal base, no longer able to support the weight of its contents.  Strung along the spindle is the story of several years worth of La Farge’s history from over a century ago.
            R. P. Dalton was elected village president of La Farge at the April 1909 elections.  Later that year, on November 20 and 22, he had two prescriptions filled at Ed Coyle’s drug store in La Farge.  Dr. Joseph Esch, who had his office over the village post office on South State Street, had written both of the prescriptions for Dalton on slips provided by Ed Coyle’s drug store.  One of the prescriptions was for sodium succanate (sic), which is an eye drop ointment.  Perhaps La Farge’s village president didn’t like what he was seeing around town.
            The metal spindle contains thousands of prescriptions dispensed by that La Farge drug store from the years of 1908-09.  The length of time that the prescriptions cover is from July 1908 through December 1909.  I carefully peeled off a couple hundred of the RX’s from the last three months of 1909 to try to get an idea what they were all about.  They can help to tell some fascinating stories, especially when you tie in other information on La Farge’s history from that time.
            Dr. J.E. Bingham came to La Farge in 1909 and set up his practice upstairs in the Donaldson Brothers hardware store building on Main Street (the present site of Bergum’s Food Mart).  Dr. Bingham came from Whitewater and used his own personalized slips for prescriptions instead of those provided by Coyle’s Drug Store.  Bingham was known as La Farge’s “town doctor” because he made house calls with a horse and buggy and going too far from town caused delays in service.  On December 4, 1909, Dr. Bingham wrote an RX for “Baby Wallis” (probably misspelled Wallace) and the directions read “one every hour till bowels move well”.
            We have Patsy Johnson to thank for saving this unique historical collection of prescriptions.  She bought the spindle containing the RX’s at an auction held in Bean Park four or five years ago.  She neither knew where the spindle came from nor exactly what to do with it once she had it in her possession.  When the new VMH Clinic opened in La Farge last summer, Patsy admired the displays of medical history in the waiting room.  Thinking her spindle of prescriptions would fit into the display, she showed it to Dr. Deline.  He passed it on to this history guy to look at.
            Dr. H. N. Cohen had a medical practice in La Farge during 1908-09.  His professional ad posted in the La Farge Enterprise from that era read – Dr. H.N. Cohen, Diseases of Women.  In my research, I found that Dr. Cohen kept rather irregular business hours while practicing in La Farge.  He had a practice in La Farge for a short time then moved to Wonewoc in 1910.  Dr. Cohen moved around a lot as later in 1919, he was practicing in Wilton, but then moved his practice to Tomah that same year.  On December 1, 1909, Dr. Cohen prescribed a laxative for Mrs. George Wilson with directions “Take after meals”.
            An interesting aspect of the sample of studied prescriptions on the spindle is that children’s names are rarely used.  Usually the RX will be for “James Riddel boy” (that’s probably a misspelling of Riddle) or “Bert Cowee (boy)”.  There were other prescriptions for the “Blakeley Boy”, the “Gudgeon Girl”, “Mrs. Brown’s boy”, the “Emerson Heisel Girl”, “Chas Brown’s boy”, the “Hughy Major baby”, “Joe Waddle girl” (probably Waddell), “Ald. Oldenberg’s (boy)”, the “Grant Coleman girl”, “Ernie Heisel Boy” and “Aug. Trappe boy”.  This last RX listed was probably for young Henry Trappe, who would have been three years old at the time.  Henry went on to live to be one hundred years old, so the prescription must have made him well back then.
            Brothers Ed and John Coyle had purchased the drug store business in La Farge from Cyrus Yeomans in March of 1904.  Yeomans had opened La Farge’s first drug store in 1897 and for the next decade the village had at least two and usually three or more doctors practicing, which meant for a healthy pharmacy business.  The business operations of the Coyle Drug Store had undergone a major change in January of 1909 when John Coyle sold his share of the La Farge business to his brother and moved to Mondovi to open up a drug store there.
            When looking at that spindle of proscriptions that Ed Coyle filled back in 1909, one can get a pretty good idea of how busy the doctors were in La Farge during that era.  Since Dr. Esch wrote most of the RX’s on the spindle, you can get a closer look at his practice in particular. 
            Joseph Esch was the “country doctor” in La Farge.  “Doc” Esch, as he was affectionately known, had purchased the first car to be driven in the community in 1904.
With the new automobile, Dr. Esch could expand his practice into the rural areas around La Farge. The good doctor liked his new auto so much that he bought another and then another. He was soon selling autos out of the Hotel Ward garage, a lucrative addition to his medical business. In 1909, he purchased a White steam-driven automobile. The White Steamer greatly enhanced the doctor’s country practice as the vehicle could climb the area’s steep hill roads without faltering. When Dr. Esch went into the country to make house calls, he would have someone drive the White Steamer for him, so he could rest or sleep between calls.
Dr. Esch had a busy, thriving medical practice in 1908-09.  On November 20, 1909, he wrote prescriptions for seventeen different patients.  Amazingly, that day was a Saturday so Dr. Esch was keeping office hours on the weekend during that season of illness.  From my research, I also found where Dr. Esch wrote two prescriptions on Sunday, November 21, both for Mrs. Em Rittenhouse.  I’m assuming there was some type of emergency, but I don’t know if Ed Coyle filled the two RX’s on the day it was written. 
The next busiest day for Dr. Esch was on November 29, a Monday, when eleven prescriptions were written.  Oscar Marshall and his wife both had prescriptions written that day by Doc Esch.  The directions for Oscar’s RX read, “Put 15 drops in water, take every four hours”, while Mrs. Oscar Marshall had a prescription that covered nearly two pages of slips and contained nine different ingredients!
Some of the directions for taking the prescribed medicines show how times have changed since 1909.  In one RX for the “Bert Rittenhouse boy”, the directions read, “Take one or two drops on sugar every 15 minutes for up to 3 hours”.  Remember the old saying about being tough and taking your medicine?  Well, obviously, that boy of 1909 would take the doses more easily if they were sweetened up for him.
There was also a prescription for a Mrs. Hicks that read, ”Heaping teaspoonful dissolved in water ½ hour before meals and one hour after”.  The drug on this RX slip can actually be deciphered (which generally doesn’t happen on most of the slips) and the prescription is for something called sodoxylin.  With a little research in a pharmaceutical book from that era I found that sodoxylin was used for acidemia (upset stomach, etc.).  According to Abbott Laboratories (yes, the big drug company was going back then), which manufactured the drug, “it neutralizes acidity; checks fermentation; promotes elimination”.  You can fill in the blanks from there to imagine the end results for Mrs. Hicks.

