The Telemark - A Northwoods Legend Poised to Rise Again

by BJ Hollars |

Photos courtesy of Jim Alf

On a cool summer morning in 1950, 12-year-old Jim Alf woke upstairs in the ferry house beside the Chippewa River. He stirred in his bed, then tiptoed past his snoring brothers and slipped out the back door, his fishing pole in hand.

The walk from the Caryville ferry house to the ferry landing wasn’t more than a few hundred feet — far enough to keep the Chippewa River from flooding their home, but not so far that Jim, his parents, and his brothers were inconvenienced by their dozens of daily walks to the landing.

jim alf 1954
Jim Alf 1954

In later years, Jim would refer to such early morning moments as his “golden hour” — a photography term for when the light touches softly upon the sky. But for Jim, golden hours were about more than light; they were about silence, too.

From the end of the ferry, Jim cast his line and waited for the fish to strike. On a good morning, he’d catch a mess of small pike long before the first vehicle of the day puttered to the ferry landing on the south side of the river. He’d clean the fish, then hand them to his mother who’d fry them on the wood stove and send their scent wafting up the stairs.

Ferry House
Ferry House

The Alf family would then gather in the ferry house’s modest kitchen, squeezing around the table alongside the stove, the cupboard, and the pitcher pump — the latter being the most technologically advanced feature in their semi-primitive home. Though electricity now buzzed throughout much of Dunn County, the Alfs’ home wouldn’t be wired until later that year.

Yet as a boy, Jim was rarely bothered by the lack of modern conveniences.

“Though it would have been nice to have indoor plumbing,” he concedes.

art scott caryville

As for the ferry, which crossed the river about 10 miles west of Eau Claire, it ran by the most advanced technology of the time. A repurposed Model-A Ford engine powered a winch-and-cable system. A cable anchored on both sides of the river wrapped around the winch drum, providing traction. Before engines, the ferry was powered by current alone, though the addition of the engine ensured a two-minute trip regardless of the speed of the current.

caryville ferry

Which was good news for the Alfs, who in 1950 were still new to ferry life. Jim’s father, Bill, had previously worked as an ice delivery man and a farmer before receiving the ferry contract in 1949. The contract came just in time: costly technological advancements to refrigeration and farming had priced Bill Alf out of both industries. Running the Caryville ferry was stable work, with Dunn County paying Bill’s annual salary of $3,120 (approximately $38,000 in today’s money). That was for working 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

It was hardly a king’s ransom, though the job came with perks, including the ferry house and a river’s worth of good fishing. But Jim enjoyed another benefit, too: the chance to interact with dozens of passersby each day. The ferry landing near Caryville was the one place in the township where most everyone traveled.

Rather than go out in search of the world, most days, the world came to Jim.

•   •   •

Seated in his recliner in his assisted living facility, 84-year-old Jim reflects fondly on his many golden hour mornings alongside the river.

“They’re some of my best memories,” he tells me.

In the decade I’ve known Jim, he’s often allowed me to accompany him on his nostalgia-infused time travels. He tells me about his early years on the family’s farmhouse porch; how he and his brothers spent their August nights listening to the corn growing in the nearby field. And how their father could cradle even the most raucous chicken in the crook of his arm and rock that bird to sleep.

jim alf 2022
Jim Alf 2022

Life at the ferry landing was different. No longer were they dependent on their crops; now, they were dependent on the river.

Jim spent his formative years helping his family run the ferry. While most transports occurred without incident, a few stories remain vivid in Jim’s memory.

caryville ferry dunn energy co op

Like his assisting Rev. John Ritland on his weekly Sunday morning crossings.

Given the shortage of ministers at the time, Rev. Ritland, whose parsonage was in Caryville, began his Sundays with a service at Spring Brook Lutheran on the north side of the river. Directly following, Jim would ferry him back across the river so that he might repeat his sermon to the congregants at Rock Creek Lutheran.

When the current was too fast, Bill Alf and the reverend would peer out at the river together to determine the best course of action. On one such morning when the river was at flood stage, Bill eyed the river and said, “I think the Good Lord will watch over us.”

“Yes,” Rev. Ritland eventually agreed, “but I don’t think we should stick our necks out.”

Long after midnight in June 1954, the Alfs were awakened by a far different sort of traveler. Paying little attention to the “This Ferry Operates From 6 am to 12 Midnight” sign, a California man and his passenger laid on their horn and demanded to be taken across the river at around 2am. As Jim tells it, the driver reeked of alcohol. Bill Alf was so incensed by the early morning wake-up that he said, “Mister, this is going to cost you a buck!”

“You can take your buck and you know what you can do with it!” the man hollered back.

Unaware that the ferry had left the shore, the man put his car in reverse and squealed off — directly into the river.

Soaking wet, the men waded from the car and sobered up by way of a nap in a nearby haystack.

As Jim recounts in When The Ferries Still Ran — his comprehensive account of ferry life in the Chippewa Valley — the men were approached by Menomonie Sheriff Clarence Walters the following morning.

