Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Great Kickapoo River Flood of 1978 - Part II

The Flood of 1978 started to recede in La Farge on Sunday, July 2nd.  As the floodwater’s crest on the Kickapoo River moved downriver, the communities south of La Farge also felt the wrath of the flood.  Boats were the only mode of transportation on Viola’s Main Street, just as it had been for the floods of 1935 and 1951.  A partial dike system in Soldiers Grove failed during the crest of the flood there, devastating the downtown business district.  A new bank building in Soldiers Grove was nearly ripped in half, exposing the interior and the vault walls.  Almost every business and home in Gays Mills was inundated with floodwaters when the Kickapoo’s crest reached there.  Further downstream the villages of Steuben and Wauzeka also suffered heavy damages before the flood finally abated on Independence Day.  Every field of corn, tobacco, grain, and hay located on farms along the river from Wilton to Wauzeka were lost to the floodwaters.
In La Farge, the houses that had floodwater in them (some for the first time ever) included Gerald Anderson, Stanley Potter, Elmer Storer, Catherine Norris, Eva Clements, John Sokolik, Bob Sokolik, Ron Gabrielson (renting the JaDoul house), Reynold Waddell, Jim Campton, Gib Stevens, Harry Lounsbury, Ethel Burt, Maxine Kennedy, Bob Erickson, Lucille Yarolimek, Vera Campton, Bob Jacobson and Les Gillett.
Business places in La Farge that were inundated with floodwater included the La Farge Cheese Factory, Nuzum’s, Gary’s Texaco Station, Caucutt-Olson Plumbing, La Farge Epitaph newspaper, Jeffer’s Truck Sales, Kickapoo Antiques, Major’s Appliances and Nelson’s Garage.  Also suffering damage from the flood were the Town of Stark hall and shed, the La Farge village jail, and the new village hall and firehouse.
When Village President Ted Erickson met with state and federal officials a week after the flood, a list of 38 homes and 23 businesses in La Farge damaged by floodwaters had been compiled.  The total cost of the flood damage in La Farge approached $200,000.  That figure did not include agricultural losses located within the village, as several fields of tobacco and corn crops were lost to the flood.   
The school’s bus garage, located on Main Street in the old Fulmer’s Garage building suffered heavy damage from the flood.  The school buses had been moved out of the garage as the floodwaters rose and were kept in the parking lot at the United Methodist Church for nearly a week after the flood as repairs were made to the school bus garage floor.  Later, the school district also had more costly damages at the schoolhouse when a water main, weakened by the heavy rains, broke causing the elementary wing to be completely flooded.  
Floodwaters kept area roads and highways closed for days.  Water covered the old portion of Highway 131 at Seelyburg for nearly two days and caused major damage to the road.  (Whitey Barclay lost 27 pigs to the floodwaters at his Seelyburg farm.)  Highway 131 south of La Farge was closed for two days and almost one hundred yards of the highway were washed out below the new bridge at Lawton’s.  In addition, the sewer plant at La Farge was inoperable for more than 24 hours at the height of the flood and raw sewage was dumped directly into the river’s waters.  Many people boiled village water for drinking during the flood, but a DNR check on the village’s water supply on July 5th indicated there was no contamination.
Interesting stories and happenings abounded in La Farge as people had varied reactions to the great flood.  What happened to Roger Andrew’s tractor was one such story.  Roger had cattle on pasture along the east side of the Kickapoo River.  As the floodwaters filled the pasture, the beef cattle soon clustered on a disappearing high spot.  Roger drove his John Deere tractor over to the stockyards east of Calhoon Park and started to drive through the floodwaters towards his herd of cattle, hoping to guide them back toward higher land near the old railroad bed.  However, the tractor dropped into an unseen ditch and stalled out.  Eventually, Roger had to be rescued by a crew in a boat and his tractor slowly disappeared under the rising floodwaters.  Ironically, the cattle ended up swimming across the swollen river and found high ground on the west side of the pasture.