There you have it; a bit of La Farge’s history from over a century past told through a spindle of prescription slips. 


If you look closely, you can imagine the old road as it wound around the boggy bottom of Jordan Flat.  (For you youngsters reading along; that’s pronounced Jerdin Flat and not Jordan as in Michael Jordan.)  There still a few clues left to direct you along the way of the old road.  There next to the highway, you can see the crumbling remains of an old bridge support that crossed the rill leading down to Bear Creek.  Further along, the old road bends around a sandstone outcropping where some of the original rock base of the road is visible.  There is a cut in a little hillock as the road rises up the hill and to the east, another one where the old road curved over toward the Baptist Church and then descended back to the present highway.
            For the most part, the land has taken away any visual clues of where the old road went to avoid the morass of Jordan Flat.  (It was said that the best time to cross that stretch of road leading from the east into La Farge was in the winter.  During that season, the swamp would freeze up so that sleighs and drays could negotiate the flat without becoming mired down in the muck.  Any other season would be tough slogging through the boggy bottomland next to Bear Creek.  Ruts were worn so deep in the road’s muck that the axles of wagons and eventually cars would hang up and become stuck.  Whoever lived on the Jordan farm had a steady job of using their team of horses to pull people across the flat during the wet stretches.)  The transition to farming fields and pastures has erased most of the features of the former use as a road.  The old road that avoided the swampy lowland one hundred and twenty years ago has nearly disappeared.
            Around that same time so many years ago, another road branched off this old road and meandered up a little valley before ascending on a steep climb up to Maple Ridge located to the north.  I remember as a youngster walking along this old road as it rose toward the ridge top.  I was looking for mushrooms and spent most of my time looking down instead of up toward where the old road was leading me.  The climb became steeper and steeper and I remember turning to look down the valley, back to where I had been.  This was nearly sixty years ago, so the old road was still quite evident, since it was still being used as a farm road at the time.  But it hadn’t been used as a regular road for wagons and buggies for probably fifty years.  The steep ascent up to the ridge on nearby French Hill Road had apparently won out as a preferable road from valley to ridge fifty years before my walk.  So this old road was abandoned as a thoroughfare of sorts, but was still evident on my mushroom walk back in the 1950s.  Most of that area has transitioned back to forest today.  Down in the valley, where the springs bubble up, you can still see where the old road leading to the ridge cut through the end of a little hill.
            They were called “Lucey’s Trees”.  The pine trees were planted by the state DNR back in the early 1970s as part of Governor Patrick Lucey’s approval process for the federal dam and lake project at La Farge.  If you remember, after the Corps of Engineer’s La Farge project was well underway, Lucey ordered a “comprehensive study” of the project shortly after being elected Wisconsin’s governor in 1970.  The “study” was actually a way for the new governor to stop the project, but after a series of contentious meetings and hearings, Lucey reluctantly approved the continuation of the project.  Along with the approval, the governor attached some caveats aimed at ensuring that the water quality of the lake was of the best quality possible.
            One aspect of that improvement of the proposed lake’s water quality was to control runoff from adjacent farmlands by planting pine trees along the proposed shores of the lake.  The planting of the nearly quarter of a million of pine trees along the shores of proposed Lake La Farge was largely accomplished by the time the project was stopped in 1975.  “Lucey’s Trees” flourished on land formerly used for pastures and farm fields.  By the mid-1980s “Lucey’s Trees” had reached a height that they might be used for a Christmas tree by area residents who were so inclined to take a little hike out on the “government land” with a handsaw under their coat. 
            By the time the Kickapoo Valley Reserve was created in the mid-1990s those pine trees had grown to considerable height and the plantation-like stands of pines dominated nearly every hillside that led down to the Kickapoo River.  The new management board of the Reserve created a plan to thin “Lucey’s Trees” to further the growth of the remaining pine trees.  The forest management plan implemented selected cuttings that thinned the pine plantations of “Lucey’s Trees” on a near yearly schedule every since.  The plan was also designed to foster the pine plantations back to a pine-oak mix type of forest that was more common before the DNR project. 
The DNR was using the pine plantings to create a lakeshore similar to the lakes of northern Wisconsin.  When you look at those pine trees scattered throughout the hills of the Reserve today, you can imagine where the waters of the lake might have been.    You can almost see the waters of the lake lapping along the shoreline below the pine trees.

            What is virtually impossible to see though, are those former fields and pastures that once were on the farms along the river.  The transition back to this pine wilderness of sorts takes us right past the time of most of the 20th century when that land was where people actually lived.  “Lucey’s Trees” are the signposts of the transition from the present back to a time before settlement in the Kickapoo Valley.