When the story of the La Farge dam controversy was broadcast on the CBS Evening News on Friday, October 13, 1978, a new chapter in the dam story seemed to unfold. Introduced as “The Great Kickapoo Loggerhead” by news-anchor Roger Mudd, the video story as told by CBS newsman Bob Faw was compelling and emotional. Seeing Ward Rose, Lonnie Muller and Bernice Schroeder relate details of the heartbreaking process of the dam project for many Kickapoogians affected most people who watched it.
One of those affected was another CBS newsman, Charles Osgood. Osgood, who hosted a radio show on CBS called “The Osgood File” wrote a poem about the dam project on the Kickapoo and read it over the air on his radio show later in October. It is a long piece, as Osgood’s poems tend to be, but I want to include his ending here. He wrote:
It’s been 43 years since the U.S.A.
Began to help Kickapoo out that way.
They spent nineteen million dollars and they built their road
And a great new bridge, as we already showed.
And they let all that farmland go to seed,
Where today there’s that acreage and sundry weed.
Still, the folks there in Kickapoo have the gall
To complain, showing little gratitude at all.
Congress got impatient and cut off the dough.
Building was stopped about three years ago.
The valley is frustrated, the people mad.
They’d settle now for what they one time had.
Uncle Sam’s embarrassed and his face is red.
And this week somebody in the White House said,
“Tell you what we’ll do in this Administration:
We’ll assign a task force in the situation.”
Nice of those folks in the capital city
To come right out like that and appoint a committee.
And who knows what that committee will find?
Whether to quit while they’re still behind,
Or to finish the dam for several million more
That they started out planning in the days of yore.
Well, we should tell you that which everyone in Kickapoo knows:
They still have the floods. Oh, they have lots of those.
Plenty of flood damage – my, oh, my!
Fifty million dollars just this past July.
“I’m angry,” says a citizen, “indeed, I am!”
Now you know why they invented the expression: DAMN!
Soon after the CBS News coverage of the dam project by Bob Faw and Charles Osgood, President Jimmy Carter made the official announcement of the first public meeting of the joint federal-state task force to study options for flood control and economic development for the Kickapoo Valley. Perhaps the features in the nationally broadcast CBS pieces had hurried the process along, perhaps not.
Bob Faw finished his video report on the La Farge dam project by saying, “a flood control project that controls absolutely nothing”. Would the latest task-force study provide some answers for the dam at La Farge to control something?
Actually, many people in the community of La Farge were sick and tired of all the studies done on the Kickapoo Valley. President Carter’s call for a new study elicited groans from many in the community, regardless of their position on the dam project. Kickapoogians were weary of studies. The problem of flooding in the Kickapoo Valley had been studied to death over a period that stretched back to the 1930’s.
President Carter’s Task Force on Kickapoo River Flood Damage Reduction held its first public meeting On November 16, 1978. The meeting was held at the high school gymnasium in Gays Mills with nearly 200 people in attendance. Colonel Ted Bishop of the Corps of Engineers acted as moderator for the meeting which featured representatives from various federal and state agencies. In addition, Senator Gaylord Nelson also attended the meeting.
In his prepared remarks, Senator Nelson told the gathering that the dam project at La Farge was dead. “A dam is out of the question,” Nelson said. “The project that is currently authorized fails to meet the administration’s economic and ecological tests. The task force must develop a comprehensive, valley-wide plan that provides a higher degree of flood protection for many more residents.” Senator Nelson added, “The task force’s review is the valley’s best chance. The battle over the dam is finished. We must move forward if anything is to be accomplished.”
Colonel Bishop told the gathering that the Task Force was formed to find ways to relieve flood damage in the Kickapoo Valley without using structures such as dams or levees. During the proceedings, Bishop continually asked people who were speaking to not discuss the dam project at La Farge as a possible option. However, Col. Bishop’s admonitions had little affect on those who testified.
Many people from La Farge spoke at the meeting. Bernice Schroeder, speaking as a representative of KLOUT, spoke in favor of completing the authorized project and completing the dam at La Farge. Schroeder said it was “a broken promise” to the former landowners if the dam was not completed. She thought that if the dam was not completed then the lands should be returned to the former owners.
Also speaking from La Farge for completion of the dam project were Roger Andrew, Bernard and Jeanne Smith, Palmer Munson, Olive Nelson and Esther Ziebell. Palmer Munson, speaking as town chairman of the Town of Stark, spoke of the tax hardships for the people living in the township due to the government buying so much land for the dam project. Munson also advocated for the completion of the dam, as did people from other places in the Kickapoo Valley.
Jim Coxe from Wauzeka called for the completion of a dry dam at La Farge, saying that such a structure would benefit everyone in the Kickapoo Valley during floods. Carl Oppreicht of the Gays Mills Flood Avoidance Committee spoke in favor of construction of small retention dams along tributaries running into the Kickapoo River as well as completion of a dry dam at La Farge.
Vernon County Board member George Nettum admonished the members of the Task Force for the failure to complete the dam at La Farge. He called the dam project the “biggest fiasco ever” and encouraged the Task Force members to include the completion of the dam at La Farge in future plans.
The Task Force recommendations did call for an expanded flood insurance program for villages in the Kickapoo Valley, crop insurance for farmers along the river, a valley-wide warning and preparedness plan, evacuation/relocation plans for Soldiers Grove, flood proofing and a levee system for Gays Mills and a federal/local effort to clear the river and tributaries of snags and debris.
However, the preliminary recommendations released by the Presidential Task Force in December included nothing about the completion of the dam at La Farge. As Senator Nelson had said repeatedly throughout 1978, the dam project at La Farge was dead.
And so it went. For the next decade a variety of efforts were made to do something with the partially completed dam at La Farge. Many politicians at the state and federal level tried to move the dam project in some way towards some sort of conclusion. But it never happened. “A flood control project that controls absolutely nothing.”
* * * *
To finish, let me write that a completed Corps of Engineers’ flood control dam north of La Farge that should have been completed in the mid-1970’s would have greatly lessoned the devastation of the flood of 1978, then the massive destruction from the flood of 2008, and now the misery of the flood of 2017. That is what the dam was designed to do.
The finished dam would not have curtailed any flood waters on Otter or Bear Creeks nor saved anybody’s washed-out driveway along those streams. The completed dam would not have saved Ontario from the ravages of the recent flood in July of 2017. But we should also remember that five retention dams for the Ontario area were to be built as part of the project at La Farge. If built, those retention dams would have lessoned the impact of the recent floodwaters on Ontario.
In the end, by not completing the dam or any of the ancillary parts of the federal project like the retention dams, the Kickapoo Valley was left to its own devises to cope with devastating floods.