That could have been the end of the story of Roger Andrew’s tractor except that a crowd assembled in the Lions Shelter at Calhoon Park had witnessed the attempted rescue.  Many people came to La Farge that day thinking that the opening day of the 4th of July Celebration would happen.  Softball players and fans sat in the beer tent at the shelter (even though no beer was sold there) that day and watched as the tractor disappeared from view.  Soon a gambling pool was created as to when the tractor would reappear from the floodwaters.  Some time on the following day, Sunday, July 2nd, the tractor reappeared and a local softball player was a little wealthier with his lucky pick in the pool.
Members of the La Farge Fire Department had a hectic couple of days because of the flood.  Many members of the department had been called out after midnight on Friday night, June 30, when a downed power line knocked out power to the village for four hours.  Members of the fire department helped to provide alternate generator power to people using sump pumps to keep water out of their houses or businesses on that first night.  Later that night, firemen went to the Rockton area to help look for canoeists camped along the river there.  As the flood waters descended on La Farge the next morning, all of the fire trucks had to be moved out of the firehouse on south Silver Street.  Because the floodwaters made Highway 82 impassable to the west, two fire trucks from Viroqua came to the west end of the Highway 82 Bridge in La Farge.  The Viroqua trucks and crew would respond to any fire calls on that side of the river.
However, that evening, July 1st, tornadoes were spotted in the Viroqua area and the fire trucks and crew had to return to their hometown.  The La Farge firemen had to get a truck to the other side of the river.  Driving north with one of the fire trucks, La Farge Fireman Cecil Rolfe, looked for a way across the flooding river to get to the other side.  As he drove down 24 Valley Road, the roadbed, undermined by the heavy rains, gave way and the fire truck fell into a huge hole.  A wrecker had to be called to pull the damaged fire truck back to the village.  Many La Farge firemen remained on duty all of that evening after never having slept the preceding night.
The school gymnasium was used as a temporary shelter that Saturday night for some of the people displaced by the floodwaters.  Although finding cots for people to sleep on proved a problem, most people were happy to be high and dry on an air mattress with some warm blankets.  Other people who were chased out of their homes by the flood stayed in the KP Hall that night.  Many other people stayed with nearby family and friends.
Maxine Kennedy told me later that the Saturday of the flood in 1978 was the busiest day she ever had in her Main Street restaurant.  Part of the reason was that the A&W Root Beer Stand, that normally would have been open to serve food on that Saturday in July, was closed.  The popular root beer stand, owned by David and Kay Mick, had been struck by lightning during a weekend thunderstorm in mid-June.  The resulting fire caused considerable damage to the drive-in, so it wasn’t open to help feed the masses for the 4th of July Celebration.
When the Red Cross workers arrived in La Farge late that afternoon on July 1st, they immediately began handing out meal vouchers to be used at Kennedy’s Restaurant for people displaced by the flood and for the volunteers, firemen and other workers who were helping with the relief effort.  With the food stands not open at the 4th of July grounds, all those visitors also stopped at Maxine’s for a sandwich as well.  Maxine had to close the restaurant early that Saturday night because she ran out of food.
The 4th of July Celebration in La Farge actually did get going on Sunday, July 2nd.  Some events, like the tractor pull had to be cancelled (it took several days to find that swept-away eliminator in Norwalk) while others, like the Men’s Softball Tournament were changed to only include twelve teams.  (Mt. Tabor Bar won the men’s tournament, while the team from Valley won the women’s.)  A new event, the Mini-Marathon Race, was run on an altered course through the village, avoiding the muddy streets where the floodwaters had been.
The carnival hired for the celebration had quite a time getting to La Farge.  Most of the carnival rides were mired in floodwaters at Wonewoc, where they were set up prior to La Farge.  Eventually most of the rides and carnival stands made it to La Farge by the 4th of July.
The 4th of July weekend in La Farge became even more bizarre when there was a shooting over that time.  A man from Illinois was driving erratically and squealing his tires on the busy streets of the village, causing concern among local residents.  Several local people stopped the car and the man brandished a pistol, which he waved threateningly at them.  The man then sped out of town in his car with several local people in hot pursuit.  The Illinois man crashed his car into the ditch near Don Potter’s house east of La Farge.  Again the man pulled out his pistol as he departed his wrecked vehicle.  Don (Moose) Getter, using a shotgun that was in LaVerne Campbell’s car then shot the man to disarm him.  (Moose was not a village policeman at the time.)  The man from Illinois, who did not suffer a life threatening wound in the shooting was taken to Viroqua by ambulance guarded by sheriff’s deputies and later moved to the county jail.      

