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April 9: News from around the Driftless Area
News From Around the Arrea

‘News from Around the Driftless Area’ is a compilation showcasing the excellent work and interesting tidbits from the community journalists sprinkled throughout our area.

VIROQUA –It’s been three weeks since Gov. Tony Evers issued the order to close all Wisconsin public and private schools by 5 p.m. March 18 because of the COVID-19/novel coronavirus pandemic. When the order was announced on March 13, school districts, including Westby Area School District, began setting up plans to educate and feed their students during the emergency closure. The district began packaging and delivering meals on Wednesday, March 18… Westby’s annual celebration of its Norwegian heritage will not be taking place May 16-17 in light of COVID-19 coronavirus concerns. The Westby Syttende Mai Board of Directors made the decision to cancel the 52nd annual Syttende Mai celebration at a meeting held on March 24 via Facebook Events.

LA FARGE –have done before here in Vernon County. As we discussed in this column just over a year ago, many places closed down in our area during the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic. A look at a single record book tells the story. In our school record room is an attendance book from the Ottervale School, located northwest of La Farge in the town of Webster. In 1918, the teacher was Lydia M. Gees. Students attending the school had family names that included Allen, Campbell, Gudgeon, Husker, Johnson, Parr, Silbaugh, Small, Smith, and Strait. School began normally enough in September that year, with fairly good attendance for the four weeks of that month. Students continued coming through the first week of October, and then the school was shut down for three weeks: “Vacation caused by Spanish Influenza” notes the record book. They came back for three weeks in November, and then were off through the end of 1918 and into 1919 – three weeks’ “vacation because of the flu,” two weeks’ vacation for the Christmas holiday, and then another week off for the flu. School began again and ran normally through the rest of January and February, but then in March, “three weeks’ vacation on account of the epidemic” reads the book. Students returned yet again at the end of March and finished out the school year in May. Was it over? Well, no. The following school year got off to a good start, and with a new teacher, Tillie Gees, no doubt a relation to Lydia. But in January of 1920, a little over 100 years ago, school was again closed for three weeks for another “flu vacation.” The rest of the school year passed without incident. If the school had initially closed for a longer period of time in the fall of 1918, could it have avoided the later “flu vacations?” Were the students isolated in their homes during these enforced vacations, or were they just not in school? Was the flu repeatedly re-introduced into the community that first winter by visitors, or did it never die down completely? These are the kinds of questions that record books and old newspaper articles don’t answer. As we live through this current epidemic, think of ways that you can record what you are going through – in writing, artwork, etc. – and when this is all over, send us a physical or digital copy for our “Epidemic 2020” file. Researchers 100 years from now will be grateful. Having studied some of the death records for local people who died in the 1918-19 epidemic, I know how serious this is. History tells us that we can help our community through this difficult time by limiting the number of people we interact with outside the home, and by staying home as much as possible. As of this writing (March 27), the museum is still temporarily closed in an effort to help prevent a possible epidemic in our area. You can contact us by phone at 608-637-7396, or by email at We look forward to re-opening soon!

VIOLA - The Kickapoo Area Food Pantry will be open its normal hours Saturday, April 18 from 9 to 11 a.m. and Monday, April 20 from 4 to 6 p.m. It is located at the Viola Municipal Building, 106 W. Wisconsin Street. Food will be distributed in a no contact setting. This means maintaining a 6-foot distance. Clients are to remain in their vehicles, and a volunteer will come to the vehicle, request identification, and give further instructions. Income limits have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic; new clients will be asked to self-certify their weekly income. Per-boxed items will then be delivered to the vehicle. Clients must remain in their vehicles. Volunteers cannot accept any bags or boxes, etc., for packing. They also cannot accept donations of used bags, egg cartons or donated food items. Monetary donations are appreciated and can be sent to the Viola United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 145, Viola, WI 54664. Pastor Lorri is also coordinating volunteers willing to shop or pick up medication for at-risk community members. Adults with disabilities ages 18 to 59, or anyone over the age of 60, can also contact Aging and Disability Resources for assistance: 608-637-5202 (Vernon County), 608-647-4616 (Richland County), or 608-326-0235 (Crawford County)… 

ONTARIO – The Ontario Public Library is closed, and will reopen when the direction from the state it is safe to do so. The book drop will not be open. Patrons are asked to keep their items at home. All due dates are extended as long as the library remains closed… Just as it has in the last few election cycles, Norwalk leads the villages in fielding a full, or almost full, slate of candidates. However, this time only one incumbent is running, with Christy DeWitt and Alan Neumann declining to seek another term. Incumbent Nadia Alcantar is seeking a second term on the board. She has been a resident of Norwalk for the past 24 years. In a village with more than 40 hispanic households, Alcantar has served as a bridge to the board… The Wilton village-wide rummage sales have been postponed until fall of 2020… Barb Ornes of Norwalk and her granddaughter Kennedy have made 73 face masks so far. The first batch went to the Morrow Home in Sparta, and a large number went to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Kennedy’s cousin who is a respiratory therapist in a hospital there. A few went to Barb’s aunt as she is currently in chemotherapy. Finding one-quarter-inch elastic is the biggest issue, Ornes said, but people have donated material for the masks.

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN – Several Prairie du Chien restaurants have been doing better than originally expected during the state shut down due to COVID-19. With the help of loyal customers and community support, eating establishments continue to serve their tasty fares via carry-outs and deliveries… 2019 Crawford County Firefighter of the Year Jonathan Anderson accepted his award last month at the annual officers dinner at the Prairie du Chien Country Club… The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is investigating a drowning that happened on March 21, around 1:30 p.m., near the spillway of Lock and Dam #10 on the Mississippi River. Two men were fishing in a 14-foot flat boat in a restricted area near the low-head dam when their boat was caught in a turbulent area and began taking on water. Shaun Oppenheimer, 54, of Quasqueton, was a passenger in the boat. He went overboard and drowned. His body was recovered and taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead. Neither Oppenheimer nor the operator of the boat were wearing personal flotation devices… After 10 years of meetings and much planning by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the highly-anticipated McGregor Lake project is finally a go. For the past several years, there has been limited funding for various habitat rehabilitation projects in Pools 9 and 10, and other projects such as the Capoli Slough project took precedence. The McGregor Lake project, located near Prairie du Chien, will restore and protect island habitat, protect the shoreline from erosion and create overwintering habitat for fish. The goal of the project is to provide habitat, food, and resting places for river wildlife such as migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, turtles, frogs and fish. The total project is expected to cost approximately $20 million.