Saturday, December 8, 2018

A World War II Letter Home

As Americans continue to remember the 75thanniversaries of the United States’ involvement in World War II, I thought it might be appropriate to share a letter from 1943.  LaVerne Green, who was in the U.S. Navy at that time, wrote the letter and sent it home to La Farge to his father, Lester Green.  The letter was written on October 22, 1943 and had an FPO military address in New York City.  For much of that year, LaVerne Green was stationed in Panama and did not return to the United States until November of 1943.  I am guessing that the letter sent home to his Dad was written in the Panama Canal Zone.
            LaVerne Green’s letter is remarkable in several respects.  First of all the written penmanship of the letter is superb.  Written in longhand script with a pencil, the letter reminded me of my own father’s excellent cursive writing, common from that generation. Cursive writing was a required skill taught in school back then and those who did it well, like LaVerne, leave an easily readable text for the reader to follow.
            Another aspect of LaVerne Green’s letter that is unique is that it is almost entirely about music.  The Green family was very musically inclined, talents that carried on to La Verne’s children and perhaps to later generations even to this day. From the contents of the letter, it is evident that Lester Green probably played in a band of some sort in 1943 and that LaVerne is musically active in the service as well.
            Much of that letter from late October in 1943 tells about LaVerne Green’s effort to copy some music for his father.  I will use La Verne’s words as he related them to his Dad in the letter:
            Just finished the music today.  I had to hurry a lot on two of the tunes.  Who & Marie.  They were set but I had to copy them and it is slow work.  I don’t have a writing pen and the ink I used on them is too thin. The ones written in pencil are quite neat but I spent more time on them.  Marie was a rush job.  I set it last night and took it to my friend to play this afternoon and there wasn’t a mistake in it.  Fast work. Tonight I copied it for you.  I will send them thru in the morning along with this letter.
            I do not know what songs that LaVerne is writing about.  I “Googled” the top songs of the 1940’s, but nothing with those titles came up.  Irving Berlin had written a tune titled, “Marie” several decades before then, so perhaps that is the tune that was being worked on and mentioned in the letter.  
            LaVerne Green continued with his letter to his Dad: 
My friend here plays violin beautifully and he likes the choruses very much.  He can really take off on them.  You will find them very hard for the most part.  Tea For Two is a beautiful job and the last measures are really swingy.
            Now here is a song that I could find!  “Tea For Two” was a song from the Broadway musical, “No, No, Nanette” originally written in 1925.  Doris Day sang the song in the 1940’s and made it a big hit, probably because as LaVerne wrote, it was “really swingy”.  He continues to tell his Dad about other hit songs that he is working on: 
Whispering is a bit easier.  Who is a terrific thing to play, especially the last 16 bars.  It’s catchy as can be.  Marie is a little bit on a hot tenor side.  I believe a tenor sax could take most of the choruses except 32 bars of that stuff is too long and the way it is written there are no breathing spots for a horn.  Marie runs pretty smooth if not tried too fast.  I think you will agree with me they are quite difficult.  For a small outfit the whole chorus would be fine.  8 bars or so doesn’t make much of a fill. I hope you find them all to your liking.
            “Whispering”, another song that LaVerne Green had written out for his Dad was a hit song first recorded by Frank Sinatra in the 1940s. Later, it was also recorded by Louis Armstrong and The Ink Spots.  LaVerne continues in the letter to tell his father about his work on writing out the music and possibly some future work that he may send home.  Apparently, LaVerne thinks his renditions may have some financial value when he wrote: 
If you see Alf Modahl, ask him what he thinks of the commercial value of this type of arrangement, will you?  Or anyone else you happen to see who knows something about it. Whatever you do, don’t give them away or let anyone copy them.  Keep them to yourself.  I think quite a lot of that work I put in them.            
            In the last paragraph of his letter, LaVerne wrote to his father about some correspondence with LaVerne’s brother, Willard, who is referred to as “Ping” in the letter.  Willard Green, who was thirteen years younger than LaVerne and a 1942 LHS graduate, had entered the Army earlier in 1943.
Got the photo of Ping today.  I like it very much and thanks a lot.  Had a letter from him dated Sept 20.  Just before he went to Sam Houston I guess.  He wasn’t so happy about the Army.  Hope he likes the new place.
            LaVerne wrote about Willard going to the Army base, Ft. Sam Houston located in San Antonio, Texas.  That was where Willard went after basic training and before being deployed to Europe where he was wounded severely in the Italian Campaign. After spending several months in an Army hospital in Iowa, Willard was discharged in late 1944.
            LaVerne ended up being based in Washington D.C. for the rest of the war.  Ironic, since he had worked for the federal government in the nation’s capital for two years prior to joining the Navy.  While there, he met a young lady from Pittsburgh working for the war department. LaVerne and Stella Green were married in 1942 and after the war they made their home in La Farge.  LaVerne was a mail carrier in La Farge, like his father and brother Willard.  LaVerne and Stella were also Cub Scout leaders in town for many years.  That’s when I first met LaVerne – when I was a member of the Cub Scout Pack – I remember how the couple was devoted to starting young boys on the skills of scouting.  LaVerne was also a master at tuning and restoring pianos – a skill that he practiced the rest of his life.
            I will close this column with LaVerne’s closing words to his father in that letter from 1943:
I’m fixing to send you my radio, player and a bunch of records, just to keep for me in case I get a place to put them.  All my love to you and mother.  Keep well – keep trying on those tunes too!  Your Son, LaVerne

(Joe Persons gave me the letter that LaVerne Green had written in 1943.  Joe wasn’t sure how he had received the letter, but it’s apt that Joe, a man of music would have had it.  If there are family members of LaVerne Green’s who would like the letter, I would love to get it to them.  It might make a memorable Christmas gift.  Otherwise, I will pass it on to the Vernon County Historical Museum for their WW II collection.)