Since the men were no longer drunk, no charges could be filed.

“But there is one thing I can do,” Sheriff Walters told Bill Alf, “I know the most expensive towing service in Menomonie and that’s the one I’m sending down.”

•   •   •

These days, Jim no longer spends his golden hour fishing off the ferry. Instead, he enjoys breakfast at the assisted living facility with a friend who himself rode the ferry as a boy.

Plenty of others recall their own trips on the Caryville ferry. While the weekday clientele mostly revolved around farmers hauling their crops to the elevators, for weekend riders, the ferry was mostly a pleasure cruise. A ride across the river was the perfect start to a Sunday afternoon, one which often ended with an evening meal with family and friends or a stop at a soda fountain.

caryville ferry unknown passenger

On Saturday nights, it was not uncommon for young men to ride the ferry to court their love interests on the other side of the river. The young men usually returned home on the midnight ferry — he last crossing of the night.

Mindful of the young suitors’ occasional inability to keep track of time, Bill Alf and his sons would try to keep tabs on who would require a return ferry.

“Sometimes we’d stay up a few minutes late,” Jim says, “to make sure we got the boy home.”

•   •   •

Mornings on the river, Jim was often joined by a great blue heron whose fishing prowess put Jim and his lures to shame. The heron nabbed frogs and fish all summer long, returning to the landing year after year. Jim also received regular visits from rabbits, squirrels, and the occasional beaver — though all these visits paled compared to his human guests.

Occasionally, reporters from Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Madison dropped by for a lift and left with a story. The accumulation of stories attracted more riders and provided Jim even more opportunities to strike up conversations with people near and far.

One day Jim ferried a championship fisherman across the river. (“If you toss a matchstick on the river, I’ll cast a bait and land right on it,” the fisherman boasted.) Another day, he ferried a man who’d caught a northern pike, whose glistening scales stretched the entire length of the backseat of the man’s car. (“He was pretty proud of that.”)

Despite such encounters, for the first 18 years of his life, Jim’s experiences were mostly limited to the reach of the river.

After graduating from high school in 1955, Jim joined the Air Force, attending basic training in Oakland, California. For a young man who’d never ventured past Duluth, the West Coast opened his eyes to a host of new experiences, and new people.

“It was the first time I’d ever been in the same room with a person of color,” Jim says. “It shows what an insular community we were. And that I’d missed out on a lot.”

caryville bridge construction 1964
caryville bridge construction june 24, 1964

On October 10, 1964, 800 Dunn County residents gathered to celebrate the completion of the County Highway H bridge connecting the north and south shores of the Chippewa River near Caryville. Plans for such a bridge began in 1886, though for 80 years, the project was plagued with an array of bureaucratic stumbling blocks. But at last it was done, and to commemorate the occasion, a band played, dignitaries gave speeches, and a young boy christened the bridge with a bottle of soda pop.

Dunn county residents were elated, except for Bill Alf, who knew he was out of a job. It was the third time in his career that a technological advancement had left him looking for work.

L.G. Arnold, the contractor, hailed the bridge as “a turning point in the development of this area.” But he added, too, “I’m sorry to see the old ferry go, God bless her, but we must make way for the new.”

Bill Alf’s last passenger was Marv Huseby and his horse and wagon team. They floated beneath the bridge just as the ribbon-cutting ceremony got underway. After the final words were spoken, the residents retreated to a complimentary luncheon courtesy of Spring Brook and Rock Creek Lutheran churches. But not everyone attended. As the Leader-Telegram reported, “Bill Alf left his ferry on the north side of the river and walked across the new bridge to his home on the south side of the river, ready to adjust to another kind of life.”

•   •   •

Rivers, like time, stop for no one. They are a promise of continuity. And a reminder, too, that while everything has its beginning and end, we’d be foolhardy to overlook the meandering middle.

Between the ages of 12 and 18, Jim Alf — one of Caryville’s last ferry drivers — transported an estimated 100,000 passengers from one side of the river to the other. It is a stunning accomplishment, particularly given that the total population of Dunn County in 1950 was just over 27,000.

When I ask Jim what makes rivers so special, he pauses before settling on an answer.

“I think rivers excite all five of our senses,” he says.

I run through his theory aloud. “You see it, hear it, taste it, feel it …”

“And smell it,” Jim says. “And rivers have a unique odor. An essence,” he continues. “It’s kind of a sagey, nutty smell. It smells a little of water, but mostly it’s the smell of the plant life around it. The rotting weeds.”

It’s a smell that — even in his memory — transports him back to those golden hour mornings from long ago. Back to a time and place all-but-forgotten today.

But thanks to Jim, not quite.

BJ Hollars

B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently Go West Young Man: A Father and Son Rediscover America on the Oregon Trail. He is an associate professor of English at UW-Eau Claire. His website is bjhollars.com.

When the Ferries Still Ran book by Jim Alf

When the Ferries Still Ran by Jim Alf is available at The Local Store.

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1953 map caryville usgs
USGS Map from 1953 - Location of Caryville Ferry