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.