Armistice Day In La Farge

When word was received that an armistice had been signed to stop “The Great War” on November 11, 1918, La Farge, like most communities in America, celebrated heartily.  After an earlier “false alarm” about the armistice that had been received on November 8th, this news was real and caused the little Kickapoo River town to go into full celebration mode.  (There was an interesting article in the recent November 11thWisconsin State Journal that told about that newspaper publishing a front page headline about the armistice on that November 8thin 1918.  So, La Farge wasn’t the only town fooled by the report on that day.)
            The lead story in the La Farge Enterprise newspaper of that week told about the celebration, “The fire bell, church bells and every noise making device was brought into action and the crowd paraded the streets for several hours.  School was dismissed and all business places closed and a general holiday unanimously declared.  By noon hundreds of people had arrived in the village from the country and the streets were packed from curb to curb.”
            Angie Marshall used to tell an interesting story about the businesses in La Farge all closing during that Armistice Day in 1918. Angie’s brother worked in the La Farge Bank at the time and when the decision was made to close, the bank employees quickly started to put all the money away and lock everything up. Angie’s brother went into the vault to put some money away.  While he was in there, another employee, not knowing of his location, swung the vault door shut and locked it.  The bank employees then went out on Main Street to join in the celebration.
            A couple of hours later, after the parade and program had finished, the employees went back into the bank, where they found their fellow employee locked in the vault.  Angie said that the bad part of the ordeal for her brother was not running out of air to breath in the locked vault, but instead was missing out on the village’s celebration – something he always regretted.
            The Enterprise article continued, “Early in the forenoon a committee arranged a celebration program which was given at 2 o’clock in Main Street.  The program began with a parade headed by the band, followed by automobiles containing the old soldiers.  Then followed the entire village, school and citizens, making a parade six blocks in length.  Afterward the crowd assembled on Main Street and listened to music by the band and stirring addresses by Rev. Dunlevy and Prof. Mills.” 
            Fortunately, we have several excellent photographs from that first Armistice Day in La Farge that show the parade and program.  (Those photos accompany this article.)  There are two photos that show the parade being formed on Main Street between Donaldson’s Hardware Store (now where Bergum’s Grocery is) and Neefe’s Garage (now C&S Motors).  One photo shows the La Farge Band waiting to lead the parade with two cars of veterans following.  (Three people are identified in this photo, as the names of Walden Lawton, Calvin Blakely and James Paul are penciled in.)  Another photo taken from the same spot shows the latter part of the parade with marchers on foot and a wagon decorated with red, white and blue banners and flags bringing up the rear.
            John Telfer may have described that wagon when he wrote a letter to the La Farge Epitaphnewspaper in 1973 about his memories of that Armistice Day. Remember that Telfer was an 11-year old boy at the time of the 1918 armistice and he wrote, “I went uptown in the afternoon and joined the happy crowds.  My Uncle Will Bean had pulled his big one-horse delivery wagon into the middle of Main Street; all traffic was diverted and singing shouting people filled the whole block.  A straw effigy with a spiked German helmet on his head was sitting in my uncle’s wagon. I swam in the excitement and sang and yelled, too.  The war is over!
            But one thing shocked me.  Around the straw figure’s neck hung a sign, “To Hell Mit the Kaiser!”  When I went home I asked Mother if it was quite decent to use such bad language in public.  She smiled and said she thought that was about where the Kaiser would end up.”
            Another of the Armistice Day photos shows the parade as it headed down Main Street going east.  It shows the rear of the parade meeting the front of the parade as those people head back towards the downtown area.  Also of note in this photo is that several of the houses along the street are still in La Farge one hundred years later.
            The fourth photograph of La Farge’s 1918 Armistice Day celebration shows the band seated in concert formation on the street as the program commenced.  The speeches by the Methodist minister and the school principal would follow during the program held on La Farge’s Main Street.
            There were other ways of celebrating the armistice that day in La Farge as the newspaper reported in the “Local News” section:
·     Some time ago Mrs. Angelina Hook, who is 86 years old, made the statement that when the news came that Germany had surrendered she would turn a hand spring.  We have been told that she made her word good Monday morning after learning of the signing of the armistice.
·     The boys from here who reported for army service at Viroqua Sunday returned home Tuesday, having been released.  (My grandfather, Pearl Campbell, was in a group from Salem Ridge who had gone to Viroqua to join the army during that time. The family story goes that the rest of those country boys stayed in Viroqua to celebrate the armistice, but Pearl drove the wagon back to Fairview to tell his recent bride, Isa, of the good news that he did not have to go off to fight in the war.)
·     School was dismissed Monday for the celebration, to which the students gave hearty support.  The results were many sore throats. (This piece was located in the “School News” in that week’s Enterprise.)
·     A deplorable feature of our otherwise glorious celebration of peace Monday was the importation of several kegs of “liquid fire” into the village.  To the majority of the citizens this part of the celebration was objectionable and the instigators of this should have taken a second thought before they launched such a feature. 
           The editor of the La Farge Enterprise in 1918 was a staunch prohibitionist and a leader of the Anti-Saloon Party in the state.  La Farge was “Dry” at that time, with no saloons operating when the war ended. When the kegs of beer were snuck into the village to aid in the celebrations’ merriment (I found another reference to the clandestine beer being imported from Yuba for that day’s celebration.), editor Perkins was obviously not happy. 

           Unfortunately the celebration in La Farge was short lived as the community was feeling of ravages of the influenza epidemic that was sweeping the country.   Within a few weeks, all community gatherings were cancelled, including church services and programs at La Farge’s Opera House.  Eventually the school would even have to close for extended periods of time. Deaths were numerous in the community with entire families being wiped out by the deadly influenza.  When some of the soldiers began returning from France later in the year, they found family members gone – killed by the deadly flu. It was truly a tragic irony for that time.

Armistice Bells Ring In La Farge!

Early Monday morning the glad tidings were received here that Germany had signed the armistice thus practically ending the war.  In a very short time the streets were crowded with people and men and women alike alternatively laughed and wept with joy. The fire bell, church bells and every noise making device were brought into action and the crowd paraded the streets for several hours.  School was dismissed and all business places closed and a general holiday unanimously declared.  By noon hundreds of people had arrived in the village from the country and the streets were packed from curb to curb.

