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Soldiers Grove: Relocated town spared heavy flood damage; former site inundated
Obliterated concrete is all that’s left of the public basketball courts in Soldier’s Grove.PETER THOMSON photo

SOLDIERS GROVE, Wis. - The flood that damaged much of Gays Mills last week only hit a handful of homes upriver in Soldiers Grove, but it destroyed the town's park.

The water tore playground equipment and benches from the ground, chewed up blacktop, ate swaths of land and dumped tons of rock and mud onto the land that was once downtown Soldiers Grove.

It will cost an estimated $350,000 to repair Beauford T. Anderson Park, said Crawford County Emergency Management Director Roger Martin. Village President Laurel Hestetune said the goal is to have it in working order by the third weekend in September for the Driftless Art Fair.

Last August, when the river flooded, the park was cleaned up in three weeks, but Soldiers Grove's levee held during that flood.

This time it didn't.

When the surging Kickapoo River breached the dike, the churning water ripped through the park. Benches and playground equipment once anchored in concrete footings lay in piles where the currents left them. A parking lot resembled a hastily cut chocolate cake. Flood waters gouged ravines in what once was a good spot for a picnic and cut a six-foot trench through Hwy. 131.

"It just went right through the curb and gutter," said Crawford County Highway Commissioner Dennis Pelock. Highway crews hauled out loads of mud and rock last week - Pelock wasn't sure how much - and filled in the roadway in part of an estimated $414,000 countywide road repair effort.

The park was created three decades ago, when, after suffering through multiple floods, the village relocated about 30 businesses, 24 apartments and 10 houses to higher ground.

"It was a godsend," Hestetune said of the relocation. "If it had been downtown where it used to be, there would be nothing left."

Only a handful of homes in the town of 650 sustained major damage in last week's flood, Martin said; in Gays Mills, there were 51.

That's little solace for those on Pine Street like Sandy Mason, whose home had 29 inches of water on the first floor last week and had four inches of water last August.

"I think it's time to move out of here," she said last week as her son and some volunteers helped hose out the house that belonged to her parents and grandparents before her.

Gays Mills, still recovering from one of its worst floods ever last August, is now considering a similar effort to relocate the town, most of which was under water last week.

Residents at a town meeting Tuesday voiced support for the idea, saying they cannot endure another flood and they don't trust levees.

About a dozen homes and businesses in the floodplain have been approved for buyouts, said Dale Klemme, a community development specialist advising the village. The village is working on federal funds to raise another 18 homes, but those plans will be put on hold as Gays Mills looks into the possibility of moving everyone.

"Almost everyone in the downtown area is affected in one way or another," said village board member Pat Brockway, whose downtown home was damaged in August and last week. "It's time we look toward relocating the village to higher and drier ground."

That's easier said than done.

The Soldiers Grove relocation project began in 1975 when the Army Corps of Engineers presented the town with a levee plan that would have cost about $3.5 million but only protected about $1 million in property.

Architect Thomas Hirsch, who was hired that year to guide the project, spent three years helping the people of the town envision life in a relocated town - and trying to find money to pay for it. The flood of 1978, which did about $500,000 in damages, provided the needed push to finish the project.

Relocation was completed in 1983 and cost about $6 million in public funds. The federal government covered about 40 percent of the cost, said Thomas Hirsch, who served as the relocation coordinator. Much of the project was funded with local tax dollars, and an unknown amount shouldered by individuals.

"Is this a free ride? Noooo," Hirsch said Friday.

For a successful relocation, you have to convince both individuals and the community as a whole to move, Hirsch said. And just because the government buys out private property, it can't force the property owner to relocate in a certain place.

About a third of the business owners bought out in Soldiers Grove left town, Hirsch said. Another handful simply retired.

Brockway said the board would work to develop a referendum question on relocation. But Hirsch said the first step should be to show residents a plan so they can understand what's involved.

As for consensus?

"That's never going to happen," Hirsch said. "Community relocation is messy."

Dan Thoftne grew up in Soldiers Grove during the 1950s and '60s, when it was still a thriving river town with a soda fountain, dairy bar and dance hall.

The 62-year-old Madison resident still returns to visit his mother, and shot video of the flooding and its aftermath in Beauford T. Anderson Park, which replaced the former downtown.

Contact reporter Chris Hubbuch at (608) 791-8217 or at chris.hubbuch@lee.net.

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