It has been over two months since I wrote the initial part of the story of the events that happened in La Farge on that fateful October evening back in 1947. Since the article was published in July, I have heard from many people about the incident. They had many different aspects of the story to tell.
Nearly a decade ago, LaVerne Campbell told me about the shootings that occurred that night to make sure that I knew what he thought actually happened. He said that Vincent Campton did not commit suicide, as was officially cited as the cause of death, but instead was shot by Ted (Buck) Rolfe that night in the trailer park.
LaVerne said that Vincent was a heavy drinker and when he got drunk, he would beat his wife, Thelma, who was the daughter of Buck Rolfe. She would often flee to Buck’s trailer for safety and to get away from her husband. After several of these incidents Buck Rolfe told Vincent that if he ever hurt Thelma again, he would kill Vincent. As LaVerne told me, “Buck Rolfe was a man of his word.”
In 2010, as I was nearing the publishing of my first volume of La Farge’s history, I interviewed Dick Johannesen at his house in Viola. We talked about La Farge history for a couple of hours and during the conversation, he brought up the shooting of Vincent Campton. Dick told me that his Dad, Finn Johannesen, was the village president in La Farge in 1947. On the night of the shooting, Vernon County Sheriff Morris Moon came to the Johannesen house to ask Finn to go with him to the trailer park. (I also have learned that several other village leaders, including Ted Roberts, were requested by Sheriff Moon to go with him to the shooting site that night.)
Dick told me that Sheriff Moon laid out the crime scene for the village leaders and explained how it appeared that Vincent had shot himself. There were apparently no witnesses to his being shot. (By this time, both Vincent and Thelma had been transported to the hospital in Viroqua.) Unfortunately, the suicide attempt didn’t seem to add up for the sheriff. Apparently Vincent was shot in the back and Sheriff Moon could not comprehend how Vincent could physically accomplish that.
“He didn’t have long enough arms.” Sheriff Moon apparently used this quote that night, and I heard it repeated by Dick Johannesen and several others who talked to me about this incident. Vincent also had no flash burns on his body, which might have occurred if the gun barrel was held near his body, as in a suicide attempt.
Although the facts about the shooting did not seem to line up for Sheriff Moon that evening, the death certificate for Vincent Campton, who died the day after the shooting at the Viroqua hospital, lists death from “a lung hemorrhage due to a self-inflicted gun/bullet wound”. Dr. Frank Gollin, who treated Vincent Campton at the scene of the shooting incident, ruled the death a suicide. (Another source told me that although Vincent was near death and barely conscious when he was transported to Viroqua to the hospital that night, he did mumble something like, “He shot me” repeatedly.)
We now know that Thelma, after quarreling with a drunken Vincent, had fled to the trailer park that night because her father lived there. She had her two-year old daughter, Karen with her. Eventually she went to another trailer nearby where Lloyd and Velma Kellar lived, as Velma and Thelma were friends. Vincent burst into the Kellar trailer with a gun and started to threaten his baby daughter, Karen. Velma and Thelma tried to get the gun away from Vincent. In the struggle the gun went off, grazing and wounding Thelma. Vincent then fled the Kellar trailer and Velma called the police and doctor. This part of the story was shared by Dennis Kellar and Rhonda (Kellar) Wemmer and had been passed down to them by their mother, Velma.
A rather amazing coincidence happened about two weeks after the first part of this story was published. I had a phone conversation and then subsequent e-mails with Sandra Carmichael, who is the daughter of Karen Rolfe. (She told me in an e-mail that her mother, Carron K. Campton, had passed away in July of 2015.) She wrote me that she and her aunt, Anne (Connelly) Stoltz, had been doing research on the Vincent Campton death at the same time as my column was published.
After the shootings of October 1947, Thelma left La Farge. Her daughter, Karen Rolfe was raised by Mettie and Art Alvord on their Jug Creek farm. Mettie was Buck Rolfe’s aunt. Karen graduated from La Farge High School in 1963 and moved away from the town where she was born.
Sandra had never heard about the story of Vincent Campton’s death being a possible murder. (Actually, Karen never talked with her family about Vincent’s death.) Others always had told her that he died in World War II. When Sandra had started an online search for Vincent’s records, she found a LaCrosse Tribune article about the 1947 shootings in La Farge. She was shocked to learn about the shooting, or as Sandra phrased it in the e-mail, “Her great-grandfather had shot and killed her grandfather.”
Sandra Carmichael and Anne Stoltz came to Viroqua in late July to search for information about Vincent Campton’s death at the county courthouse. They also stopped to visit with Cecil Rolfe, who was the first child of Thelma, born in 1943. He told his relatives that I had just written an article about the Vincent Campton death that had been published in the Episcope. That is when Sandra reached out to me about the case.
In her e-mail, Sandra said that they found Karen Rolfe’s birth certificate of June 1, 1945 and that Vincent Campton was listed as the father. They also found a marriage record of Vincent and Thelma that occurred on October 25, 1946 at the home of the La Farge Justice of Peace, E.A. Sewell. Sandra and Anne also stopped at the Vernon County Sheriff’s office to see if there were any records there about the shootings. In her last e-mail to me, Sandra said the sheriff’s office continues to search for any report about the incident.
“I can’t believe a whole damn town kept this secret for so many years. Just boggles me on how many people knew about it and did nothing but turn and look away.” This quote from one of Sandra Carmichael’s e-mails does raise an interesting point.
It does appear that many people in La Farge did think that Buck Rolfe had shot Vincent Campton that October night in 1947. It also appears that many of those same people thought that a man who beat his wife and threatened to kill his baby daughter probably deserved this fate. More than one person told me, including some members of the Campton family that “He deserved what he got”. “He had it coming”, was another common refrain from many who I talked to. (In one rather amazing revelation, I learned that one of Vincent Campton’s brothers had been a friend of Buck Rolfe’s over the years after the shooting.)
I have been hesitant to write this concluding “Local History Notebook” on the death of Vincent Campton. In the end, I was encouraged by both Cecil Rolfe and Sandra Carmichael to write it so the story could be told. It is not a story that adds to the stature of La Farge as a community, but it may be a story better understood with more light shining on it. I suspect many small towns along the Kickapoo have similar tales stored away in dark places.
Although many have told me that Buck Rolfe shot Vincent Campton that evening so many years ago to protect his daughter and her baby, my writing this column does not prove the fact. Indeed, the truth of whatever happened to Vince Campton that night probably will never be known. Instead, this story may shine a little light on a dark chapter in the history of this little Kickapoo River town. In the end, that may help some.
I would like to thank Cecil Rolfe, Deb Rolfe, Beth Larson, Sarah Tunks, Sandra Carmichael, Anne Stoltz, Mike Campton, Dennis Kellar, Rhonda Wemmer, Ron Roberts, Kent Steinmetz, Dick Johannesen, and Winfred Bold for help with information for this article.
Winfred Bold called me from his home in Janesville after reading the first part of this story back in July. He shared his memories about that evening and I will end this by sharing some of what Winfred told me.
He was a senior at La Farge High School in the fall of 1947 and was at a LHS Senior Play practice in the gym on the night of the shooting. The trailer park was across the parking lot from the school gym where the play practice was being held. Winfred said the shootings happened sometime between 7 & 8 pm that night. He said the students heard the ruckus outside and went out to see what was going on. The police and a large crowd were there, but nobody would say what had happened. He heard later that Buck Rolfe had shot Vince Campton and that Vince deserved it for beating up and shooting Thelma.
The next week after the shootings, the one-act play contest was held at the LHS gym. La Farge students performed three plays that evening and the winning play was “The Bad Penny”.