            Thus reads the initial paragraph in the lead story on page one of the November 14, 1918 issue of the “La Farge Enterprise” newspaper. Under the bold headline of “Full Surrender of Germany”, the article continues on to describe the events that played out in this little Kickapoo River town a century ago.  
            I was particularly interested to read about the bells in La Farge being rung on that original Armistice Day morning because I believe most of those bells still remain in the village.  One hundred years after that momentous conclusion to “The Great War” (as it was known then), four bells that rang out on that day still remain in the village.
            The Enterprisearticle first mentions the fire bell when describing that historic morning.  The village bell, or fire bell, was located at several different sites around the village over the years.  When I was a boy growing up in La Farge in the 1950s, that bell was displayed prominently by the firehouse, which at that time was located where the post office is now. Eventually that bell was stored away by the village, but is still kept at the new EMS Building on La Farge’s East Side.  After finding the bell, Wayne Haugrud took a photo of it, which accompanies this article.
            On that morning of the original Armistice Day in 1918, the fire bell was located in front of the village firehouse located on Penn Street, a block north of Main Street.  Today, that location of the old firehouse and bell is across from the United Methodist Church.
            Another account of that original Armistice Day morning in La Farge was provided in 1973, when John H. Telfer wrote a letter to the La Farge Epitaph newspaper about his remembrances.  Telfer was eleven years old on that Armistice Day morning in 1918 and 55 years later, still had vivid memories of the day.  The Telfer family lived on south Mill Street; I think it was the last house on the street before it joins Pearl Street.  The house was next to the railroad track coming into La Farge from the south and the boy and his mother were walking up the railroad track that morning.  John Telfer’s account of that morning is fascinating.
            The morning of November 11, 1918, was dawning cold and clear.  I remember how crusted the snow was as my hardy mother, Delila Geneva Telfer, and I tramped up the track, then along the edge of the swamps that nearly surrounded the old Milwaukee Road “round house” which was really square.  I had some good muskrat sets in those reedy marshes and two or three held fur that never-to-be-forgotten morning.  (This location would be across Mill Street from the present Hometown Village Apartments.)
            Putting them into a gunny sack we went on up the track to that old “ox bow” slough just west of where the track ran through a cut in the sandstone and then emerged into the Seelyburg “Y”.  (This location is just to the west and down over the hill from the Chapel Hill Cemetery.)  Here I found several muskrats had got caught and were quickly pulled into deep water and drowned by my traps sliding out on a 4 or 5 foot length of securely staked telephone wire.  Our sack now held seven rats, a very good days catch for the 11 year old trapper running his line before going on to the S.D.A. country school. Mother some times came along to carry home my catch.  Otherwise I had to hide them for all day, a chancy matter with sharp covetous eyes often trailing me.
            From this account, we know that the young lad was headed to the Seventh Day Adventist School that was held in the SDA Church, at the time located next to the present Star Cemetery on the north side of the river at Seelyburg.
            The scene has always remained clear, I was knee deep in the water, Mother was shivering up on the track, the early sun had broken through onto the bright snow. Suddenly all the village church bells began to ring furiously.  We were startled and wondering for only a minute.  Then Mother cried, “It must be the armistice, the real armistice!” Old-timers may remember there had been one mistaken report that had set off the bells a day or two earlier.
            We both hurried home; there’d be no school today.
            It is interesting to note how the ringing church bells on that cold morning brought instant recognition to the boy and his mother that the war had ended.  Although, to be fair, the village had apparently had some practice for the armistice announcement since the village’s bells had been rung erroneously a couple of days earlier.  I imagine everyone in La Farge was anticipating the announcement of the war’s end after that initial bell pealing.
            I am assuming that the bell at the SDA Church in Seelyburg rang that morning along with the church bells of the Methodist and Free Methodist churches.  I’m also going to assume that the bell at the schoolhouse also rang out the armistice announcement on that November 11th.  The bells at the school and at the two La Farge Methodist congregations all remain in front of those fine institutions to this day.  Photos of each of those three bells also accompany this article.
            The bell on the SDA Church/school at Seelyburg is a different matter.  The church and school remained at the Seelyburg location until the 1920s.  At that time, the congregation built a new church on the northwest corner of Silver and School Streets in La Farge. They may have moved the bell on the SDA Church at Seelyburg to that new location two blocks south of the La Farge schoolhouse.  (When the Methodist congregation moved their church from Chapel Hill in Seelyburg down to La Farge in 1902, they brought the bell along and hung it in the new church. That was the bell that rang on Armistice Day in 1918 and now stands outside of the newest Methodist church.) Some fifty years later, the SDA Church closed and the building was sold to Lee & Donna Gudgeon, who converted the building into their home.  The steeple and bell were removed from the former church and the bell eventually ended up near Mt. Vernon in rural Dane County, where it was to be placed in an old country schoolhouse. 