The Great Kickapoo River Flood of 1978 - Part 1

The Kickapoo River flood of June 30 – July 2, 1978 was the greatest ever recorded at La Farge up to that time.  The high water mark happened on Saturday, July 1 as the depth of the Kickapoo reached 14.92 feet, nearly three feet over the river’s flood stage of 12 feet.  At its height, the flood poured 12,900 cubic feet of water per second through La Farge – another all-time record.  The 6.15 inches of rain that fell in torrents beginning Friday evening, June 30th and continuing through Sunday morning was the final impetus to unleash the havoc of the Kickapoo’s greatest flood.  Meteorological and political events leading up to the great flood framed the significance of the damage to the Kickapoo Valley in a special way.
            As was usual for that time, the record setting Kickapoo River Flood of 1978 once again splashed La Farge and the failed fiasco of the federal dam project back onto the national scene, culminating with the appearance of several local citizens on an October airing of the CBS Evening News.
            Most of the great floods of the Kickapoo Valley watershed are often a culmination of a series of weather patterns and the Flood of 1978 was no exception.  A wet autumn in 1977 had culminated in flash flooding along several La Farge area streams at the end of October.  With Otter Creek, Bear Creek, Elk Run and Camp Creek all flooding that fall, the Kickapoo River was soon out of its banks from La Farge and down river.
            Heavy snows in late November 1977 had been the beginning of a winter that featured heavy snowfall totals that continued for several months.  A big snowstorm in early January 1978 dumped over a foot of snow in some parts of the Kickapoo Valley.  Snow totals were above average for February and by March the heavy ice accumulation on the Kickapoo River at La Farge had barely started to melt.  The National Weather Service (NWS) predicted floods for the Kickapoo Valley from the melting of the snowpack later in March.  Although the river was out of its banks on several occasions, the spring flooding of the Kickapoo was moderated by an even snowmelt and less than normal rainfall.
            A week of rains in late April brought the river out of its banks for several days and filled all of the sloughs, swamps and other wetlands along the river.  In June, it seemed that there were major rainstorms every weekend and the river was usually out of its banks.  Weekend canoeing on the Kickapoo was a washout for most of the month.  For the two weeks before the big flood at the end of June, the Kickapoo River remained bank full or higher.  With nowhere for any excess water to go, the massive storms of June-July generated rainfall totals to trigger the greatest flood in the history of the river.
            The great flood arrived just as the community of La Farge was set to commence a four-day celebration of America’s Independence Day.  The 4th of July Celebration, sponsored by the La Farge Lions Club, was to offer a variety of events and activities for all ages.  In an effort to draw some of the 4th of July crowds back to the Village Park, where they had traditionally been held, the Lions Club rented a large tent to cover the Village Park Bowery.  (At the time, there was no permanent shelter over the bowery that consisted of a large pad of cement for dancing.)  The Lions Club had scheduled several dances and a fashion show to be held under the big tent during the celebration.
            On Friday evening, June 30th, many people were at the 4th of July grounds setting things up for the celebration.  A thunderstorm with heavy rain went through early in the evening and another a few hours later.  I had helped set up the big tent in the park earlier in the afternoon and had been instructed by the installation crew to drop the side poles to let water drain off the canopy if there was heavy rain.  When another heavy rain hit La Farge before midnight, I made my third trip to the Village Park to drain the water from the tent.
            Another heavy rainstorm hit the Kickapoo Valley after 2 a.m. and I was back to the park once again.  We were living in the Burt Apartments next to the motel in that summer of 1978 and when I returned home I noticed a group assembled at the nearby firehouse.  The La Farge Fire Dept. was assembling crews to search for canoeists who were camping along the river south of Rockton.  The NWS had already issued a flood alert for the Kickapoo Valley and the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department was moving everyone away from soon-to-be flooding streams and rivers.  I stumbled home to try to get some sleep before another storm came through.
