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.