Friday, November 2, 2018



            Volume II of my history of La Farge begins with information about the great Kickapoo River Flood of 2008.  The introduction of the book deals with how that particular flood somewhat delayed the publishing of Volume II and why that flooding event kept me occupied with other tasks besides writing.  Chapter 1 of the book is all about the flood itself and how the community reacted to it. As we have been doing with these recent columns, we also will look at how La Farge dealt with the aftermath of that great flood.  Let’s begin by looking at what I wrote about the flood of 2008 in Chapter 1 – titled A Flood For The Ages.
            The water started to cross Highway 82 at the low spot in the road near the river, just to the west of Nuzum’s and the Organic Valley cheese factory building. Roger Andrew’s flat to the north had filled with water during the early Sunday morning hours and was now spilling the excess water across State Highway 82.  Around the corner and going north on Mill Street, the water was starting to seep across that street towards Schroer’s sawmill.  Heavy rains from the day before in the Kickapoo Valley had accumulated to over a half a foot of precipitation or more in some places and those waters were rushing to the river.  It was Sunday, June 8, 2008 and the village of La Farge was beginning to feel the effects of what would become the greatest recorded flood in the history of the Kickapoo River.
            To the north, the flat empty land that had once been Seelyburg was covered with several feet of swiftly rising water.  The river had come out of its banks during the night and now the old lumber town’s Main Street was under water from Chapel Hill in the south all the way to the Star Cemetery hill north of the river.  Around the hill to the north, the covered bridge on the Kickapoo Valley Reserve strained against the floodwaters battering at its foundation and rising nearly to its roof.
            On County Highway P where Weister Creek enters the Kickapoo, the river was a quarter of a mile wide at Bridge 14 that morning.  Traveling north to Rockton, the talk in that hamlet was about the FedEx truck that stalled out in the rising waters near Cutoff Road on County P heading east towards Valley.  The previous evening, curious on-lookers and flood gazers had watched the floodwaters ascend on the side of the truck.  When darkness fell, the truck was still there surrounded in water that was door-handle high.  Then early on this morning, the first gazers noticed that the truck was gone and supposed that the terrible current had washed it away.  Only later did they realize that the truck was still there in the early morning light, only invisible as it was completely covered by the floodwaters.
            Word came upriver from Ontario that the village was in a state of shambles from the terrible floodwaters.  Reports started down the valley that the crest of the flood was the highest ever seen in the village, surpassing the high water marks of the 1935 and 1978 floods. “Prepare for the Worst” was the alarm echoed along the Kickapoo on that June morning.
            Back in La Farge the warnings were being heeded.  At Nuzum’s Lumber Yard, workers carried a variety of items upstairs in the old shed, as had been done so many times before during big floods. Across the street at the old cheese factory building, Organic Valley workers placed products up on shelves in the retail store and warehouse.  Earl Nelson and his crew moved trucks off the lots at the La Farge Truck Center and drove them to high ground.  The ambulances and fire trucks were moved from their garages located south of Main Street to the school parking lots on the high ground on the north side of the village.  An Emergency Command Center was set up at the schoolhouse and the Red Cross arrived to prepare a place for displaced people to stay in the school gymnasium.  The National Weather Service issued flood warnings along the Kickapoo, setting off preparations by Vernon County Emergency Management to help those people in the path of the flood.
            As the water continued to rise during the afternoon, many people were removed from their homes south of Main Street and taken to the shelter at the school where food and sleeping cots were available.  Most of the people living in houses south of Main Street had been busy all day getting what they had out of the way of the floodwaters.  Once again the floodwaters of the Kickapoo were cutting the familiar diagonal slash across the village as it had done before in the other great floods.  Heavy rains hit in the afternoon hours dumping nearly three inches of water on saturated ground.  Rain totals for the two days now reached eight inches, or a foot, depending on where you lived in the Kickapoo Valley.  All of the creeks soon roared out of their banks in the countryside around the village.  Water rushing off the hillsides washed a pickup parked along Jug Creek Road, located north of La Farge, into the nearby ditch.  Bear Creek’s raging waters closed County Highway D east of La Farge and washed two cars off the road there.
            During the evening the floodwaters in La Farge continued to rise at an alarming rate.  County Sheriff’s cars manned a blockade on the west end of the bridge over the river to keep traffic from entering the raging waters.  In town the waters had reached into the Heartland Cenex Co-op station parking lot, nearly up to the Post Office.  A vigil of emergency personnel maintained an overnight post on Main Street at the east end of the floodwaters.  Shane Nottestad, owner of the Zzip Stop convenience store/gas station, spent the night with other helpers steering floating logs, washed out of Schroer’s lumber yards several blocks to the northwest, away from the gas pumps of his business.  Lights shining out of the roiling waters showed one of the trucks at the La Farge Truck Center, parked on a display riser nearly four feet above the street level. Left there because it was hoped it would be above the floodwaters, the truck now seemed to be perched on the surface of a lake as the waters lapped at its tires.  Finally the water rose so high that the emergency electric generator, being operated two blocks south of Main Street, had to be shut down, plunging the village into further darkness.
            When light first came on that following Monday, June 9, the Kickapoo River at La Farge still stretched from the bridge on the west end of town to the Zzip Stop corner five blocks away.  The floodwaters had risen to record levels in the village during the previous night and had stayed that way for longer than ever before.  The only good sign that the bleary-eyed gazers saw on that morning was that the waters, slowly but surely, were starting to abate. Sometime in the early morning hours of darkness the crest had been reached and the river’s mighty flood had started to recede back towards its banks.  The recession of the river’s crest was a slow process that took most of the day.
            By Tuesday, the cleanup from the flood was in full force in the village. Volunteers poured into the village to help those returning to their flooded homes.  The flood had been the greatest ever recorded, with the National Weather Service gauging station at La Farge measuring a high water mark of 15.78 feet.  That level was nearly a foot higher than the previous highest level recorded in La Farge during the 1978 flood.  The effect of those record high floodwaters on the houses and businesses of La Farge was readily apparent.  There was so much water backed up in the offices of Nuzum’s that holes had to be drilled in the floor to get the water to drain out.  Across the street at the old cheese factory, the coolers and freezers of Organic Valley’s retail store and warehouse were badly damaged by the floodwaters.  It would take months to get that Main Street operation back to normal.  Further up Main Street at the La Farge Truck Center fire hoses washed away at the mud left by the floodwaters.  Piles of trash and debris started to accumulate on the curbs around the village.
            Homeowners who had rarely if ever had floodwaters before in their homes, now returned to see the devastation caused by the flood.  High water marks left on the walls were nearly two feet high on the first floor in some houses.  Nearly every house in the village south of Main Street had suffered some type of flood or water damage.  Mold grew on the floors and walls where the floodwaters had once been.  Many of the homes had suffered major damages and the extent was confirmed by touring village and FEMA officials.  After the inspections later in the week, eight houses that were most heavily damaged by the floodwaters were declared unfit to live in and condemned.  Eventually, more than fifteen houses in La Farge, damaged by the floodwaters, would be purchased from their owners with FEMA funds and demolished.
            Another casualty of the flood was the Burt’s apartment building located across Snow Street and to the south of the motel.  In the early hours of Wednesday morning, June 11th, the La Farge firemen rushed to the building, which was totally ablaze.  It could not be saved and burned to the ground along with the contents of the three apartments.  The flood had inundated the apartment building, which was once the former La Farge Methodist Church parsonage.  The moisture from the floodwaters had damaged the wiring in the apartment complex.  When the power was turned back on, the wiring failed and caused electrical problems that led to the fire.
            The Burt’s apartment building was the first of nearly two-dozen residences that would cease to be on La Farge’s south side because of the 2008 flood.  Using FEMA and later DNR funds, many houses on south Mill Street, south State Street, Snow Street and Pearl Street were purchased from their owners and razed. The great Kickapoo River Flood of 2008 and a later, but smaller flood in 2010 sent people who owned homes near the river to higher ground.
            After the flood a new apartment building was built on Highland Street using federal grant money as a way of replacing some of the lost housing in the village.  A new Emergency Services Building opened in 2010 on the village’s east side to house the fire department and ambulance squad vehicles.  The building also serves as a village hall for meetings and elections. The Town of Stark relocated away from their flooded buildings on Main Street and moved to a new town hall building constructed on the dam site at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  About that unfinished water control structure north of La Farge, once again people were amazed and saddened at how much water can flow through an unfinished dam.

