CRAWFORD COUNTY - The Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Association was formed in the late 1950s and active throughout the next decade.
It began as a series of information meetings following catastrophic flash flooding in June of 1959 which devastated roads, bridges, and farm fields in the watershed.
Why did the group incorporate the name Blackhawk into their group moniker? The history of the Blackhawk wars in the area is a foundational legend.
A famous quote from the legendary Chief Blackhawk goes as follows:
“Nobody asks to be a hero, it just turns out that way.”
From the July 9, 1959 issue of the ‘Crawford County Independent,’ readers learned that:
Flood damage can best be prevented by the prevention of floods.” Those were the words of Art Amundson, local Soil Conservationist, when he pointed out the importance of all-out attendance at the proposed informational watershed meet set for Thursday, July 9, 1959 at the Crawford Electric Cooperative.
Called at the request of residents in the Tainter Creek, Star Valley and Johnstown areas, the flood control meeting is open to anyone interested. Restraint of run-away water may well be of concern to every resident of the county, regardless of location, for every resident shares in the cost of bridge replacement and road repairs.
A community affair
Amundson pointed out that “heavy rains and flash floods such as those experienced in the North Crawford region June 24-25, 1959 cause hundreds of thousands of dollars damage to farm crops and lands in addition to gutting roadbeds, culverts and bridges.” He further explained, “when it involves public property, it involves the pocketbook of every Crawford resident through an increased county tax rate.”
“Watershed protection is as much a matter of concern to village residents as to farmers. Had the prolonged downpours, starting June 24, fallen within a shorter period of time, the resultant river rise could have meant real trouble for Soldiers Grove, Gays Mills, and other villages south.”
“If the unofficial total tabulation of 8.4 inches of rain in a 36-hour period had come in one downpour, no reminders would be necessary that flood control is a community affair.”
In the same article, Amundson pointed out that the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Law [PL 566) provides that a local group may apply for federal funds with which to build flood control structures. The responsibility for such a project remains strictly a local affair, with the soil conservation district supervisors as the legal governing body.
In the Oct. 8 and 15, 1959 issues of the ‘Crawford County Independent’ it was announced that:
Watershed protection and flood prevention would be the subject of a series of meetings scheduled for the last two weeks of October 1959 throughout the Johnstown-Tainter-Star Valley watershed of Vernon and Crawford Counties.
These meetings had been called to present information so residents could decide if they want to work towards flood prevention projects in their own area.
People in Johnstown-Tainter watersheds were given the choice of following dates and places: Oct. 19, Hinkst School; Oct. 22, Sherry School; Oct. 23, Girdler School; Oct. 29, Soldiers Grove Ag Room; Oct. 30, T.J. Swiggum home, and Gays Mills REA.
Another schedule of meetings provided choices for those people living in the Knapp’s Creek Watershed. Oct. 20, Five Points Church; Oct. 21, Fish School; Oct. 22, St. Phillips Church; Oct. 27, Excelsior Town Hall; Consolidated School, Byrds Creek; Oct. 28, Tavera School; and Oct. 29, Scott Town Hall.
Ed Baker of the Extension Service of Eau Claire would attend all meetings as will county extension agents and Soil Conservation Service personnel.
Successful applications had been presented by the Mill Creek Watershed in Richland County, and Coon Creek, Bad Axe, and West Fork of the Kickapoo in Vernon County. Construction of flood control structures had already started in Coon Creek and Mill Creek, and plans were being prepared for the other two.
Group organizes quickly
In the Nov. 19, 1959 issue of the ‘Crawford County Independent,’ the following story appeared:
Representatives of each of the local watershed information groups from northern Crawford and southern Vernon counties met with conservation and extension personnel at the Star Valley School and made definite plans to form a Tainter-Johnstown-Star Valley watershed district.
Crawford county agricultural agent Virgil Butteris was in charge of the meeting. Ed Baker, Eau Claire district conservationist, using slides for illustration, presented a watershed story.
Among those present were Art Amundson, manager of the Gays Mills SCS office; Ed Hanson from the Vernon County SCS office; and Bill Werth, Vernon County agricultural agent.
Representatives of local areas were Hans Peterson and Orland Prestegard, Readstown; Alfred Hendrickson and Alfred Borgen, Viroqua; Amel Oppriecht and Russell Moldrem, Gays Mills; Johan Helgerson, Paul Scheckel, Richard Schoville, T.J. Swiggum and Merlin Dregne, Soldiers Grove.
The representatives present agreed to serve as a temporary board of directors of the watershed district. Amel Oppriecht was elected temporary chairman and Hans Peterson temporary vice chairman.
A committee was elected to prepare a constitution and set of by-laws. Members are Oppriecht, Peterson, T.J. Swiggum and Alfred Borgen.
Constitution and bylaws
In the Feb. 4, 1960 issue of the ‘Crawford County Independent,’ it was reported that:
A constitution and by-laws for the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Association were officially adopted at a meeting Thursday might at the Crawford Electric Cooperative building.
Blackhawk-Kickapoo is the name that was decided upon for the land in the Tainter Creek, Johnstown and Star Valley watershed.
