IT WAS FOURTH OF JULY WEEKEND, 1978, and The Brass Horn was hopping. The bar was one of six in the tiny village of Soldiers Grove, folded into a tight oxbow on the Kickapoo River in southwest Wisconsin.
The longtime owners, Laurel and Tolene George, regularly hosted a festive crowd: farmers who parked their trucks at the feed mill and dropped in for a few hands of euchre and teenagers like their grandson Steve, who swung by for a can of pop and a candy bar before dashing off to the pool hall with friends.
Main Street in those days was full of school kids bouncing from the dance hall to the theater. Couples would drive in from the farm and people-watch. This weekend was no exception, even though the Kickapoo was swollen and word was that it might flood. It was summertime, a holiday, and Steve George was finally old enough to drink Besides, they were used to flooding in Soldiers Grove.
"Usually the old Kickapoo, it'd be every fall," says George, now the village president, perched on a barstool in the motorcycle repair shop he's operated since retiring. "Sometimes in the spring, too."
Each year, they carried everything out of the waterlogged buildings, he says, washed everything down, and put it all back in again.
"We'd get all the grandkids down," George remembers. "Everybody in town helped."
But that Sunday, July 2, in 1978, things changed. A biblical downpour led to the largest flood in village history--bigger even than the legendary 1951 flood, when residents evacuated homes by boat from second-story windows. The water moved with such force it leveled a new concrete-block bank building and several others. On top of the regular floods, it made the cost of life on the Kickapoo, financial and otherwise, too much to bear.
Luckily the village had a plan, years in the making, to save itself--a plan that's now a model for communities across America that, due to climate change, find themselves in the path of severe and repeated flooding. Soldiers Grove was going to dismantle its beloved Main Street altogether, pick up, and move.
A few years later, it was all over the national news. Not only had Soldiers Grove successfully relocated its downtown business district and a handful of homes, but--in light of the 1970s fuel crises--the new construction was powered by the sun. They dubbed it "Solar Town."
"Future is Bright," "Sunshine in Wisconsin," "Good Move," shouted headlines at major dailies around the region. Audubon profiled a "Flooded Village" that "Moves to a Solar Future." Time reported on a small town in America's Dairyland "Kicking the Kickapoo Habit." Before long, Soldiers Grove even earned a spot on the Today Show.
And Solar Town was something to see. Instead of a traditional Main Street drag, the new part of town featured matching wood-sided buildings with built-in solar roofs--a library, a grocery store, a bank--arranged in a circle of streets with names like Sunshine Boulevard and Passive Sun Drive. It all fit on a 190-acre plot of old farmland tucked into the side of a rocky ridge far above the floodplain, a half-mile up from the old town where most of the residences remained.
Experts cite Soldiers Grove as the first relocation effort funded by government buyouts for home and business owners. And this became a template for relocating communities across the country. After the "Great Flood" of 1993, which spanned six states along the Mississippi River, the Wisconsin-based Association of State Floodplain Managers advised government agencies and Congress to look to Soldiers Grove, according to co-founder Larry Larson.
"It proved people would relocate if you gave them the option." Larson says. "What was done in Soldiers Grove set the model for what could be used in the Midwest. Relocation became accepted as one of the alternatives."
Soldiers Grove had seen regular floods since 1907, but the disaster of 1951 was its worst yet. The next year, Laurel and Tolene George would sell the other one of their two taverns, The Wonder Bar, to...