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If you would like a copy of Volume II of my La Farge history, send a $25 check (that includes shipping and mailing costs) to me at P.O. Box 202, La Farge, WI 54639.  Locally my books are for sale at the La Farge Episcope office, the bank in La Farge and at the gift shop at the KVR Visitor Center.    

Tuesday, October 16, 2018


The great Kickapoo River Flood of 1978 was the culmination of a very wet spring season that continued into June.  That month, weekend storms seemed to keep the river at or near flood stage every weekend, thwarting the attempts of tourists to canoe on the river.  At the end of the month the tipping point was reached. Here is how I described that flood in volume II of my history of La Farge (page 214).
            On the evening of Friday, June 30th, a series of heavy thunderstorms swept through the Kickapoo Valley.  During the evening, the National Weather Service issued a flood alert for the Kickapoo River and surrounding streams.  The Vernon County Sheriff’s Department mobilized efforts to move everyone away from flooding streams.  The La Farge Fire Department was called out during the night to look for canoeists who were camped along the river south of Rockton.  Later, the power went off in the village and firemen helped people with emergency power for sump pumps to keep water out of basements.
            By the morning of July 1, reports from communities upriver from La Farge warned of high floodwaters on the way.  Norwalk, Wilton and Ontario were all deluged with floodwaters and all of it was headed fro La Farge and other communities downstream.  North of Rockton, the waters of the flooding Kickapoo were almost over the 10-foot high railings of Bridge #10 that spanned the river. By late morning on Saturday, July 1, the flooding Kickapoo began to spill into La Farge.  Employees and volunteer work crews worked at Nuzum’s, Jeffer’s Truck Sales, and the cheese factory to get merchandise to higher ground. Volunteers and members of the fire department began to move furniture and other belongings out of the houses south of Main Street.  A caravan of volunteers in trucks and boats moved people out of their houses on Mill, Pearl, Gold, Silver and Snow Streets.  All of the trucks of the fire department as well as the ambulance were moved away from the firehouse on south Silver Street to higher ground.  Some of the trucks were kept at C&S Motors and a couple others were eventually driven over to the Major farm on Otter Creek, so the department could respond on the west side of the river.
            By mid-afternoon the waters of the Kickapoo had advanced up Main Street to crest between the post office and the Co-op Gas Station.  All events of the opening day of the 4thof July Celebration were cancelled, but many people still came to La Farge for the events – many unaware of the devastating flood.  Others, however, cam to see the floodwaters and by late afternoon the village was jammed with people.  Sandwiches that had been made for the celebration were donated to feed the many volunteers, firemen and policemen helping with the flood.  Red Cross officials came to the village by nightfall and they arranged for meals to be served at Kennedy’s Restaurant for people displaced by the floodwaters.  Sleeping bags were placed in the school gymnasium and people with no place to stay could reside there until the floodwaters abated.  Others stayed in the KP Hall overnight as they waited to return to their flooded homes.
            The waters started to recede late in the day on July 1st, but then an intense storm pummeled the La Farge area in the evening.  The storm had spawned several tornadoes in the Viroqua area and La Farge received nearly two-inches of rain.  The storm caused more severe flooding on Bear Creek, Otter Creek, and Weister Creek and caused the Kickapoo to again rise to former high levels during the night.  From Friday evening June 30ththrough Sunday morning, July 2nd, 6.15 inches of rain was measured in La Farge.
            By the morning of Sunday, July 2ndthe waters of the Kickapoo at La Farge had begun its recession down Main Street and back towards the river’s banks.  The floodwaters had crested at 14.92 feet, the greatest water level ever recorded at the gauging station located on the bridge west of Nuzum’s.  12,900 cubic feet of water per second was rushing through the village at the peak of the crest, another apex never recorded before.  (Many of the older generation compared the great Flood of 1978 to that of the one in 1935, but the gauging station at La Farge was not in operation at that time of the Flood of 1935, so an official comparison was not available.)
            It is interesting to note that the gauging station at La Farge was installed because of the flood of 1935.  When the Corps of Engineers did their preliminary flood control studies of the Kickapoo Watershed beginning in 1938, one of their initial recommendations was for gauging stations to be placed along the river to measure its flow.  The stations were installed at La Farge and Gays Mills soon after that initial Corps study. Let’s now return to my account in volume II of that 1978 flood at La Farge.
            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, Ethel Burt, Maxine Kennedy, Bob Erickson, Lucille Yarolimek, Vera Campton, Bob Jacobson, and Leslie Gillett.
            Business places in La Farge that were inundated with the floodwaters 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, and Nelson’s Garage.  Also suffering damage from the flood were the Town of Stark hall and shed, the La Farge jail, and the new village hall and firehouse.
            The school’s bus garage, located on Main Street in the old Fulmer’s Garage building suffered heavy damage.
            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.  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 Seelyburg 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 5thindicated there was no contamination.
            Governor Martin Schreiber had declared much of southwestern Wisconsin, including the Kickapoo Valley, a disaster area because of the flooding.  (President Carter soon followed with his own disaster declaration, freeing up federal funds for flood relief.)  The move by Governor Schreiber allowed for state and federal assistance to reach those affected by the floods more quickly. Within a week of the flood, representatives from HUD and the Governor’s office were in La Farge to assess the damages. A list compiled by Village President Ted Erickson indicated that 38 residences, 23 businesses and several municipal facilities in La Farge had damages from the flood.  An initial estimate total of $200,000 in damages to La Farge residences, businesses, and streets was compiled.  That total did not include any of the damages to farm operations within the village.
            It is important to remember that a nearly completed flood control dam lay north of La Farge during that epic Kickapoo River Flood of 1978.  Originally scheduled to be completed two years before the flood, construction on the unfinished dam had been delayed for nearly four years.  It is interesting to notice how the Corps of Engineers assessed that 1978 flood on the Kickapoo River.  Again, I will return to volume II, page 219.
            Later, the Corps of Engineers came up with very different numbers for the impact of a completed dam on the flood.  Corps estimates on the total damages from the flood to Vernon, Richland and Crawford Counties was $20-million.  An additional $7-million in damages occurred in Monroe County, but those damages would not have been affected by a dam at La Farge.  However, the Corps estimated that with a completed dam at La Farge and the accompanying levee systems at Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills, 80% of the flood damages to Kickapoo towns would have been avoided.  With only the dam in place and with no downstream levees, the Corps still predicted a decrease of 63% in flood damages. 
            Wow, 80% less damages with a completed dam at La Farge!  It blows one’s mind to think that those kinds of numbers still created no impetus for the politicians to finish the dam project. As Bob Faw said on his TV news story about the La Farge dam project that was shown on the “CBS Evening News” on October 13, 1978, “An unfinished dam stops no flood waters”. 

