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.