Saturday, March 25, 2017


In late October 1975, the La Farge Fire Department notified the Corps of Engineers that there could be no fire protection coverage on the federal dam lands without a written agreement.  The fire department was leery about driving the fire trucks across the old bridges on Highway 131 north of town, since the trucks would exceed the 10-ton weight limits.  Eventually the Corps and the fire department came to a temporary agreement over fire protection coverage and the Wisconsin DOT gave approval to the La Farge fire trucks crossing the bridges as long as a 5-mph speed limit was followed.
Many of the problems with traffic using the old bridges on Highway 131 could have been avoided if the new section of the highway, running from La Farge to Rockton had been opened in mid-October as planned.  The paving of the new section of highway was completed by then and ready for traffic, but disagreements between the Corps of Engineers and the Wisconsin DOT over the ownership of the new section stopped the transferal.  The DOT felt that the new section of highway did not meet state standards nor was adequately or properly completed.  Finally, Jim Ruyak announced from his Corps offices in St. Paul that the new highway would not be transferred to the state as planned nor would the new section be opened to traffic in 1975. 
The new highway project was also stopped when several local governments balked at plans for what to do with the old highway.  Once again, the local school district joined in the controversy.  It was suggested by some that the school buses could avoid crossing the bridges on old Highway 131 by instead using the new route.  But the La Farge School District resisted running their buses on the new road until the DOT had officially taken over that section of the highway.
 The school also wondered about the flood-prone section of the old highway south of Rockton and the condition of the bridges on that section south to Weister Creek.  That section of the old highway was to become part of County Trunk P, but Vernon County had no money for road or bridge improvements on that section of the old state highway.  Several Vernon County board members opposed the county assuming ownership of that section of Highway 131 due to the projected high cost of maintenance and repairs.  
The Town of Stark was supposed to assume ownership of old Highway 131 from the Corps’ dam site south to the La Farge village limits.  But Town of Stark officials rejected assuming ownership of the road due to the poor condition of that portion of the state highway.  That portion of old Highway 131 had damage caused by heavy machinery traffic on the road during the dam construction.
 Finally, the Village of La Farge was to assume ownership of the old highway from the northern village limits (next to the Star Cemetery) south to where the old road joined new Highway 131 on Mill Street near the ballpark.  But that section of the old highway contained the crumbling bridge at Seelyburg that needed massive repairs or replacement entirely.  Since the village had no money for either bridge option, La Farge also rejected taking over that portion of old Highway 131.
So as the winter season approached, the new section of Highway 131 remained closed to traffic (although it was unofficially open to those who chose to use it and many did) and what to do with several sections of the old highway remained in tumult.
With all of the controversy over the bridges around La Farge, there was one positive development when a new bridge was built across the Kickapoo River at the Lawton (Rehbein) farm south of La Farge.  The Highway 131 Bridge was opened for traffic at the end of November, but of course, not before some controversy.
The new bridge was actually the first part of a larger project to renovate and straighten Highway 131 between Tunnelville and La Farge.  The plan called for cutting through the hill known as Elk Point on the Rehbein farm, which would eliminate the old railroad tunnel still at that place.  Besides the historic tunnel, there was also an ancient Native American burial ground located on the top of the hill above the tunnel.  The DOT plan called for the elimination of the tunnel and the removal of the Native American mounds beginning in the summer of 1976.  The project was to be completed by the fall of 1977.  (More on the local efforts to save the old railroad tunnel and burial mounds in a later installment)
On Monday, December 8th, 1975, as early morning drivers headed north from La Farge on Highway 131, they came upon a burning bridge a mile and a half north of Rockton.  One car stayed at the bridge (Bridge #9) to ward off any traffic trying to cross, while another driver went back to Rockton to notify authorities.
When the La Farge Fire Department arrived at 6:30 am, the south end of the bridge was fully engulfed with flames.  The creosote coated wooden pilings under the bridge on that end were already burned off, indicating that the fire had been burning for some time.  Some of the wooden under-planking on the deck was also burned through and the entire southern end of the bridge had collapsed, dropping a foot below the roadway approach.  The fire department was at the scene for two hours pouring water on the burning timbers.  Later that afternoon, the La Farge firemen were called back to the bridge fire scene as several flare-ups of the creosoted timbers were extinguished.
The Vernon County Sheriff’s Department and county highway crews were at the burning bridge scene immediately.  An alternate route needed to be established for traffic.  The lengthy detour routed traffic to County Roads P and F and Highway 33 before returning to Highway 131. 
Vernon County Highway Commissioner Ernie Urban inspected the bridge after the flames were extinguished and declared the burned out bridge unsafe for any traffic.  Barricades were set at each end of the bridge as Urban said it was even unsafe for people to walk across the bridge.  The bridge was also being treated as a crime scene. 