Water Over The Dam - Part III

La Farge, as a community located along the Kickapoo River, has a long history of recovering from floods. As we wait to see how the village reacts to the greatest Kickapoo River flood ever in 2018, perhaps a look back at some of the other post-flood times is in order.
            The June 1899 Kickapoo River flood was the first great flood to be felt by the communities in the valley.  There had been other floods before that, but nothing like the destruction caused in that year.  At the mill in Rockton, the 1899 flood of the Kickapoo River was measured as over a foot higher than any previous flood.  The flood was devastating to the downriver town of Seelyburg as the river cut a new channel right through the middle of the community. Every house and store in the hamlet was damaged or destroyed.  Many of the people who lived in the little community along the Kickapoo moved away from Seelyburg to higher ground.  Several of the Seelyburg businesses including the Millard General Store and the Brown Photography Studio moved south to La Farge to reestablish their businesses. The exodus from Seelyburg continued after the flood as the Methodist congregation moved from Chapel Hill on the southern end of Seelyburg to a new church in La Farge in 1902.
            Interestingly, only one house in La Farge suffered damages from the 1899 flood.  A month after the flood, the village was incorporated and the new municipality including flood-ravaged Seelyburg on the north end, was established.  La Farge had damages to the railroad that had come to the town only a year earlier.  Most of the railroad’s track bed in the village was washed away and the railroad bridge south of town was washed askew and had to be straightened.  Of course, in the summer of 1899, the new village had not yet begun its expansion towards the river.  By 1907, when the next great river flood hit, the village had expanded to the west and south from the original “Corners”.  Many houses and places of business had been built south of La Farge’s bustling Main Street and would be in the way of the flood.
            The July 1907 Kickapoo River flood devastated La Farge and the other communities along its path.  In La Farge, the crest of the floodwaters reached nearly three blocks east from the river.  According to an article about the flood in the La Farge Enterprise newspaper, the floodwaters reached the base of the hill where the Central Hotel stood (Today, the post office is located where that hotel once was.  That serves as a good comparison of that 1907 flood to the recent 2018 flood.)  Major damages were suffered at many of the lumbering businesses along Mill Street, including the Arm & Pin Factory, Nuzum & Hunter Lumber, Hammer Brothers Lumber & Excelsior Mill and several other lumber mills located along the street.  Further north at Seelyburg, the La Farge Milling Company & Electric Company also suffered heavy damages.  
            The railroad depot and freight warehouse (next to Nuzum’s today) also were heavily damaged in La Farge.  At Seelyburg, the railroad’s “Wye” turnaround was washed out as well as the spur line to the mill there.  South of the depot in La Farge, most of the railroad’s spur line to the lumbering businesses was washed away or damaged in some way.  It was weeks before railroad service was restored to the community. 
             Many people living in houses south of La Farge’s Main Street had to be rescued by boats during the night when the floodwaters rose dangerously in town. Amazingly, nobody was hurt or killed during the numerous rescues in La Farge during that 1907 flood.  During the height of that flood, water was measured at five-feet deep in some houses in La Farge.
            For Seelyburg, the 1907 Kickapoo River Flood virtually marked the end of the little riverside hamlet.  After the flood, only one residence and one business remained on the once bustling main street of the mill town as everyone else moved away from the river, continuing the exodus to the higher ground to the south in the village. 

When the big floods come, the Kickapoo washes away more than ever comes back.

            After the 1907 flood, some people living in La Farge moved from their flooded houses to higher ground.  A few businesses that had been hit hard by the flood did not choose to stay in La Farge.  Some of the lumbering businesses located along Mill Street would close within a short time.  Some of that was due to the damages suffered from the flood, but another reason was the lack of available wood to use in the lumber and excelsior mills.
            It would be nearly three decades before another massive flood would hit the Kickapoo Valley.  In August 1935 the greatest Kickapoo River flood that had ever been seen devastated the valley.  The floodwaters rose rapidly in La Farge during the evening of August 5thand people once again were rescued from their houses during that terrible night. The floodwaters rose so rapidly that some people had to be rescued by boats from the second story windows of their houses.  The La Farge telephone operator stayed up all night calling homes in the village and beyond towards Tunnelville to warn people to get out of their homes if they lived near the river.  At its height that night, the Kickapoo River floodwaters rose two feet in one hour in La Farge.  People displaced by the flood were temporarily housed in the KP Hall, the Odd Fellows Hall and the Masonic Temple.  The Red Cross was in town the next day and over the next week served nearly 300 meals to those displaced by the flood.
            The aftermath of the Flood of 1935 was a massive cleanup.  Disinfectant by the gallons was used to clean up the flood’s stinking residue.  The village’s health officer ordered everybody to boil any water used for drinking for fifteen minutes to avoid the ill effects of typhoid fever and other bowel infections.  Waste and garbage from the flood was burned immediately or buried. Dead animal carcasses, and there were many of them in the village, were removed in haste.
            The Red Cross brought in two-dozen large tents to La Farge for people to live in while their houses were drying out.  People in the village shared their garden vegetables with their neighbors who had lost their gardens to the floodwaters.
            Damages to businesses in the village were massive. Nuzum’s, the cheese factory, both gas stations on the corners of Main and Mill Streets, the lumber mill and pickle station on south Mill Street and the power plant at Seelyburg all had heavy damages from the floodwaters.  
            Every aspect of the railroad received heavy flood damage as the tracks from south of La Farge all the way to Seelyburg were heavily damaged.  The railroad’s depot, freight warehouse, coal shed, icehouse, engine house and nearby cheese warehouse were all heavily damaged.  The railroad bridge south of town had to be repaired again.  A freight train had stood next to the depot in La Farge during the flood and the high water mark was three feet up on the wooden boxcars.  It was nearly three weeks before the trains were able to run to La Farge once again after the flood.
            Residential damage in La Farge from the Kickapoo River Flood of 1935 was immense.  Many people’s woodsheds and out buildings were burned instead of repaired, too far gone to be fixed up.  Most of the damaged houses in the village were eventually cleaned up and repaired. Some of the houses were elevated to avoid future floods.  Many of the former occupants moved back in, but several houses were dismantled due to the excessive damages from the flood.  By September, several small single story houses had been built along north Mill Street (across from the present Calhoon Park) to help provide temporary housing for those displaced by the flood.
            After the Kickapoo River Flood of 1935, the people of La Farge and other Kickapoo Valley towns began to seek some type of relief from the river’s floods.  Led by La Farge Village President Arch Davidson, a delegation went to Washington D.C. to plead with Congress for some type of flood control help.  Thus, the story of the dam project at La Farge began. But that is another story for another time.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Water Over The Dam - Part II

