Thursday, April 11, 2019

"Near La Farge" Photos from the Past

A while back, I received a request from the Vernon County Historical Society to help identify an old hand colored photo postcard.  The photo was of a bridge spanning the Kickapoo River with the only title being “Near La-Farge, Wis. By, Potter”.  The photograph was probably taken around 1908 and the photographer was Walter Potter as his name is hand written on it.  At the probable time of the taking of the photograph for the postcard there were three photographers operating in the village of La Farge.
            Walter Potter operated a photography studio out of his residence on Main Street next to Donaldson’s Hardware.  Today Deb Moore operates her beauty shop from that location. Another prominent photographer in La Farge in 1908 was Charles Brown who operated a studio in his house on south State Street, just south of the present hardware store.  A third photographer, A. E. Strait operated a mobile photography studio that when it was in La Farge the wagon was usually parked in the back of a building where today Cheryl Haas’ resell store is located.  
            It is hard to imagine that three photographers could make their living in a small town the size of La Farge, but those times of more than a century back obviously called for the need for people, places and events to be remembered in a permanent way.  Fortunately, many photographs from that era still survive, helping us to know the history from that time.  Each of the three La Farge based photographers left behind a variety of photographs to help us understand the little Kickapoo Valley community from that time so long ago.
            Walter Potter probably published the photo postcard of the bridge around 1908.  I base my reasoning for this choice because I have another similar photo from that same year that shows the sandstone cliffs along the Kickapoo River north of La Farge. That photo is also identified with the “Near La Farge, Wis.” title and it is hand colored, also like the photo of the bridge.  The similarity between the two postcards is quite evident, both from the river scenery choices and the coloring techniques used on the postcards.  But there are differences in the two cards, as the printing on Potter’s bridge photo is hand written while the river bluffs postcard “Near La Farge, Wis.” is printed.
            There is also a nice Kickapoo River photograph by A.E. Strait from this era, showing the river just south of La Farge and it is titled “Kickapoo Near La Farge, By Strait.”  If we attribute the sandstone cliffs postcard perhaps to have been taken by Charles Brown, we could have each of the three local photographers vying for the almighty tourist dollar of the time.
            La Farge was somewhat of a tourist destination of that era both because of the natural beauty of the Valley in which it lays and the terrible flood that hit the community on July 22, 1907.  That flood was one of the worst ever recorded in the Valley up to that time and the local photographers were out in force to record the event.
            First, we have Walter Potter’s iconic photograph, probably taken from the roof of the Opera House (Now Phil & Deb’s Town Tap) that shows La Farge attorney Alva Drew walking down the flooded Main Street with his son and dog in tow.  There is also an A. E. Strait photograph on that same day in 1907 with a view looking at the flooded houses on Snow Street a block south of Main Street.  Another photograph of the great flood of 1899, taken by C. S. Brown shows Seelyburg on the north end of La Farge being inundated by the floodwaters.  That photograph is taken from part way up Ed Nixon’s hillside hay field and actually shows where Brown’s former photography studio was located before he moved it to higher ground.
            With all three La Farge photographers publishing photos from those floods, the little river community became well known around the Midwest.  People would ride the train north to La Farge to view the village with the flooding past and to be amazed at the beauty of the Kickapoo Valley.
            Within a few years after that great flood in 1907, the photography business in La Farge would be drastically changed.  In 1909, A.E. Strait sold his photography wagon to Sam Steinmetz, who continued to run the business for several years after that. The announcement advertisement about the sale placed in the May 13, 1909 La Farge Enterprise newspaper read, “I wish to announce that I have purchased the Photo Gallery of A. E. Strait and will remain at the old stand just north of the Rittenhouse & Davidson’s Market, prepared to do good work at reasonable prices, will do all kinds of enlarging, also expect to handle picture moulding and make frames to order at reasonable prices.  Work guaranteed or your money refunded.  Yours for Business, S.I. Steinmetz”.  Charles Brown closed his La Farge studio in 1910 and moved to California, where he would eventually become the photographer for the movie stars of Hollywood.
            Walter Potter continued to run his photography studio in La Farge for many more years.  Eventually, his son Elmer would run a radio store from the same Main Street location after his father retired from the photography business.
            Thus, from these photographers from yesteryear, the story of this little Kickapoo River town can be better told. 
            As for the identification of where that bridge in the Potter photo was located, I think it was the Lawton Bridge at Tunnelville, located two miles south of La Farge.  Joe Young called to say that he thinks that the bridge was the Schroeder Bridge, now Bridge #16 on the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  When pressed on the matter, local newspaper publisher Lonnie Muller thinks it might be the original Bacon Bridge located north of Norris Ridge, now the KVR Covered Bridge #18.  I think we old-timers should continue to stare at the photograph for a couple more weeks to see if it will improve our squints any.        

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