There’s Something Strange in Kickapoo: Motorcycle Travel

There's something strange in Kickapoo
The view of the strange concrete tower rising above the treetops in the middle of nowhere made me want to find out more.

The recent fascinating article by Ultimate Motorcycling Editor Don Williams about the enigmatic—and weird—Mojave Megaphone got me thinking about some of the similarly odd things I’ve seen from the seats of my motorcycles over the years.

I was on a solo road trip back in 2011, cruising north on Wisconsin State Trunk Highway 131. Shortly after leaving La Farge, I noticed something sticking up in the woods to my left. It was one of those things that simply looked like it shouldn’t be there. It was a large, gray square-looking thing—a tower or obelisk of some kind.

There's something strange in Kickapoo: La Farge Lake
Looking like something out of science fiction, it turns out this five-story high concrete tower had a contemporary purpose.

I pulled over and studied it for a while. I thought either that thing is the most over-built elevated deer hunting stand I’d ever seen or something entirely beyond the bounds of normal. I decided I had to figure it out—I had to see if there was a road leading to whatever it was. I rode four or five miles north to see if there was a road leading to it but found none, so I turned around and rode back to La Farge.

I figured the best chance of finding a way there was to take the first right when I got back to town, onto Seelyburg Road, then kept right onto Corps Road. From there, I spotted a gravel track that led to the top of a massively built-up berm, so I took that. It led to a dead end, but the tower was within easy walking distance from there.

At that point, the north side of the berm was covered with large stone riprap, and it ended there. I grabbed my camera, hiked down the berm’s end, and got an up-close view of the mysterious tower. It looked like something out of an episode of Ancient Aliens or a Star Wars movie set.

Standing 50 or 60 feet tall and about 20 feet square, the structure appears to be cast of concrete with no windows and only one apparent door opening on the south face, at the top! There is no door opening at all at ground level. Even the door at the top seemingly leads to nothing but more solid concrete! Low parapets appear along parts of the very top.

What on earth was this thing built for? Why here, out in the woods, more or less in the middle of nowhere? Clearly, no human would build such a thing. Maybe it was built thousands of years ago using some advanced alien technology!

Well, no. Turns out there is a very terrestrial explanation, but the real story isn’t much less strange.

The Kickapoo River is a little, innocent-looking stream in the summer. However, with snow-melt runoff and rain combined in spring, it can become a raging torrent capable of causing major flooding along its valley to the confluence with the Wisconsin River.

In 1962, the federal and state governments put their collective political heads together and came up with a plan—a dam plan. They would appropriate millions of dollars to build a massive earthen flood-control dam across the Kickapoo River Valley. Flooding downstream would be controlled, tourism would flourish, and everybody would be happy in the end.

There's Something Strange in Kickapoo: Motorcycle Travel Story
The intended purpose of the tower is shown in this artist’s rendering of the dam with the tower in La Farge Lake.

To clear the valley above the dam for the resulting reservoir, 149 family farms were bought up, vacated, the buildings removed, and construction of the dam itself began. In many cases, the landowners were not willing participants in the process. Although construction started, by 1975, the project ran out of political gas and was eventually deauthorized for financial and environmental reasons.

So, if the dam project was canceled, the landowners could get their land back if they wanted it, right? Well, no. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve website explains it like this, “In 1996, federal legislation directed the US Army Corps of Engineers to transfer up to 1,200 acres to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in trust for the Ho-Chunk Nation and the remaining 7,369 acres to the State of Wisconsin. The ownership transfer was completed December 28, 2000.”

The long road to this outcome caused a lot of grief for the communities involved. The People Remember. An Oral History of the Kickapoo La Farge Dam Project was edited by Bonnie Sterling and published by the Friends of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve in 2004.

When the project stalled, more than $18 million had already been spent, and about $20 million remained in the appropriation. In 1983, a scaled-down dam project was considered, but that failed the cost/benefit test.

Why was the property never allowed to go back to the original owners? A report on the Reserve site explains it this way: “Taking its normal course of action, the federal government would slowly solicit input from Congress that eventually would lead to the federal government disposing of the property. The federal government would offer the property to any other federal agency, such as the National Park Service, the military, Native American tribes, et cetera. If no other federal agency was interested in the property, it would be offered to the State of Wisconsin, and if the state was not interested, ultimately it would be put up for sale to private individuals.”

In 1993, after years of meetings and workgroups, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve was created with legislation enacted in 1996. Today, the 8589-acre Kickapoo Valley Reserve is managed by a board that includes multiple local government representatives, state government, and representatives of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

Okay, back to the tower—exactly what is it and why is it there? That was to have been the five-story high flood gate control tower that would have stood out in the water of the manmade La Farge Lake.

The artist’s concept drawing of the completed project shows there was to have been a road along the top of the dam structure, and a walkway was to have extended from the road out to the floodgate control tower.

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve includes stunning natural beauty and is worth the trip to see it—and the tower, too, of course!

Photography by Gary Ilminen