KICKAPOO RIVER FLOOD OF 2008
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.