Many moons ago we checked into a motel in the Eagle River area for a little summer vacation stay in Wisconsin’s “Up North”. When the owner/clerk saw our address as La Farge, he inquired what we were doing in the north woods. He said that it didn’t get any prettier than the Kickapoo Valley. He and his wife were from LaCrosse (they helped run the family owned hostelry in the summers) and said they tried to get to the Kickapoo Valley whenever possible. I told them I was going fishing on some of the lakes in the Conover area to try to catch some walleyes, which you cannot do in the Kickapoo Valley – and he agreed.
But what he said, probably first got me to thinking about the natural beauty of where we live here in the Valley of the Kickapoo. That “Up North” conversation probably occurred sometime in the late 1970s or early ‘80s and what the motel operator was saying was already playing out in front of us, but we probably didn’t even see it.
Many people were visiting the Kickapoo Valley in the early 1970s, some drawn to the area because of the controversy over the La Farge dam project. Many of the visitors canoed the river and camped along its shores. Some of those people fell in love with the gorgeous valley and decided to stay.
In La Farge, the newcomers of that time were known as “Hippies” although most were not necessarily of that “hip generation”. Yes, some of the men had longer hair and beards and the women sported long skirts and a bra was not an absolute necessity as an undergarment. Some of the newcomers had an inclination towards relaxation with marijuana use (“Wacky Weed”, as the locals liked to call it), but most seemed to fit into the local scene pretty well. Downstream, in the Gays Mills area, the newcomers of that time became known as the “Back – To – The – Landers”, because of their propensity to try farming on a small scale. Regardless, all of the newcomers came to the Kickapoo Valley, liked what they saw and decided to stay.
The stoppage of the dam project at La Farge in the mid-‘70s continued to draw national headlines and that continued to draw people to the Valley to see what all of the fuss was about. Again, many of those visitors liked what they saw in the Valley of the Kickapoo. People from the urban areas of Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago started to view the beautiful Kickapoo Valley as a place for a second home – a spot in the country for extended vacations. When you add in the spectacular increase in the populations of Whitetail Deer and wild turkeys in the Valley at the same time, small acreage spots for a hunting camp became sought after in the Kickapoo Valley as well.
If you were born and raised in the Kickapoo Valley, there is a propensity to take the beauty of the Valley for granted. You get used to the surroundings and start to overlook the majesty of the awesome hills and valleys. When the people who lived north of La Farge were leaving their homes and farms because of the dam project, they were forced to make a decision on whether to stay in the Valley or move away. For some, who wanted to stay in farming, the decision would be based on finding another farm to keep milking cows. Many of those farmers stayed in the area, but others left and sought their agricultural fortunes in other locales.
Harvey and Bernice Schroeder sold their mink ranch to the federal government as part of the dam project buy out in the early 1970s. They were retiring from farming, but they were not sure where they wanted to live. They traveled around America to other places, in particular checking out some locations where the Corps of Engineers had water control projects similar to the one at La Farge. They visited many beautiful places, but in the end returned to the Valley and built a new house located just north of La Farge that would be overlooking “Beautiful Lake La Farge”. Bernice has always said that they could not leave the beautiful hills of the Kickapoo Valley. (Perhaps that is why Bernice’s daughter, Kathy, has returned to the Valley to build a house on one of those hills.)
Even after the dam project was stopped and the lake was no longer a possibility, people from away continued to buy property in the rural areas of the Valley. Whether for a hunting camp or a second vacation home, the people still wanted to be in those hills as much as they could.
When CROPP bought the cheese factory in La Farge in 1989, a whole other group of new people came to the Valley. As the “Croppies” took over La Farge, many bought homes and farms in the area. Their organic ideals of farming struck a chord with locals, who liked the old-fashioned sensibilities of that type of farming. Because the topography of the Valley almost demands smaller farms, the “Organic Way” of farming soon thrived. The old “Two-Story Farms” of the Kickapoo Valley were viable again and the beauty of the Valley was a bonus for the new organic farmers.
Sometime in the late 1990s a local realtor took a long distance call from a faraway place. The caller was looking for a house on a small farm. The search was a little more specific though because the caller wanted a place located in THE “Organic Valley”. (Who says brand names don’t make a difference!) When the realtor explained to the caller that there wasn’t an actual “Organic Valley”, a sense of disappointment could be felt over the phone by the realtor. But the realtor, being a good salesperson, promptly started selling the virtues of the beautiful Kickapoo Valley, and eventually the sale of some Valley property was secured.
Today, the beauty of the Kickapoo Valley is wrapped within the overall tourist draw of the Driftless Area. This unglaciated region of the Midwest is unique in many respects and the beautiful Kickapoo Valley is the poster child of the area. Since the Kickapoo River is the only river that has its entire watershed included in the Driftless Area, the Valley has historic and geologic reasons for its unmatched beauty and majesty. Since the Kickapoo Valley has this awesome beauty, then its inhabitants must be pretty special, too?
Maybe the story of those “Kickapoogians” (or is it “Kickapoojians”?) who live in ultra-cool “Kickapoogia” is one for another time. Don’t forget that those uber-cool “Kickapoogia” t-shirts are for sale at the gift shop of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center. Get them while they are HOT!
Stay cool in Kickapoogia!