The great Kickapoo River flood of 2018 began on the evening of Monday, August 27th, when torrential rains inundated an area from Coon Valley to Hillsboro.  Rainfall totals for that evening exceeded a foot in the Cashton, Ontario and Wilton areas.  In La Farge over five inches fell.  During that first night, the northern Kickapoo Valley communities were hit with record setting flood heights.  Most of the downtown Ontario business district was under 5 to 10 feet of water before daybreak.
            By 4 am on Tuesday, August 28th, word had been received in La Farge of the record setting water that was approaching from upriver.  An army of workers and volunteers began to move what could be saved from the businesses along west Main Street nearest the river.  By daylight the river was out of its banks, crossing the old Highway 131 at Seelyburg and plowing its way toward the village with alarming speed and power. By mid-morning, the Kickapoo River stretched from the bridge west of Nuzum’s all the way to the gas pumps at the Zzip Stop.  And the water kept rising.
            That afternoon over five inches of rain fell in less than three hours in the La Farge area.  The downpour set off a massive flood on area creeks and streams. As the rising waters of Bear and Otter Creeks came careening into La Farge that afternoon, it encountered the already record flood heights of the swollen Kickapoo and had nowhere to go. The water kept rising and by nightfall, the flood crest had breached the drive-thru of the post office – a never before seen height.  Water from a backed up Bear Creek was running west down Snow Street and into the river near the motel.  On the other end of the village, the waters of Bear Creek nearly reached the parking lot of the new EMT Building.
            Rescuing people from their houses was a top priority after the afternoon deluge.  DNR wardens brought a boat to the village and went door to door rescuing people and their pets from their flooded houses and getting them to high ground.  (Check out the rescue video posted on the WKBT – Channel 8 in LaCrosse website of those DNR wardens rescuing people in La Farge that day.  It is mesmerizing to watch – the definition of heroism in many respects.)  
            It took nearly all of Wednesday, August 29thfor the flood waters to leave Main Street in La Farge.  Highway 131 was closed in both directions from the village. To the north, the road had washouts at Bridges 10, 9, 7 and three different locations at Bridge 2 on the northern end of Ferris Flat.  To the south, the river’s floodwaters covered the highway below Tunnelville at Lawton’s and would eventually wash out part of the road there.  Highway 82 through La Farge finally opened for traffic on that evening.
            The flood’s height for La Farge measured at the official measuring station at the bridge next to Nuzum’s was 19.42 feet.  That height eclipsed the previous high water mark in La Farge (set by the 2008 flood) by nearly three and a half feet! By the way, that measuring station was always operating during the flood even though the station did quit sending out information via satellite.  When Lyle Dorscheid, the local gauge reader and the National Weather Service crew checked the gauging station after the floodwater finally went down, they verified that it had always been recording the river’s depth.  What the station could not record was the torrents of water entering the river via Otter and Bear Creeks south of the gauge.
            The power was out in La Farge for most of three days as the village’s generating station on south Silver Street was overcome with the high floodwaters.  The electric power ceased to be at noon on that Tuesday and did not return until mid-afternoon on Thursday, August 30th.  Down river, the Kickapoo inundated Viola, Readstown, Soldiers Grove, Gays Mills and Steuben as its waters raced to join the Wisconsin River.  Almost every village set high water marks, just as La Farge had, with some areas noting water levels nearly five feet higher than any ever recorded previously.
            The record floodwater levels meant lots of damages to several businesses in La Farge.  They included Nuzum’s, the Organic Valley retail store in the old cheese factory, the La Farge Truck Center and Car Wash, Don Potter Realty, the Zzip Stop, Ewetopia, the Premier Co-op, The La Farge Dental Clinic and the La Farge Motel. Water even seeped into the north end of the new clinic on north Mill Street that had been constructed at an elevation level three feet above the previous highest flood.
            In addition, twenty-one La Farge residences had floodwater damage.  All of the houses on Snow Street, eleven in all, suffered extensive flood damage. Many of those houses had been elevated since previous floods, but still had water damage due to the record flood crest. Six houses on south State Street, several that had never had floodwater previously, were flooded this time.  Some of the houses can be repaired and made livable again, but many cannot be fixed.
            By Friday, August 31st, the water had finally receded from Plum Run Road (old Hwy 131) at Seelyburg.  Massive clean up continued in the village.  The Zzip Stop was selling gas by that day after having the gas pumps cleaned and inspected.  Dumpsters were everywhere in the floodway of the village, stretching the length of Snow Street and beyond.  The water had been so high in the motel that all of the rooms had to be gutted.  Dumpsters piled high with flood debris stood beside the motel, Zzip Stop, Ewetopia and other Main Street businesses.  Rental houses on Main Street were damaged too badly to allow the tenants to return.
            The sidewalk outside of the Kickapoo Haven served as a meal site while the power was out during the beginning of the cleanup. Meals were served at noon and in the early evening every day through that Friday, August 31st.   Volunteers, flood victims and those who needed a meal were fed with food donated and made by the Rockton Bar, the La Farge Food Pantry, both La Farge restaurants – Brosi’s and Phil & Deb’s, Bergum’s Grocery, and the Zzip Stop.  The La Farge Fire Department personnel was on call for the entire week helping with rescues, pumping out basements and doing what ever needed to be done to help the people of the community.
            Flood relief supplies were available at both churches in La Farge and the United Methodist Church was soon filled with clothes, food, and other necessities for those that had been flooded out.  The La Farge UM church is scheduled to be open as a flood relief center until the end of the first week of October.   The La Farge Food Pantry, under the leadership of Pastor Mark Phillips, was providing housing and money for those displaced by the flood.  A week after the last floodwaters had subsided, Pastor Mark was still busy finding places for people to live and providing relief in many other ways. Several families displaced by the flood moved into campers parked in the La Farge Village Park.
            By the weekend, the weather had settled down and the river was back in its banks.  Then early Sunday morning, September 2nd, it started raining again.  It rained again on Sunday and several times on Monday, Labor Day.  Another nearly six inches of rain fell in three days and the Kickapoo rose rapidly again. By Tuesday, September 4th, the floodwaters of the Kickapoo River had covered old Hwy 131 at Seelyburg again.  By that evening the river’s water was over Hwy 82 at Nuzum’s and over Mill Street again near the new clinic.  Most of the floodwater had receded by the next day, September 6th, but Plum Run Road at Seelyburg remained under water for another day.  South Mill Street, south Silver Street and Pearl Street on the far southern end of the village were closed for nearly two weeks straight due to high water.
            So where does La Farge go after such a catastrophic flood?  How many people and businesses will leave?  What lays ahead for this Kickapoo River town?  What will be the reaction to this historic flood?