The newest watershed to be formed in Crawford and Vernon county encompasses 62,735 acres between Highway 27, the Blackhawk Trail, and the Kickapoo River.
Elected to the board of directors were Amel Oppriecht and Russell Moldrem, Gays Mills; Francis Dolan, Rising Sun; Alfred Borgen and Alfred Hendrickson, Viroqua; Orland Prestegard, Readstown; and John Iverson, Marcus Berg and T.J. Swiggum, Soldiers Grove.
County board in support
In the April 28, 1960 issue of the ‘Crawford County Independent,’ readers learned:
The Crawford County Board, in a meeting last week in Prairie du Chien, approved three resolutions requesting federal study of watersheds in the county.
The watershed associations which have been active with surveys and membership drives during the winter are the Halls Branch Association, the Knapps Creek Association, a joint program with Richland County, and the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Association, a joint project with Vernon County.
The Knapps Creek Association has completed its’ application for federal assistance and submitted it to the state Soil Conservation Committee. Halls Branch and Blackhawk-Kickapoo Associations are preparing applications with the assistance of the Gays Mills SCS office staff Art Amundson, county soil conservationist, and county extension office personnel.
If the federal study is approved and flood prevention found necessary, the federal government will construct earthen dams to form water retention reservoirs.
The three watersheds encompass more than 82,000 acres.
An inspection team from the state soil committee will be sent into the Knapps Creek area, probably in early June, to authenticate the association’s application.
Federal application made
In the June 9, 1960 issue of the ‘Crawford County Independent,’ it was reported:
The application of the Halls Branch watershed association and the Blackhawk-Kickapoo watershed association for assistance under the Small Watersheds Protection and Flood Prevention Act [Public Law 566] was submitted to the state soil conservation committee this week, according to Art Amundson, U.S. Soil Conservation Service work unit conservationist in the Crawford County Soil Conservation District. This application was prepared jointly by the two watershed groups. It is being sponsored by the Crawford County and Vernon County Soil Conservation Districts.
When the application is accepted by the state group, a “task force” of specialists from many conservation agencies will tour the area. They will check the statements in the application against actual conditions. Their report to the state committee will then establish a priority for development of a work plan.
Certain interesting facts have been brought out in the writing of the application. The directors made flood damage surveys of the valley farms. They found over $110,000 in farm damages in 1951. 1959 showed $69,000 damages. This does not include the damages done to roads and bridges. It took place on less than 3,600 acres of bottomland. The total watershed area is about 67,500 acres.
The early interest in soil conservation practices is easily seen in the watershed. Of the 463 landowners, 247 have cooperative agreements with their soil conservation district. About 65 percent of the landowners in the area are using soil conservation practices.
The county boards and all town and village boards are on record in support of the application, and many local business men also endorsed it.
The presidents of the two associations are Amel Oppriecht, Gays Mills and Wendell Showen, Gays Mills.
Supervisors of the soil conservation districts sponsoring the application are, from Crawford County, Joe Monahan, Soldiers Grove, chairman; A.D. Carberry, Prairie du Chien, secretary; D.C. McDowell, Soldiers Grove; Walt Zabel, Prairie du Chien and Carl Achenbach, Boscobel. Vernon County district supervisors are Edwin Swenson, Viroqua, chairman; Gale Wanless, Viroqua, secretary; Ray Power, Westby; Percy Sandwick, De Soto; and Lester Miller, La Farge.
Worst since 1951
In the March 29, 1961 issue of the ‘Crawford County Independent,’ there was a report about the worst flooding to hit the Kickapoo Valley since the 1951 “record breaker”:
A warm rain Sunday night falling on high-moisture snow in North Crawford and Vernon counties and the upper reaches of the Kickapoo sent the river on one of its chronic rampages through low-lying villages along its banks.
While it was generally felt that the predictions of flood stages “higher than 1951” were much exaggerated, Gays Mills residents prepared Monday for the possibility. Starting about 4 a.m., when the alarm was sounded, homes and business places were readied.
Furniture was carried to second floors, merchandise in stores in the lower part of town was set up off the floor or hauled out of the village. Entrances were sandbagged and residents wishing to leave their homes were furnished boat transportation.
A large and varied crew worked from before daylight to after dark Monday. Teenagers toiled beside teachers; banker, farmer, janitor, area residents living on higher ground and men from nearby villages, all lifting, carrying, hauling, filling, sandbagging in the rain that fell on and off Monday.
Openhanded generosity and helpfulness characterized the day. Boat owners manipulated their craft among water-surrounded homes, helping many to higher parts of town. About half of the families in Gays Mills spent Monday night with friends or relatives.
Most basements of homes in the low-lying parts of the village were filled with water but flood waters reached the first floors of only a small percentage of homes.
Sandbags were brought to Gays Mills early Monday morning by Sheriff Bruce Hutchins; Virgil Butteris, Crawford County agricultural agent and the Boscobel police department. They are credited with keeping water out of some of the business places.
An Army “duck” was brought to Gays Mills by members of the National Guard.
