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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Country Coon Prairie — Easter Sunday Fire

The magnificent Norwegian Lutheran Church on Coon Prairie struck by lightning and completely gutted by flames. — Was erected thirty-four years earlier.

Artist's painting of the Norwegian Lutheran Church on Coon Prairie
sometime before the Easter fire.

From the Vernon County Censor, April 14, 1909

During the storm at 9:15 o’clock Easter Sunday evening the Norwegian Lutheran Coon Prairie church was struck by lightning and completely ruined by the conflagration that followed the flash. The walls still remain standing, but the action of fire upon lime rock renders it entirely unfit for use, and in the event of the reconstruction of the church, they must be razed. The few eye-witnesses attest to its being a terrifically hot fire. The stone belfry acted as a chimney up which the flames roared as in a blast furnace. So intense was the heat that the huge bell was melted as though it had been cast from wax. Through a lock of adequate facilities, any effort to successfully combat the flames was rendered impossible. Rev. Halvorson, with the assistance of several others, succeeded in saving the beautiful altar painting, a small organ and a few chairs,—all else being entirely consumed. Hardly a scant half-hour elapsed between the breaking forth of the fire and the complete destruction of the belfry. The heavy roof soon followed in its steps, crashing down into the fiery furnace below it. In but two hours the flaming pile resolved itself into a mass of glowing embers.

The church was constructed in the year 1875, and was dedicated in 1884. The original cost was in the neighborhood of $30,000. Such a structure would cost a third more if built at the present time. Since 1875 a considerable amount of time and money has been expended in materially adding to the interior decorations and in permanent improvements upon the building proper. To place the loss at $40,000 would, indeed, be a conservative estimate. Only $9,000 insurance was carried, thus rendering the loss the more severe. Exteriorly the well known house of worship was impressively imposing, and the interior was a delight to the eye in its surpassing beauty and richness of setting. Only a few years ago a splendid pipe organ was installed at a cost of $1,500. The vandal hand of flame meted out to all of these sacred treasures a common fate.

Shortly after the fire
Since 1872, Rev. H. Halvorsen has ministered to the spiritual needs of his charge continually, and watched the congregation grow from a mere handful to one of the largest and richest in the state, now comprising about two hundred and fifty families—the church being known as the largest and richest of any in the state outside of the large cities. The present site is considerably south of the center of population in relation to the church membership, and no doubt a strong effort will be put forth by the four hundred Westby members to have the new edifice erected in that village.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

2011 Volunteer of the Year: Bertha Johnson

By RuthAnn Wilson 

A strong and effective community is made up of people with different gifts all working together. But, community also depends on the leadership of someone willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the group as a whole, someone with a generous spirit, and concern for the well-being of “the least of these”.  

Bertha McSchooler Johnson
In our community, that person is Bertha Johnson!

“She is definitely a ‘can-do’ person,” said Carol Navrestad. “She is always available to help others; she’s a detail person, and she organizes whatever needs to be done. I have never known her to be ill.”

Someone mentioned that once Bertha has a project, “just stay out of her way!”  This was said with deep respect and as a tribute to her expertise and leadership. It was pointed out that Bertha is always one to try to make life a little better for someone else, to ease their suffering, give them hope, and lend a helping hand. If you need a Chair- or Co-Chair for any organization, ask Bertha. Bertha pays attention to what is needed, who needs it, when it’s needed, and how it should be organized. It is well-known that Bertha is the person to call.

She is the one who can provide the energy and the skill to organize an event.  She has all the equipment needed for serving at functions, including tables, coolers, thermos jugs, roasters, pots and pans, coffee pots, and all the other accessories for a group of any size. She loads whatever is needed into her serviceable van, and is the first to arrive and the last to leave.  

For many years, Bertha has cooked untold gallons of Rømmegraut for the Syttende Mai festivities. When someone volunteers to help, she is a great teacher, and makes it a lot of fun in the process. When no one is there to help, she is like the Little Red Hen, and goes about the task cheerfully, freezing the gallons of Rømmegraut in her home freezer until serving it at various Syttende Mai functions.  

When the Lions Club, the Sons of Norway, or the Historical Society has an event, Bertha is the one who makes sure everyone knows what needs to be done to ensure plenty of food, and the people to help. Bertha is the one who quietly works in the background to “cover all the bases” and be prepared for any emergency.  
Bertha notices when someone in the community needs a helping hand and sees to it that someone helps. She will drop anything to help someone in need.  Someone who wishes to remain unnamed said, “She’s wonderful! She is always there for me. I don’t know what I would do without her.”

Bertha McSchooler grew up on a dairy farm in Omro near Oshkosh. She was teaching in Cashton when she was introduced to Robert Johnson in Westby. Soon they had four beautiful children: Roger, Jean, Grant, and Susan. Bertha loved being a stay-at-home wife and Mom on their beautiful dairy farm.  

