For a lot of people we know, 2019 was not all that great a year. Illness, death, job stress, money woes … whatever their experiences, folks were looking forward toward a new and happier year.
Yet, before stepping any further into 2020, we still need to take a last look at some of the big events — both good and bad — that took place in Jefferson County as the decade wound down.
We’ll start with a much talked-about topic: the weather.
Mother Nature, Jack Frost and Old Man Winter were joined by Freddie Flood to wreak havoc on Jefferson County throughout all of 2019. They started Jan. 30 with a blast of polar air that closed schools and businesses and drove wind chills down to minus 50 and below.
In early October, an EF-0 tornado hit the Fort Atkinson area, downing power lines and trees, particularly large oaks and pines in the St. Joseph Catholic and Lakeview cemeteries. Seventeen minutes later, an EF-1 twister hit Rome, its 100-mph winds cutting a swath through cornfields and damaging trees and structures.
And speaking of October, Wisconsin had its snowiest on record, with a blizzard blowing through just in time for Halloween. That was followed by warm temperatures, with many days in December hitting more than 50 degrees, and a green and balmy Christmas.
Of course, all the melted snow and rain downpours throughout the year led to high water and flooding. That, in turn, kept many farmers from getting into their fields to harvest their crops on time. As the new year arrived, as much as 25 percent of the crops still were in the fields.
When not out snapping weather photos, our reporters spent countless hours perched on uncomfortable courtroom benches. Cases of sexual assault, hiding a corpse, theft, counterfeiting, vehicular and heroin homicide and straight-up murder consumed much of their time and our front-page space. But there is no doubt the most notable were those of a festival promoter, former Fort Atkinson priest, ex-Jefferson cop, former Jefferson County Jail deputy and a Fort Atkinson man who threatened students and staff at a local school.
Jailtime and probation were given to Warriors and Wizards Festival promoter Scott Cramer for not paying the $50,000-plus owed to vendors and entertainers at his 2018 Jefferson event. Then there was the acquittal of the Rev. William Nolan, whom a former altar boy had claimed molested him when the priest was at St. Joseph Catholic Church more than a decade ago. Friends and relatives in the courtroom gallery proclaimed “God is good” upon hearing the jury’s not-guilty verdict.
Colton Mather was committed to a mental hospital for forcibly entering Luther Elementary School in Fort Atkinson with his German Shepherd and making threatening remarks in late 2018. The victim-impact statements read in court underscored the fact that the 360 staff members and students placed in lockdown that day likely will never feel fully safe or secure again.
Former Jefferson police Officer Daniel R. Johnson was charged with misconduct in public office for trading confidential information from Child Protective Services for sexual favors from a woman in his squad car. Then in December, former Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office jail Deputy Janelle Gericke was charged with burglary for allegedly breaking into the homes of co-workers, acquaintances and people while they were attending loved ones’ funerals.
Fires damaged homes and businesses across Jefferson County during 2019. In January, Creekwood Farms in Lake Mills was damaged by flames, while on Christmas Day nearly a year later, a blaze caused more than $1 million damage to the Highway D Business Development Center in the Town of Jefferson near Helenville. In between there were various house and grass fires, including one of the latter that burned 15 acres at Dorothy Carnes County Park west of Fort Atkinson.
School districts garnered a lot of ink during 2019. In May, administrators, students and staff broke ground on a new addition for Lake Mills High School. Fort Atkinson started planning for an operational referendum in 2020, while Cambridge was preparing for a referendum on constructing an auditorium.
But there is no doubt that it was the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District that captured the most press after electors voted down an operational referendum to finance operations for the next four years. Facing almost $13 million in debt and a deficit in the fall of 2020, the board of education voted to dissolve the district. Members of the public and representatives of area school districts testified before the state School District Boundary Appeals Board, and it appeared that to most districts, Palmyra-Eagle was a “hot potato.” The state board has until Jan. 15th to decide Palmyra-Eagle’s fate.
Municipalities were busy. Fort Atkinson bought land on which to develop residential housing, OK’d the site plan for Crown of Life Christian Academy’s building project on the west side, approved bond bids for expanding and remodeling the fire station and advanced its Wheels Park. To the north, the Jefferson Friends of the Library were talking about a future expansion.
Fort Atkinson also continued its mural making, with Lorine Niedecker poetry added at Rockwell Elementary School and a Fort Atkinson Beautification Council-sponsored work on the wall of the city water department overlooking the Rock River.
Jefferson County was host to the statewide Farm Progress Days at the Walter Grain Farm at Grellton. The county also snipped the ribbon on a new Fair Park swine barn; was busy updating its comprehensive plan; worked toward spreading broadband service; and fielded complaints about the spreading of waste on Town of Sumner fields and a costly wastewater treatment plant proposed for the Rome and the Town of Sullivan area. People Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse closed its doors for good, its services being assumed by two other providers. The state Department of Transportation dropped the U.S. Highway 12 bypass of Fort Atkinson from its project list, pleasing the Koshkonong township.
Jefferson County residents held a variety of events promoting education and social responsibility. Fort Atkinson was the site of the first-ever Lemonade Day, encouraging youth entrepreneurship, and Orange Day, raising awareness of gun violence. Main Street bridge rallies included Lights for Liberty, a vigil to end human concentration camps, and a Unity Pride Rally to promote inclusiveness. Cambridge minister Rev. Scott Marrese-Wheeler spoke at a gun law rally in Madison; a march for public education trekked from Palmyra through Fort Atkinson, Cambridge and Waterloo to Madison; and Lake Mills High School students joined the nationwide march on climate change.
In May, a black bear was sighted in the Johnson Creek area, while in August, a Watertown man shot two dogs as they attacked his parents’ goats.
While not as much as in the past, business and economic development did make front-page news during 2019. Shopko stores in Fort Atkinson and Watertown closed their doors after decades, but Rock River Food and Beverage Solutions bought the vacant former Tyson Foods building in downtown Jefferson for a cheese-packaging and cold storage facility, and the nearby former Schweiger Industries office building was being transformed into Candise Street Lofts. Moreover, dirt was being moved for a travel plaza, Burger King and Best Western motel on the northernmost end of Jefferson’s North Side Industrial Park.
Solar farms were eyed for the Town of Jefferson and Oakland, new owners reopened the Pine Knoll Supper Club between Lake Mills and Waterloo after it had sat vacant for many years, Dooson Bobcat announced it would be acquiring the Schiller Grounds plant in Johnson Creek, and Daybreak Foods was undertaking construction of three pullet buildings at Creekwood Farms in Lake Mills in a project that would not be entirely complete until well into 2020.
That’s not all. Blackhawk Senior Residence in Fort Atkinson received a WEDC grant for remodeling its CBRF for seniors; Keva looked at buying the vacant X-Cel building in Jefferson for a sports center; the Belmont Casino bar in Fort Atkinson was sold to a restaurant group in an IRS auction; and Adams Publishing Group of Minnesota, owner of the Daily Jefferson County Union, Watertown Daily Times and the Hometown News Group weeklies and shoppers, bought the Janesville Gazette and Beloit Daily News.
Reporters at the Daily Union took time to do in-depth stories looking at growing issues facing the area. Topics ranged from homelessness, the opioid epidemic and vaccination waivers to school nurse duties, school choice vouchers and women in government. Hopefully, they provided insight, spurred conversation and, in some cases, prompted action.
Certainly, many more things happened in Jefferson County than just those above, but these are among the highlights of the year that was. As 2020 moves forward, please do your part to help make it more positive than negative, helpful than hurtful, productive than idle and happy than sad!
Tomorrow: Some of the people who made headlines in 2019.