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”.