As the children reached adulthood, Bertha returned to teaching high school in Cashton. She and Robert added other community functions to their schedule, including Sons of Norway, Lions, Syttende Mai Committee, and Immanuel Lutheran Church. Bertha is also in the American Legion Auxiliary and the Red Hats. Robert is on County Board, so she gets involved there, too.

This writer called Bertha’s eldest daughter to ask a few questions. Jean immediately wanted to ask her siblings to say something about their mother.  After being sworn to secrecy to keep the surprise, Jean said, “We think about how lucky we are to have such a great Mom. We are also lucky to have Dad, because they are a great team. Children are going to be what they choose to be; parents are just there to guide them. We think our parents have been great role models.”  

Roger, Grant and Sue each added thoughts: “Church and 4-H were always important. We had horses and went on trail rides with many friends. We grew up having lots of family fun. Our parents are very optimistic. They always say, ‘Things could be worse’.” 

“Mom and Dad think the world of their grandchildren and they will do anything for them, even if it means traveling hundreds of miles to get to a football game, confirmation or graduation. They always make them feel as special as they are.  They travel near and far to weddings, reunions, and funerals, not only for family but for other relatives, friends and acquaintances.” 

 “Mom started doing reflexology in 1989 so when she retired from teaching, she really got busy trying to help people feel better with her healing hands. Mom and Dad are happiest when they are helping others. Going out of their way is not a problem - they want to be there for others and it makes them feel good.” 

Westby is a strong community because of strong people like Bertha Johnson. It’s the strength that comes from within; it’s the humble, loving strength that creates a community where neighbors wave to one another and support each other, where friends and family feel connected.  

Thank you, Bertha Johnson, and thank you to all your family.  

1920 Westby

It is a town of which it’s every inhabitant is justly proud. Westby is situated at the junction of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific and the La Crosse & Southeastern railways; seven miles north from the county seat of Vernon County and twenty-three miles from the city of La Crosse. It is made up of wide-awake business people; its predominating nationality is Scandinavian. Following are the business enterprises found: Four general stores; 1 exclusive clothing store; I exclusive shoe store; 2 drug stores; 1 hotel; 4 restaurants; 2 lumber yards; 2 banks; 5 implement dealers’ 3 hardware stores, 1 pool and billiard hall; 1 livery barn; 1 wood, coal and ice dealer; 3 stock buyers; 3 doctors; 1 dentist; 1 optician, 1 lawyer, 2 automobile agencies, feed and saw mill; a splendid band and orchestra; 1 weekly newspaper; 1 photographer; 2 millinery shops; 2 meat markets, 1 harness shop; 1 jewelry store; 1 bakery; 1 planing mill; brick and cement works; 2 barber shops; 4 insurance agencies; 2 real estate agencies, 4 tobacco warehouses; 2 grain and feed warehouses; a very flourishing creamery; a splendid municipal electric light system; the best of telephone service, owned by a local stock company; 1 United Lutheran Church, 1 Synod Lutheran Church, 1 Methodist Episcopal Church; a modern high school building; 2 Leaf tobacco dealers; 2 blacksmiths; 1 furniture store, monument works. The fraternal and insurance orders include Sons of Norway, Woodman, Mystic Workers of the World; also 2 temperance organizations, Boy Scouts and church societies, no saloons, 1 tailor.

Its mineral water is of the very best that mankind may wish for; its climate is most delightful and healthful, contagion and epidemics scarcely known. It is located in the midst of a vast and fertile farming territory, which is among the foremost in the great state of Wisconsin in dairying, stock raising and tobacco growing. Westby is fast and steadily growing in population, numbering about 1200 inhabitants at the time this envelope leaves the printer. It is an excellent market place for farmers. Westby offers facilities that but few prairie towns afford. Westby is an ideal place to live.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Opera House

From the Vernon County Censor dated February 8, 1905

Artists rendering of the magnificent new Bekkedal & Unseth brick block at Westby

Viroqua is to experience a new sensation—that of being able to get out of town and back again the same night. Mr. Chadwick, the genial passenger agent of the La Crosse & Southeastern, was in town last week and made arrangements for an excursion to Westby. Many people of Viroqua and vicinity would like to ride on the new railroad also, many are desirous of seeing Westby’s new Opera house.

The opportunity will be offered to all who wish, next Monday night, March 13th on which occasion the Viroqua band will give a concert and dance in Westby. Accommodation will be made for two hundred people. Train will leave Viroqua at 7 p.m. and return after the dance. Westby’s new Opera house in the fine Bekkedal & Unseth block, would be a credit to a city many times larger than Westby. It is strictly modern, steam heated, electric lights, finished in English Oak, opera chairs, three exits, toilet rooms smoking rooms, and an elegant dancing floor. The band will endeavor to do themselves credit on this occasion and give the patrons an enjoyable time.

Round trip tickets 35 cents. Concert and dance tickets $1 per couple. Dance tickets 75 cents. Concert tickets 25 cents.