Vernon County Sheriff Geoff Banta said that the burning of the bridge was a deliberate act of vandalism.  Some noted that the bridge had been burned only four days after the U.S. Senate had rejected all funding for the La Farge dam project.  Earlier in the fall, the Wisconsin DOT had inspected the bridge and a 15-ton weight limit had been placed on it.
The week before the bridge burning, another meeting had been held in Madison between the DOT and Corps’ officials about the possibility of opening the new section of Highway 131 between Rockton and La Farge.  Earlier, possibly spurred on by the school bus protest, the DOT had asked that the old section of Highway 131 between Rockton and La Farge be closed due to the old and crumbling bridges along that section of the state highway.  Corps’ officials had seemed ready to open the new section of highway in mid-October, but that plan was thwarted when state, county, village and town officials balked at assuming control of the old highway and its poor bridges.  The early December meeting in Madison had been called to see if those problems could be resolved and the new highway opened.  But in the end, the Corps again said that the new section of highway would not be opened to traffic.
The week before Christmas, Senator William Proxmire made a surprise visit to La Farge.  As he talked to people in an impromptu meeting on the sidewalk in front of the La Farge bank, tempers flared and several people cursed the Senator.  Local anti-dam leader Gale Huston defended Proxmire, but also drew curses and jeers from most of the gathered crowd.  Before quickly leaving, Proxmire, who some in La Farge called “Senator Scrooge” as befit the holiday season, told people to buy flood insurance or move out of the flood plain.
The following week, the Vernon County Highway Department announced that the burned bridge north of Rockton would be rebuilt.  In La Farge, members of the fire department and ambulance squad held a practice on the use of the new Jaws-Of-Life extrication device.  Using some donated junk vehicles the emergency personnel learned how to open up vehicles with the device to get to injured people trapped inside.
As 1975 ended, there did not seem to be much good news in the village of La Farge.  At the last village board meeting of the year, it was noted that the village Christmas tree located at the old firehouse between the bank and post office did not have enough lights to be sufficiently festive.  The board also heard that the brand new Bean Park skating rink leaked.  Bah, Humbug!

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Save the date!  As part of the Driftless Dialogue lecture series at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, I will be talking about this crazy time of the La Farge dam project history on Wednesday, June 21.  “More On That Dam History!” will begin at 7 pm with socializing and refreshments offered one-half hour prior to the program.


Lately I have been working on volume II of my La Farge history.  I have been reviewing my research of the events that happened during the mid-1970s in this little Kickapoo River town.  It was a crazy time, as the controversy over the La Farge dam project seemed to control everything happening in the village.  One of those strange occurrences in the fall of 1975 put La Farge back in the media bulls-eye once again.  The local protest played out over a couple of weeks and was initiated by the appearance of Senator William Proxmire in the village.
Senator Proxmire spoke to a standing room only crowd at the new La Farge firehouse that Saturday morning, September 5, 1975.  Proxmire announced that he was withdrawing his support of the dam project after being a staunch proponent of the project for years.  The announcement stunned nearly everyone in attendance (including my wife, Carolyn and me) and the discussion after the senator left, was what do we do now?  The pro-dam contingent, a vast majority in the village, wondered what was the next step to take?
That next step occurred on the following Monday evening at a special school board meeting held in the La Farge gym.  One hundred and thirty people were in attendance at the meeting and a petition was read bearing 140 names asking that the school board take appropriate action if the board members felt that area bridges were unsafe for travel by school buses.  A discussion at the meeting brought up that most area bridges recently had weight limits posted on them, some with limits as low as ten tons.  All of the bridges on Highway 131 north of La Farge located in the dam project land had 10-ton limits except for one.  School board president Roger Gabrielson estimated that a full school bus would weigh close to or exceed the 10-ton weight limit.  Gabrielson contended that nine state highway bridges located in the La Farge School District were unsafe for the district’s seven buses.
In a 3-2 vote, the school board decided to close La Farge Schools beginning on the following Thursday due to the weight restricted bridges.  Board members Mac Marshall Jr., David Clift and Marvin Munson voted for the measure, while Gabrielson and Richard Allen voted against it.  Both Gabrielson and Allen voted against the measure because they wanted the school to close the very next day, on Tuesday.
Discussion at the special school board meeting also focused on the fact that there was no money budgeted for repairs or replacements for any of the bridges on Highway 131 north of La Farge.  Those bridges were supposed to be removed when the lake from the dam project was created, but with Senator Proxmire’s withdrawal of support for completion of the dam project, it seemed the bridges would have to remain in use.  Since Governor Patrick Lucey earlier had said that no state funds would be used on the bridge and highway relocations for the La Farge dam project, it could be years before the bridges would be upgraded or replaced.
School board president Gabrielson told the board and attendees that the school would be in contact with the state DOT the next morning about the bridge concerns and the school closing.
