Lessons from a Levee

Karen Karacsony
The Wisconsin River and its century-old Caledonia-Lewiston Levee System have made the news of late. That's because a series of thunderstorms has caused severe flooding along the Wisconsin River -- to the point that the levee may very well collapse. Evacuations have been issued and residents in Columbia County stand in danger of losing their properties to flooding.

While the levee story may be little more than a blip on the radar in terms of its national newsworthiness, I believe the news story is altogether significant in what it tells us about past generations of Americans -- and their progeny.

The Wisconsin levee was built by local farmers in the 1880's. It was a private project: the residents initiated and funded the building of the levees themselves. There were no Federal funds, no Stimulus bureaucrats, and no Army Corps of Engineers to complete the endeavor. Instead, there were hard-working farmers who took it upon themselves to secure their lands from the dangers of flooding. The farmers didn't have much in terms of building supplies or money. They did, however, manage to put together a levee made of sand -- prompting modern engineers to label the levee system as mere "piles of dirt put together."

Despite the fact that the levees are more than 120 years old -- and comprised of sand rather than concrete -- they have never been replaced. It seems to be one of the great unsolved mysteries of Wisconsin that the levees have never been revamped (or at least modified to meet today's engineering standards).

Lest the experts spend too much time wondering why the levees have never been rebuilt and too little time rebuilding them, I'd like to offer a possible answer to the mystery. It is this: Americans have all but lost the self-reliance and self-determination that made them the most entrepreneurial and innovative people in the world. So now, instead of locals getting together to build basic structures like levees to ensure their own prosperity and self-preservation, they wait for the government -- and its team of "experts" to do the work for them. And to wait for the government to invest in building something as mundane as levees, when it could spend the money on something showy that attracts voters (like public education), is to wait for Godot.

When the Wisconsin levees were built, less than 100 years had elapsed since the ratification of the Constitution. Hence, the people of that day were closer to the Founding -- both in their allegiance to our Founding Principles and in their relationship to the Federal Government. They weren't nine-digit Social Security numbers -- that Ponzi scheme didn't yet exist. Instead, the Americans of the 1880's were rugged individualists who knew how to form families and communities outside of the limited reach of the Federal Government. And because they lived in a time before the welfare state had come to fruition, they knew how to provide for themselves and their neighbors. 

The farmers who built the levees also lived in a pre-compulsory-education America. Thus, the farmers of those days were less agenda-driven textbookish, and more common-sense-ish. They could predict the weather to a reasonable degree without looking it up on the Internet and could build a levee without an engineering degree (and without power tools). Their children were cast from the same mold.  Unlike the students of today who find it challenging to boil an egg, the children of yesteryear knew how to milk a cow, plow a field, and drive a nail. From childhood on, in other words, the Americans of the 1880's were productive citizens who contributed to their families and to society.

The Wisconsin Levee System may fail this flood season. If it does, it will not only mark the end of that "historical artifact" (as the moderns deridingly call it), but also symbolize the end of a time when Americans came together as community citizens to work things out for themselves -- without state directives, and without federal funds. 

To character and success, two things, contradictory as they may seem, must go together . . . humble dependence on God and manly reliance on self. ~William Wordsworth
The Wisconsin River and its century-old Caledonia-Lewiston Levee System have made the news of late. That's because a series of thunderstorms has caused severe flooding along the Wisconsin River -- to the point that the levee may very well collapse. Evacuations have been issued and residents in Columbia County stand in danger of losing their properties to flooding.

While the levee story may be little more than a blip on the radar in terms of its national newsworthiness, I believe the news story is altogether significant in what it tells us about past generations of Americans -- and their progeny.

The Wisconsin levee was built by local farmers in the 1880's. It was a private project: the residents initiated and funded the building of the levees themselves. There were no Federal funds, no Stimulus bureaucrats, and no Army Corps of Engineers to complete the endeavor. Instead, there were hard-working farmers who took it upon themselves to secure their lands from the dangers of flooding. The farmers didn't have much in terms of building supplies or money. They did, however, manage to put together a levee made of sand -- prompting modern engineers to label the levee system as mere "piles of dirt put together."

Despite the fact that the levees are more than 120 years old -- and comprised of sand rather than concrete -- they have never been replaced. It seems to be one of the great unsolved mysteries of Wisconsin that the levees have never been revamped (or at least modified to meet today's engineering standards).

Lest the experts spend too much time wondering why the levees have never been rebuilt and too little time rebuilding them, I'd like to offer a possible answer to the mystery. It is this: Americans have all but lost the self-reliance and self-determination that made them the most entrepreneurial and innovative people in the world. So now, instead of locals getting together to build basic structures like levees to ensure their own prosperity and self-preservation, they wait for the government -- and its team of "experts" to do the work for them. And to wait for the government to invest in building something as mundane as levees, when it could spend the money on something showy that attracts voters (like public education), is to wait for Godot.

When the Wisconsin levees were built, less than 100 years had elapsed since the ratification of the Constitution. Hence, the people of that day were closer to the Founding -- both in their allegiance to our Founding Principles and in their relationship to the Federal Government. They weren't nine-digit Social Security numbers -- that Ponzi scheme didn't yet exist. Instead, the Americans of the 1880's were rugged individualists who knew how to form families and communities outside of the limited reach of the Federal Government. And because they lived in a time before the welfare state had come to fruition, they knew how to provide for themselves and their neighbors. 

The farmers who built the levees also lived in a pre-compulsory-education America. Thus, the farmers of those days were less agenda-driven textbookish, and more common-sense-ish. They could predict the weather to a reasonable degree without looking it up on the Internet and could build a levee without an engineering degree (and without power tools). Their children were cast from the same mold.  Unlike the students of today who find it challenging to boil an egg, the children of yesteryear knew how to milk a cow, plow a field, and drive a nail. From childhood on, in other words, the Americans of the 1880's were productive citizens who contributed to their families and to society.

The Wisconsin Levee System may fail this flood season. If it does, it will not only mark the end of that "historical artifact" (as the moderns deridingly call it), but also symbolize the end of a time when Americans came together as community citizens to work things out for themselves -- without state directives, and without federal funds. 

To character and success, two things, contradictory as they may seem, must go together . . . humble dependence on God and manly reliance on self. ~William Wordsworth