Water Over The Dam - Part I

Where do we begin to describe the great flood of 2018?

            There are iconic scenes that will stick with us, recorded forever (hopefully) in today’s technology by anyone and everyone with a phone in their pocket or purse.  
            There is the video of the Red Angus bull standing in the middle of the bridge in Coon Valley with that “I’m here now and it’s a lot better than where I was before and nobody is moving me” look in its eyes. (What ever happened to that magnificent animal?  That question seems to be floating around a week after the waters subsided.)
            Then there is the photo of the highway sign in Ontario that alerts viewers that Highway 131 going to La Farge is a right turn. When the photo was first posted online, some people did not see the picnic table covered with flood trash sitting on top of the sign – indicating the record setting level of water in Ontario. A week after that record setting floodwater, Hwy 131 remains closed between there and Rockton as several bridge areas of the highway received significant damage from the floodwaters. Maybe that photo was trying to say that it would be no picnic trying to travel the road south to La Farge.
            For Viola, perhaps the enduring memory will be that waterline on the brick walls of the Iron Horse Saloon building on the village’s main Commerical Street.  The water line, with the water soaked red bricks below delineates the heights of the Kickapoo’s record crest in that town.  An after effect of the great flood for Viola is another cancelled “Horse & Colt Show” – the second time in three years.  (The 2016 Horse & Colt Show also had to be cancelled because of flooding – which was the first time in nearly 80 years of having to cancel the annual fall festival.)  That celebration is a homecoming for many and will be sorely missed.
            In La Farge, perhaps the scene captured of the yellow storage building located next to Nuzum’s floating in the middle of Highway 82 between the lumberyard and Organic Valley’s cheese factory building is the one to remember.  As the record setting floodwaters receded the building was moved into a spot in front of the car wash.  That building dates back to the railroad days in La Farge (The last train left town in 1939.) when railroad cars could be unloaded of their cargo into the storage building.  Now the concrete foundation piers where the shed sat are a historic reminder of the old railroad days in the Kickapoo Valley.
            The great Kickapoo River flood of 1935 was the beginning of the end (or perhaps the end of the end) for the Kickapoo railroad line. Despite efforts by village leaders in La Farge and other Kickapoo Valley communities to get some flood control measures through federal programs, the railroad was soon a thing of the past. That flood of 1935 was the standard for measuring flood events until the great flood of 1978, which was surpassed by the great flood of 2008, nearly topped by the great flood of 2017, and now has been eclipsed by the Great Kickapoo River Flood of 2018. 
When the big floods come, the Kickapoo washes away more than ever comes back.

            That old saying from over a century ago about flooding in the Kickapoo Valley was included in the prelude to Volume I of my La Farge history.  Already rumors are circulating about businesses in Ontario, Viola and Readstown that will not reopen because of the great flood of 2018.  People who lived in flood-ravaged homes along the river in towns from Wilton to Wauzeka don’t want to return to their former residences. How many people who lived in La Farge in 2008 and were affected by the flood left the village?  What will it be like this year?  Some people cannot return to their homes because the damage is so great.  Everyone is beaten down by the terrible floodwaters.  Morale is low for many.  This is the third straight year for bad flooding on the Kickapoo.  When will it ever stop?
            The recent 2016-18 flooding on the Kickapoo is eerily similar to the flooding of a decade past.  In 2007, 2008 and 2010, the Kickapoo Valley experienced bad flood events with the flooding of June 2018 being an all-time record setter until the most recent flood.  At the time, people of the Valley were wondering what was going on.  Was this climate change at its worst?
            At one of the Driftless Dialogue talks held at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve several years ago, a speaker from UW-Madison (we think it was Stanley Temple) discussed the causes and effects of the flooding in the Kickapoo Valley between 2007 and 2010.  The main thing that we took away from the talk was that the Kickapoo Valley could expect more of these flood events because of the changes occurring in weather patterns caused by climate change.  The unique and hilly topography of the Kickapoo Valley also was a factor in the intensity of the flooding.  At the time, I wasn’t sure if this theory about continued flood events in the Kickapoo Valley would prevail, but perhaps it is playing out right in front of us once again. 
            We will have to have more on this flooding on the Kickapoo next time.