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.