Further local protest was in place the next morning as the La Farge school buses crossed the crumbling Highway 82 bridge over the Kickapoo River in La Farge.  On that Tuesday, a dozen protestors, many carrying signs denouncing the conditions of the bridge as well as state and federal politicians, paced warily along the sides of the bridge.  The number of protestors grew during the week and nearly three dozen people picketed on the bridge west of Nuzum’s by week’s end.  A reporter for the LaCrosse Tribune covering the demonstrations took a photograph of Orval Howard standing in one of the holes in the side of the road on the state highway bridge.  In the photo that appeared in the next days’ newspaper, Howard sank over three feet into the hole before his feet found some hanging angle iron beneath the road.  Soon after, the county highway crews placed orange construction barrels over the holes and stretched snow fence along each side of the bridge to keep demonstrators and others away from the holes.
By the end of the week, others who were walking across the bridge over the Kickapoo River in La Farge included school children riding on the buses to and from school.
After the leaders of the La Farge Schools contacted the state DOT about the bridges and scheduled school closing, intense negotiations resulted in a compromise to avoid closing La Farge’s schools.  Representatives from the DOT met with school officials on the afternoon following the special school board meeting.  An inspection was done of the bridge at Nuzum’s (where picketing had begun that morning) and options were discussed.  The next day, the DOT sent a letter to the school with assurances that all the state bridges were safe for school buses to cross.  School bus routes were then altered to avoid crossing the bridges north of La Farge as much as possible, although the new routes took more buses across the Highway 82 Bridge in La Farge.  It was decided by the school leaders that the buses would stop at the bridge approaches and the children would be unloaded.  Then the empty bus with red warning lights flashing would lead the walking students across the bridge.  Once across, the students would return to the bus and the route would continue.  This drastic move of having students walk across the bridges in and around La Farge was continued for several school days reaching into the next week.
During that time, more state bridge inspectors came to La Farge and inspected all nine bridges cited by the school in their report to the Wisconsin DOT.  With new weight restrictions and speed limits placed on the bridges, the La Farge school buses once again began hauling students across the spans instead of having them walk.  The press coverage of the La Farge bridge protest and the students walking across the bridges was massive.  Besides the La Farge area newspapers and radio as well as the LaCrosse newspaper, radio and TV stations, the bridges story merited coverage in the Madison and Milwaukee newspapers, radio and TV stations.  Several Chicago newspapers and one of the Windy City’s TV stations also covered the story of the La Farge bridges and walking students.
La Farge Epitaph editor Lonnie Muller concluded his “WHAT NOW ???” editorial in the September 10th issue by writing, “I support the board 100% even though I figured a Tuesday closing was even better.  The day has come when La Farge can quit taking a back seat to everything in the state.  It’s damn time our side of the story got out to Lucey and his conniving bunch of pigheads in Madison.  We are sick and tired of being the pawns in the chess game of life.  We just checkmated you Lucey and from now on you are playing a losing game with the people of the Kickapoo Valley, if not the entire state.  You figured that you could put us down forever, but it just didn’t work out that way did it?  I think that now, more than ever, the La Farge people are starting to really work together.  I was damn disgusted Saturday when Proxmire made his speech pulling his support from the project, but by Tuesday evening when I write this, I can say that I’m damn proud of these people in this community who are going to fight this together to the finish.  I think a new chapter just started for La Farge, and probably a pretty good one at that.”
In the following week’s Epitaph (9-17-1975), reporter Pete Beckstrand wrote an interesting article on the DOT bridge inspections.  The recent state inspections had found that all of the bridges in the Kickapoo Valley were structurally safe.  However, much of the article provided contrary evidence of the sorry state of most of the bridges around La Farge.  Beckstrand noted that many of the state highway bridges in the La Farge area were “used” bridges – having been originally built at other sites.  He wrote that Bridge 18 (the Bacon Bridge just north of Seelyburg and the dam project site) was originally a span over the Wisconsin River at Spring Green.  After the bad Kickapoo River flood of 1951 damaged the Bacon Bridge, the state highway department hauled an old Spring Green span out of storage and put it across the Kickapoo River as a replacement.  Beckstrand also detailed that there were a total of 92 bridges in Wisconsin that had weight restrictions and 15 of them were located in the northern Kickapoo Valley.  In the article, he quoted Lee Schneider, chief engineer of the DOT’s LaCrosse office, as saying in a phone interview that the La Farge area bridges were in need of “massive maintenance and repair”, and there was no state money budgeted to pay for it.
Within a week after the state bridge inspections, Bridges 16, 17, and 18 on Highway 131 north of La Farge were posted with speed limits and 10-ton weight limits.  The Highway 82 Bridge across Otter Creek west of La Farge was made one-way for traffic.  The Highway 82 Bridge over the Kickapoo River at Nuzum’s was already one-way due to the placement of barrels and snow fence along both sides.

Beckstrand also reported in the article that a La Farge school bus loaded with mostly small children was weighed on the scale at Nuzum’s.  The bus weighed 16,900 pounds and the Episcope reporter wondered if a bus loaded with high school age students might exceed the 10-ton limit placed on most area bridges.