Click to hear the students remember.
Government officials said the project would inject life into a dying community. New jobs, recreation, tourism and unthinkable opportunities—all they needed was the land.
It seemed like a fair trade at the time. But the government's plans unraveled. The promised riches never came, the land was lost and the community suffered.
More than thirty years later, local students in an 11th grade history class wanted to know how this affected their community.
The students teamed up with the former landowners and children (now adults) of the former landowners to record memories about a divisive federal dam project that forced over one hundred families off their farms.
Their yearlong project resulted in community performances, a series of newspaper articles, and even a published book. More importantly, the project helped heal a community's wounds and gave students a new appreciation for their home.
First there's hope
The twisty river is more than twice the length it measures 'as the crow flies.'
The Kickapoo River winds like a sleepy snake through the Kickapoo valley.
But all too often, storms cause the river to rise over its banks and spread across the valley floor. Catastrophic floods ripped through the farms in the valley six times since 1900, including two in the 1950s.
In the early 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a proposal to build a massive dam that would create a large reservoir in place of the winding river. Local people were hopeful about the dam project at first:
- Residents and federal engineers alike hoped the created lake would attract tourists to the valley's marvelous scenery;
- Economic development would follow;
- Local landowners and businesses would flourish.
In the early days, settlers used horses like these to plow their land.
Few people disagreed with the project and some began to speculatively invest in land where the new shoreline would be.
In 1969, the Army Corps of Engineers bought about 9000 acres of private property that included more than 140 farms.
The farm families sacrificed their homes for the most part without complaint, recognizing the benefit that would come to the community.
Suddenly, environmentalists joined forces to protest the project. Their concerns included potential water quality problems in the man-made lake, and possible extinction of rare plant and bird species.
The river and dam when construction was halted in 1975.
The artificial berm for the dam comes in from the right, and stops. The intake tower is just below the unfinished portion of the dam. The river winds on the left.
Hope is dashed
Nine years later, the dam almost three-quarters complete, the project came to a halt. The US Senate, responding to environmental and monetary concerns, stopped its funding.
For the next 27 years the emptied Kickapoo Valley sat in limbo—under federal control but idle, off-limits and unused. The valley's residents got neither the tourism boost they had hoped for nor the return of the family lands they had given up.
On December 28, 2000 that land was finally returned to local control.
Bernice Schroeder, age 86 (one of the former landowners), says, "The government spent
eighteen million dollars. We have a bridge that goes nowhere, a million-dollar tower, a partially-built dam that doesn't do anything, and one new road."
"The road is the only good thing that came out of it," says Schroeder.
A community's new identity
"Our homes are gone, but the memories live on forever."
Today it's an environmental reserve, open for recreation. Canoeists paddle the winding river through the valley. Hikers and mountain bikers visit the woods and prairies that grow over the old farmland.
A 1200-acre portion of the land has been returned to the Ho-Chunk Indian Nation, the original inhabitants of the Kickapoo Valley.
Some Kickapoo area residents are happy about this turn of events. They feel the peaceful oasis in the valley solves the problem of the emptied land.
Others, who had hoped for tourism and development to follow the creation of the reservoir, are disappointed still.
Speaking with the past
"The land is alive no matter if we know about it or not..."
In fall 2000 La Farge High School history students collected oral histories about the dam project from more than 50 area residents.
They named their class project The People Remember.
Amanda and Deanna were two of Mr. Steinmetz' students. Today, each feels the project changed their relationship with their hometown and created a special connection to La Farge.
"I grew up in the Kickapoo Valley. I roamed the rivers and saw the wildlife. I visited Indian caves with hieroglyphics." Deanna says. "But I never knew the history of the dam project until the class assignment."
"Now I have the greatest appreciation for my hometown," says Deanna. "I have a greater stake in what went on. I care about it."
Amanda's early interest in journalism drew her to the project. Since then she has decided to make it her career. She graduated from college with a degree in journalism and an interest in exploring the world.
"The project changed my relationship with La Farge," Amanda says. "I'm proud of my town."
Healing the community
Students relax at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center.
After the interviews, a professional storyteller helped the class feature the collected interviews in stories, songs, and dramatic performances.
The students narrated pieces they wrote about the conflicts between neighbors, the dashed hopes and lost homes.
"It was very powerful to be part of that," says Stuart Stotts, the storyteller. "The past couldn't be fixed—those people couldn't get their land back. To be heard can be healing. They needed that."
A local newspaper reporter was so moved by the event that she published portions of the interviews in the newspaper.
The board of directors of the newly formed Friends of the Kickapoo Reserve expanded the series into a book titled The People Remember: an Oral History of the Kickapoo La Farge Dam Project.
Awesome rock outcroppings like this abound in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.
They published it in time for the grand opening of the Kickapoo Reserve Visitor Center in 2004.
A healthy community
In projects like these, people start talking to one another across generations. Older people are pleased to find that younger people want to hear their reminiscences and learn about their communities.
The threads that make a community are spun in these conversations. When shared with a larger audience, these threads weave together to strengthen the fabric of a community.