Leaving friends and family always brings on conflicting feelings of longing to stay and the excitement of getting back on the road again. There is a fine balance that I must maintain when I drive up in my big RV, and and occupy someone’s personal space, plug in to their electrical outlet, and ask to do laundry and take a shower. There is actually a term for this in the RV community. It’s called Moochdocking! The word comes from a combination of two words: Boondocking (to dry camp) and Mooching off of friends and family. I try to stay just long enough to get on someone’s nerves, so that they are happy to see me go. That time frame varies from person to person. For my sister, it was about 3 days, but I stayed for 6 weeks- She was definitely happy to see me go!
I left my friend Fran’s house in the Chicago suburbs after a week. She hugged me tightly but let go quickly- Aaaah, just enough time; I hadn’t overstayed my welcome!
Traveling north into Wisconsin, I was seeking a quiet place far away from any population center to spend the 4th of July weekend. My dog, Gemini is afraid of fireworks and gunshots. He cowers and shakes, and tries to get under the bed or into the bathroom; he cannot be soothed. I usually play music, build him a tent fort, and put his fan on high to keep him cooled off as he pants and whines. Medication hasn’t worked, so I try to avoid the situation all together. I searched my camping Apps and found the perfect spot- The Kickapoo Valley Reserve, an 8,000-acre nature preserve located 5 miles from the nearest town of La Farge.
The Kickapoo River is a 100-mile tributary of the Wisconsin River, that today is a popular route for canoeists seeking a beautiful paddle through a variety of landscapes including high sandstone rock walls that overhang the water, rolling grassy hills with grazing animals, and overgrown fields that were previously farmed, but now lay fallow.
The first indication that there was a sad, unreconciled part of history in the quaint little town of Lafarge was when I stopped at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve’s Visitor Center for a map, and saw the names of families and individuals carved into bricks that were then set into the wall. A volunteer approached and asked if I knew the history of the LaFarge Dam project. I replied that I had not. She said that the names on the wall were of all the people who lost their homes and farms to the government to build a flood control dam that was never completed.
I stayed in La Farge for 7 days; 5 days in the Reserve and 2 days in the well-tended city park that sits high on the hill surrounded by massive oaks and maple trees. Almost every day, I talked to people who were directly affected by the failed dam project that spanned 50 years (1935-1984). I was intrigued by the stories because people were still grieving the loss of their family homesteads. Many were angry and bitter, but most were just sad.
The story of the well-intentioned federal flood control project gone terribly wrong was told in the almost 200 page book (that I bought at the visitors center) by Brad Steinmetz, a retired teacher from La Farge, who still takes people on “dam hikes” telling the story of the ill-fated project.
In his prelude to the story, Brad writes, “Be careful what you wish for. The people of La Farge and the Kickapoo Valley wanted some help against the flooding of the Kickapoo River. They had endured decades of calamitous floods, and after the great flood of 1935, they said they had enough of the constant flooding and damage.”
The people asked for federal assistance, and in 1936, the slow grinding process began with the establishment of a new organization of local leaders. Thousands of signatures in favor of flood control were sent to Washington, D.C. and Congress authorized the Corp of Engineers (COE) and Department of Agriculture to do a study of the area. Years passed and the study was completed, but World War II (1941-1945) put a halt to any domestic projects.
The scope and size of the project changed over the next 20 years. The new plan added a 300-acre lake and moved the dam farther up river from it’s original site in Rockton to a new site in La Farge. Meanwhile, flooding continued to plague the area year after year. An analysis showed that between 1938-1959, there were 31 significant floods (at least 2 feet over the riverbank at La Farge).
By 1962, most people were confident that the dam and levees would soon become a reality, but not so! The COE changed the plan again to add more recreational potential, increase the size of the lake, which would have to increase the size of the dam, and move State Hwy 131. Also, challenges to the project by individuals and groups against the new plan slowed progress even more.
In 1969, land acquisitions began, and families moved from their farms and held dispersal auctions to sell off household goods, equipment and farm animals. In the meantime, controversy raged over environmental impacts, rising costs, and changing building codes.
The project continued to languish through the 1970’s as a new crop of politicians in local, state and federal agencies held meetings and changed plans and fought lawsuits from the Sierra Club, flip-flopping senators, and the current Governor. Construction actually started in 1971, but by 1977, the Governor withdrew all state support and the COE asked Congress to de-authorize the project. Another devastating flood hit the area in 1978.