Dave Curnock, Edgerton, director of the Southern Wisconsin district of the Red Cross, arrived Monday and a Red Cross canteen was set up in the Community Building. Volunteers served coffee and sandwiches Monday, throughout the night.
C.H. Hooverson is the regional director of the Red Cross. John Young, Gays Mills, is the North Crawford Chairman. Arrangements were made to have 1,000 half-gallon containers of water at the Red Cross headquarters for distribution to residents.
Chlorination of the village’s water supply was started Tuesday by Eugene Hensel, Sparta, district engineer of the State Board of Health.
Hensel said that he and Alvin Lee, village maintenance man, inspected the well and found the pump base under water. “Actually,” he said, “that does not mean that the river water will enter the well but since it is possible, precautions must be taken.”
Work comes to fruition
In the July 18, 1962 issue of the ‘Crawford County Independent,’ readers saw a story about the work of the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Association coming to fruition:
Conservation goals to be completed within the next five years in the Blackhawk-Kickapoo watershed area of Crawford and Vernon counties were discussed by the directors of the B-K Association and soils conservation personnel in a meeting in Gays Mills last week.
Curt Lindholm, of the SCS, Madison, told the group that run-off retention structures being considered would control about 76 percent of flood water damage in the Tainter and Johnstown valleys.
Sites for the proposed structures, Lindholm said, are on the Clarence Dregne, Fred Solverson, James Melvin, Orvyn Salmon and Edwin Nederloe farms. The Dregne and Solverson property is on Tainter Creek; Melvin on Conway; Salmon on Folsom; and Nederloe on Nederloe Creek.
In addition to structures, Lindholm said short sections of channel improvement will be necessary. The fact that they are trout streams complicates this work, but in the long run it was felt that trout habitat would be improved.
Damage annually in Tainter Creek totals about $22,000. Total cost of the structures would be about $704,000 with $599,280 as public cost and $105,226 local cost. This includes land easements, rights-of-way and road changes.
If one road could be declared closed, Lindholm said, the cost would be lowered $25,000. The road in Vernon County above Towerville has been virtually abandoned for many years.
Halls Branch officers were told that three structures were being considered in that area and the group requested Lindholm investigate a possible lake site in Halls Branch and another on Nederloe Creek. These pools would be about 15 feet deep, cover several acres, and be developed for fish and wildlife lakes.
Five year goals were discussed and approved were 2,500 acres of strip-cropping; terracing, one mile; diversions, five miles in each county; waterways, four miles; gully control structures, six miles; renovation, 280 acres; and wildlife area protection, 150 acres.
Five year forestry goals proposed by Bob Roach, Vernon county forester, and approved were stock exclusion, 1,500 acres; sustained yield management, 1,500 acres; timber stand improvement, 500 acres; field planting, 75 acres; and reinforcement planting, 20 acres.
Among those present besides officers of Blackhawk-Kickapoo and Halls Branch Watershed Association, were D.C. McDowell, chairman of the Crawford County Board; Art Amundson, SCS, Gays Mills; Lester Goke, SCS Viroqua; Bob Cheetham, SCS Madison; Bill Werth, Vernon county agricultural agent; T.F.Kouba, U.S. Forest Service, Milwaukee; and Harry Steinhorst and Sam Hardin of the Gays Mills SCS office.
County board approval
In the April 17, 1963 issue of the ‘Crawford County Independent,’ a story about approval of the funds to support the proposed work in the watershed by the Crawford County Board appeared:
The board dug into the business at hand, which included action on the Blackhawk-Kickapoo and Halls Branch watershed flood control projects. A.B. Lacke’s (supervisor, Prairie du Chien) motion to table the measure failed, and the board then voted to provide necessary funds for local costs of the projects. Eight supervisors cast negative ballots, one of them McDowell’s (Crawford County Board Chairman).
The B-K-HB watershed projects include 72,000 acres in Crawford and Richland counties, and eight flood control dams, five of them earmarked for Crawford County. At one of the sites will be a 35-acre recreation lake and a proposed park of about 400 acres on Nederloe Creek.
The entire estimated cost of the project for both counties is $1,233,650, of which $1,076,500 is from federal sources under Public Law 566.
The State Soil and Water Conservation Committee has indicated they will spend about $43,000 for recreational development at the lake site.
Present plans indicate that construction on the project will probably be started in 1964 with completion expected by 1970.
Know your history
Finding source material for this article was complicated. Many of the old SCS records seem to have been lost.
Fortunately, the journalists at the ‘Crawford County Independent’ who came before us did a marvelous job of recording this dynamic history.
The current staff can only hope to do as well in creating a record of the new chapter in history being written by the current Tainter Creek Watershed Council.
The ‘Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout’ is interested to see any records that may be rattling around in the family archives, in attics and file folders, of the work of the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Association. In particular, we are interested to see a copy of the constitution, bylaws and any meeting minutes that may exist.
Materials can be sent to:
Crawford County Independent
PO Box 188
Gays Mills, WI 54631
or you can reach us by email at email@example.com or by phone at 608-735-4413.
You are also welcome to stop by the office in Gays Mills Mercantile Center located at 120 Sunset Ridge Avenue. The building is located off Highway 131 and is across the road from the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center.