January 13, 2018

The Little Muddy

Every time I return home there is one less building standing.  One of the mill buildings on the west bank of the Kickapoo River collapsed from neglect last fall. The large building in the center of the three in the foreground is no more.  Much of my youth was spent  on those benches.  The building that imploded once housed the antique fire engine that was only brought out once a year for the Apple Festival parade.

The 1929 Chevrolet Fire Engine use to be housed in that old mill building.  It was parked in another garage over a decade ago due to the disrepair the mill building fell into.  I can remember in my youth looking through the space in the doors of the garage of the mill building and wowing at the candy apple red piece of the village's history.

The village was founded due to the Kickapoo River and a mill was built on its banks.  The Kick floods every year and is trying its best to reclaim the land and wash everything downstream.  The area has endured a couple "100 year" floods in the last decade.

Gays Mills would have disappeared long ago if not for the orchards on the overlooking hills.

Many of the houses were purchased by the state and raised due to being in the flood plain in recent years.  My family home was torn down in 1979 after the flood of 78.  My home was 33 large steps from the Kickapoo River.

  I can remember one yearly flood where I went to sleep in my downstairs bedroom and the water had just started to breach the banks when I went to sleep and when I awoke in the morning and sat up in bed and went to put my feet on the floor....my feet were submerged.

River mud has a very unique smell.  It was magnified for me due to the numerous times I had to use the snow shovel to remove it from our downstairs as a child.

The Lion's Club shelter and the giant Apple statue now stands where my home once stood.

The Kickapoo can be serene and peaceful one day.

The next day the National Guard and Governor can be visiting.

Years ago a flood control dam was proposed on the Kickapoo River near Lafarge, WI.  The land where the dam was supposed to be built was bought up involuntarily.  The dam water flow building was built and some large berms were constructed.  Not much thought or research was put into the dam. The brakes were slammed on the dam and it was shut down.  This dam was about 35 miles upstream of Gays Mills.  The flood of 78 would have caused a breach of the dam and the results would have been catastrophic to the communities downstream.  The land for the dam is now a large park.  It is called the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  The reserve butts up to Wildcat Mountain State Park.

The water control tower at the Lake Lafarge site still stands.  The might of the Kickapoo River was never tested and many are very happy it wasn't. 

My mother in law still lives in the old downtown.  The last big flood the family was evacuated by boat. Her home was built by a great great relative. My wife and her siblings help her yearly when the little muddy floods.  They put furniture up on the upper floors to avoid water damage.  Her furnace is typically ruined every other flood and the water removal from the basement has become old hat. Marjie typically goes to her sister's home in Viroqua and stays and rides out the flood.

The grade school of my youth was half a block away from my home literally in the immediate flood plain of the Kickapoo River.

It stopped being a functional school long ago. Many generations of Gays Mills kids learned their ABCs here and had an emotional bond to the building.  It was a apartment building for a while and housed a realtor office for quite a while. There was an attempt to have it designated as a historical site a while back but that failed.

It no longer exists.  It was torn down for salvage a short time ago.

Downtown Gays Mills has been slowly but surely torn down house by house and business by business.  There are diehards that still cling to her history downtown.

The new village has been moved to out on the sand north of town.

The new village lacks the small town magic and feels quite sterile.

One day not so far in the future the old village of Gays Mills will disappear into the mist just like Brigadoon did and never to be seen again.


  1. Great post! Many memories of years gone by. Scott Jameson

  2. First time I saw this. Lots of memories!!
    Patty Drake Helgerson. I could see the dam from my bedroom window!