Settlers began staking claims in the area in the late 1830s. Whitestown (1853) and Stark (1858), located in north central Vernon County, were the first two townships settled. In 1873, Van S. Bennett, chairman of the town board and a justice of the peace, platted Rockton. By the 1920s, Rockton had grown to include two general stores, post office, blacksmith shop, meat market, photo studio, stockyards, saloon, gristmill, sawmill, shingle mill, hotels, livery stables, two-room school house, and a “hall” where dances were held. Today, Rockton has a half dozen homes, two businesses, a tavern, and a craft shop.
La Farge, resting about one mile below the dam site, was to be the principal community protected from the Kickapoo River’s floodwaters. Established prior to 1878, La Farge remained a small rural village until 1897, when a railroad extended tracks to the village. Thereafter, La Farge grew rapidly. The population rose from 307 to more than 1,000 by 1906. In the early 1900s, the La Farge economy was “booming” with five lumber companies, three hotels, three general stores, two hardware stores, six restaurants, two feed mills, one hoop manufacturer, one brick manufacturer, one cheese manufacturer, one planing mill, and many other businesses. La Farge maintained a steady population of approximately 900 to 1,000 persons into the late 1950s. Today it has some 750 people.
Other communities, such as Odin Mills, Lower Weister/Potts Corner, and Star, were once located in the La Farge Lake Project area, but were largely gone by the time the dam project began. Odin Mills has a unique significance, having been an early African American community. By 1859, African Americans coming from Illinois and Indiana had established several rural communities in Vernon County. Historical sources indicate that a settlement flourished there for some 25 to 30 years. In the early 1850s, Odin featured the first waterwheel sawmill on the upper Kickapoo River. Odin had a perfect spot for the sawmill, since the river dropped 13 feet within one quarter mile between high banks.
The Early Economy:
The economy of the Kickapoo Valley above La Farge has evolved slowly over the past 150 years. Fur trading was the first economic activity. The Ho-Chunk and other Native Americans sold the pelts of beaver, muskrat, and other animals to European and then American traders in exchange for European and American goods. Fur trading was common from the late 1600s to the 1840s, when logging surpassed it in importance.
Whitestown and Stark townships contained large areas of white pine and were linked to Midwestern markets by the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. Once the trees were cut, the loggers floated their timber down the Kickapoo to the Mississippi River markets of Dubuque, Galena, Savannah, and Davenport, although they did mill some locally. The Kickapoo River became the natural power source for saw milling in the nineteenth century.
By the 1850s, the lumber industry had become the backbone of the state’s economy, lasting until the 1880s.
When the lumber industry disappeared, the economy of the Kickapoo Valley began to diversify around agriculture. Commodities such as beer, cheese, and tobacco became prominent. Homesteaders came to the Kickapoo Valley, drawn by cheap land and the rich black soil. Wheat cultivation in Wisconsin began in the 1830s by settlers looking for a quick cash crop. Farmers generally planted on the ridges or near the valley bottom. They used the valley’s upper sides and bottoms for pasture. Barley was also a leading cash crop through the nineteenth century, due in part to the growth of local malting and beer-brewing industries.
In 1850, tobacco became a specialty crop in Vernon County, particularly in the Kickapoo Valley. Early tobacco farmers, many of Norwegian descent, grew tobacco to pay off debts for their passage to America.
Starting in the 1860s, Vernon County farmers began growing oats, corn, and other grains, as well as limited amounts of fruit and potatoes. They covered the steeper slopes with hay and planted corn and oats on the less steep ones. Grain production helped spur the flour milling industry, which emerged in the 1870s.
The dairy industry, which also began in the 1860s, continues to this day. By 1890, Vernon County had become a state leader in dairy production. The Star Valley Cheese Factory became the only cheese factory in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. The factory started operating sometime after 1896 and continued until at least 1931.
In the 1920s, cereal production began to stagnate and decline, as did the price for tobacco. Despite the economic hardships, tobacco farming remained strong for many decades thereafter. Dairy production, however, remained important. Around 1940, Vernon County boasted 36 licensed dairy plants and 18 cheese factories, evidence that the state’s strong dairy heritage was continuing.