If this story seems long and frustrating; It is because it is!
In 1984, the COE determines that the project should not proceed.
The 1990’s were devoted to returning the 9,000 acres to the State of Wisconsin and the Ho-Chunk Indian Nation for the public use of the lands for recreational and educational purposes. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve was formed to steward the land. A parcel of 1,200 acres was designated in trust to the Ho-Chunk Nation. In 2001, a formal dedication ceremony of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve was held.
THE END came for the La Farge Dam Project after 66 years, millions of dollars spent on construction, hundreds of studies completed, many lawsuits filed, and thousands of lives upended for generations.
“The range of emotions that unfolds as the story is told is immense. The story does not follow an easy course. It is startling in its turns and twists. Perhaps any history that tells a story connected to the Kickapoo River has to be that way. Perhaps it has to take on the nature of the river itself. After all, the river’s name means, ” He who goes here; then there”, so maybe the story has to meander here and there as well”. From That Dam History by Brad Steinmetz.
I said goodbye to La Farge and traveled north to Bayfield County on Lake Superior. I must say that every trip that I have taken to the state of Wisconsin has never disappointed me. I lived in the Chicago suburbs for over 20 years and had ample opportunity to enjoy all that Wisconsin has to offer. I have fond memories of canoeing the lazy (but deceptively dangerous) Wisconsin River, exploring the rolling hills dotted with dairy cows on my bike, and enjoying a weekend of pampering at the Fontana Spa near Lake Geneva.
I entered the Northwoods on secondary roads through towns named by Native People- Chippewa Falls and Menomonie. My first glimpse of Lake Superior was in Ashland which gives an expansive view of the largest of the Great Lakes and of the Apostle Islands.
The highlight os the trip to Bayfield was a ferry ride over to Madeline Island with some fellow RVers. We took our electric bikes and enjoyed a picnic lunch by the water. Once back in Bayfield, we stopped in town, bought fresh fish, and toured the local nautical museum.
Heading south, I had to stop for an electrical repair in Minong, Wisconsin, which is the home of Jack Link Beef Jerky products. The Link family owns many businesses in Minong including the RV repair shop that fixed my problem.
Let me stop here and say that the people in Wisconsin are genuinely kind and helpful to strangers. I spent 4 hours in the 90 degree heat sitting under an Oak tree in the parking lot while they diagnosed the problem. I had a book to read, plenty of water for Gemini, a sandwich, and my yoga mat. The next day was even hotter and I was looking at another 6 hour wait in the heat. They were so kind to lend me a company truck to go for lunch and to run errands. They even let me take Gemini in the truck!
The heat this past summer in the upper midwest was oppressive. Coupled with the wildfire smoke blowing down from Canada, there were days when I could taste the smoke as well as see it as a haze hanging over the landscape. Nevertheless, I drove west to Minnesota to visit some friends who had recently moved back to the family homestead outside of Blue Earth. Mary and Jerry grew up in southern Minnesota the children of farmers. Both moved away from the area, but years later got reacquainted and got married. I met them in Indiana several years ago, and recently learned that they had moved back to Minnesota.
I had a great time with them- the county fair was in full swing. We ate fried cheese curds, watched a tractor pull and held our collective breath as a young girl wrangled a yearling lamb in front of the judge. She got second place and we heartily congratulated her for hanging in there.
We drove the gravel roads while they pointed out local points of interest- “The Hippie House” where squatters took over an abandoned house for the summer after Woodstock. They also showed me the progress on the house they are building 1/2 mile from Mary’s family farm in a grove of trees with the intention of preserving the Grove.
We also took a day trip to Mankato and found several interesting shops- A Native American woman selling handmade herbal soaps, lotions, and salves; a tiny grocery store where I stocked up on spicy pre-made middle eastern food that I crave and can’t always get on the road. Then, we walked around the area near the river and came upon the “Silo Art” by Guido van Helton a world renowned artist. www.cityartmankato.com
On the way back to the farm, we stopped by a Somali restaurant for lunch. The food was incredible. I have never had rice so deeply flavored. The spices exploded on my taste buds and made me want for more. Luckily, I had leftovers for the next day. Yummy!
After 6 days, I left Blue Earth and headed west. August was approaching and I wanted to get over the Rockies before the snow started to fly. Again, not saying goodbye, but SEE YOU DOWN THE ROAD……….BE SAFE, HAPPY TRAVELS!