            Early the next morning (Saturday, July 1st) a knocking at the door woke us from our short night’s slumber.  Fellow Lions Club member Brent Waddell had just driven in from Fairview Ridge and said that he had never seen the water on Otter Creek so high.  Brent was one of the Lions’ members in charge of the tractor and 4-wheel drive pull to be held later that day.  The pulling eliminator for the event was to be rented from a business in Norwalk and Brent wasn’t sure if the pull could be held with the looming flood threat.  When he called the Norwalk business about the eliminator, he found that Norwalk had suffered a terrible flash flood overnight and the eliminator had been washed away along with several other vehicles kept on the property.  The pulling event was definitely off for that day.
            We decided to drive north to see how high the water was at Rockton.  As we were crossing the Jug Creek Bridge, we saw Ole Gabrielson walking towards the highway from the river.  Ole had walked down to look at the river at Bridge 12 and saw the floodwaters form a cap on the river before rushing over the banks.  He was soaked nearly from head to toe and he told us that the waters on the Kickapoo River had come over the bank so fast that they overtook him as he scrambled to higher ground.  Behind him, we could see the mouth of Jug Creek rapidly filling up with floodwater.
            When we continued on upriver and crossed the new Highway 131 Bridge at Rockton, we could see nothing but water below us.  We stopped into the Rockton Bar and asked owner Dean Hamilton how bad the flooding was.  Dean told us to drive up the river and look at the bridge above Rockton.  As we descended the hill towards the bridge we were amazed at what we saw.  The bridge (Bridge #10 today) had railings on both sides that reached nearly ten feet above the roadbed.  On that morning less that a foot of the railings remained above the swollen river’s waters – nearly eight feet of water was flowing above the bridge!  Shaken, Brent and I hurried back toward La Farge.
            When we returned to La Farge, we saw that Andrew’s flat was rapidly filling with water next to the river.  We stopped at Nuzum’s and helped with the efforts there to move merchandise and material to higher spots in the building to avoid approaching flood waters.  Items were carried upstairs in the Nuzum’s shed and after an hour or so; most of the work was done.  The floodwater was just beginning to cross Highway 82 between Nuzum’s and the river, so Brent and I headed up Main Street to help at other businesses.  When we arrived at Jeffers Truck Sales, it dawned on us that my apartment was in the path of the flood and quickly drove there.  Carolyn was in full flood-mode and had moved the vehicles to higher ground as the front yard was filling up with water.  She came out the front door with our little Chihuahua, Tinker, in her arms.  Carolyn’s parents came from Viola to help, but soon had to head over the hills and back downriver as the flood moved downstream to their hometown.  They took little Tinker with them and the friendly little dog got to hang out in Viola for a couple days with other flood refugees from that river town.
As we were beginning to put things up, Dean and Rudy Hamilton arrived with pickups and a crew of helpers, offering to move our things to higher ground.  They had already secured several garages and sheds in town where the material could be kept, so the process began immediately to move everything out of the apartment and truck it off for storage.  When our apartment was done, we started on the apartment next door.  Then it was over to Burt’s house, Maxine Kennedy’s, Earl Geddes’ place and on down Snow Street. 
            Other trucks and then boats helped in the moving of items, to the upstairs in some houses and off to the storage garages in others.  When we got to Harry Lounsbury’s house, some concerns arose as nobody had seen Harry anywhere that morning.  Dode Erlandson and I warily entered the house to check on him, but Harry was away from his home, safe out of the flood’s way.

            The floodwaters continued up Main Street all the rest of that day, until finally stopping between the La Farge Co-op gas station and the old post office building.  The water started to recede a little later in the afternoon, but another torrential thunderstorm came through in the early evening.  That storm caused even worse flooding on Bear Creek, and the floodwaters in La Farge stayed at near record levels through most of the night.  (Ironically, the floodwaters never did enter our apartment, although reaching right to the doorsill on a couple of occasions.)