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Engine to steam down the road to new location
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The Lentz Steam Engine currently stationed at Stout-Knapp Park in Rice Lake will soon be chugging down the road to a new home at Hungry Hollow Steam and Gas Engine Club grounds.

According to a Barron County news release, the engine has been residing next to the dam since the 1990s after being restored by several local steam engine enthusiasts.

By happenstance, Kevin Jacobson of the Rotary Club got to talking with Tyler Gruetzmacher, Barron County’s dam coordinator, when the Rotarian was scoping out the county park to find a site to locate a new trail sign.

Gruetzmacher told Jacobson the engine and overhead should be moved because it’s located where crews would need to set up heavy equipment should the dam fail.

Jacobson made a few phone calls and set the engine’s move in motion. He contacted the Hungry Hollow Steam and Gas Engine Club to find out if they would give the engine a new home.

“We’d love to have it,” Jacobson reported they said.

Volunteers from the club began dismantling the roof structure last week because they want it for sheltering the engine once it gets to the the Hungry Hollow grounds.

From 1946 to 1976, the 1925 engine powered the American Excelsior plant in Rice Lake. The company is happy it’s going to a new home and will help pay for the foundation. Northwest Builders plans to donate the crane to move the 16 ton engine.

“So there’s no cost to the city, no cost to the county,” Jacobson said. “The Hungry Hollow people are getting this great new steam engine, which actually is a pretty rare one, and everybody’s happy.”

The exact time and day of the engine’s move is yet unknown, but Hungry Hollow plans to have it in place for its annual show, set for June 25-26 at the grounds on Highway 25 north of Barron in the town of Stanford.

Judge of the Year: James Babler helps make life better for children and parents
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Called “one of the most efficient and forward-thinking judges in the state,” Judge James C. Babler is also the go-to person when there’s a problem with technology at Barron County Circuit Court. That means this three-judge, rural county courthouse stays at the cutting edge of technology.

“I’m the tech guy at the courthouse. I am really interested in technology,” Babler said.

As a result, Barron County never missed a beat on the shift to a virtual courtroom in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He put Barron County in a position to be a leader throughout this difficult time,” said Bayfield County Circuit Court Judge John Anderson.

And being a whiz at technology isn’t the only reason people turn to him. “Many judges turn to him for advice, including me,” said Anderson, especially for evidence-based court practices and treatment courts. “Judge Babler was a key figure in Barron County in implementing such strategies.”

When a justice calls

Babler is the recipient of the Judge of the Year Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin Bench and Bar Committee. The award recognizes an outstanding circuit court judge who has improved the judicial system during the past year by his or her leadership in advancing the quality of justice, judicial education, or innovative programs.

The State Bar celebrates this award and others annually at the Member Recognition Celebration, part of the State Bar’s Annual Meeting & Conference (June 15-16). The 2022 event will be held on June 16 at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva.

Getting a call from a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice isn’t an everyday occurrence, let alone a call that you are recipient of an award. “It is really humbling,” Babler said, “and obviously surprising.” Noting past recipients of the award “makes it even more humbling.”

The road to Barron County

Raised in Portage, Babler was inspired at a young age by a 1960s television show, “The Defenders,” to become a criminal defense lawyer. After he completed his undergraduate degree at UW-Madison in political science, he went to the University of Wisconsin Law School, and never wavered from pursuing criminal law. “Halfway through my first semester, I decided to be a prosecutor,” he said.

Graduating in 1979, his first job out of law school was as an assistant district attorney in Barron County. “I didn’t even know where it was,” Babler admitted. When the district attorney who hired him became a judge a year later, he ran for the position — and lost.

But Barron County had become his new home, which shares similar demographics with Columbia County where he grew up. “I like the people, I like the area,” he said.

For the next two years, he worked in adjacent Polk County, but never moved from Barron County — where he met his wife, Susan, and where they raised their two daughters. Two years later, he ran again. This time, he won – and was the county’s district attorney for 20 years.

In the excitement of being the DA, he didn’t aspire to be a judge. “As a DA, I was often ‘in the know’ before anyone else. I liked seeing that justice was done,” he said. Making charging decisions as a DA gives you “a lot of power, and the job ought to be done by people who care about and know their community.”

In 2003, the opportunity came to put his name in for Branch 1, when the judge retired early in the year. “I spent a lot of time thinking about it,” Babler said. In the end, he didn’t want to be a judge any other place but Barron County. “It’s a great place to raise a family.”

Ultimately, he said yes to Gov. Jim Doyle’s invitation. It was the right choice. He was appointed in March 2003 — and his fourth term begins in August 2022.

Dealing with an epidemic

“I really like being judge,” he said, with the ability to impact the lives of those who come before him, “not just in criminal cases, but family law — including the placement of children, and in juvenile court.”

That includes a new way of thinking about cases. “We are trauma-informed, system wide,” he said. “It’s a different way of handling cases than we did 40 years ago.”

Given the methamphetamine epidemic currently rising across the state and county, a trauma-informed approach is significant.

“We see many families ripped apart about because of meth,” Babler said. “When children are placed outside of their homes, it is traumatic for the child.

“It’s my job as judge to make sure the children are safe.” That means finding the path for parents and children to be reunited. “I’m an adoptive parent, and I feel strongly on how we treat children in court. I understand how trauma can affect children,” he said.

Babler was instrumental in getting a new type of advocate for children: the court-appointed special advocates (CASA).

“Children need someone to be their advocate,” he said, so he helped to organize the program and asked the county to fund it. “With the meth epidemic, we have huge numbers of children out of their homes. We — a small rural county — had as many CHIPS cases as Dane County. It was overwhelming for everyone.”

Coupled with their new Family Drug Treatment Court, getting families to be reunited is more likely. “If you can provide services, methods to keep that child in the home and keep them safe, they are better off. It’s very rewarding to help the parents become clean and sober and have their children returned.”

The county’s Family Drug Treatment Court started two years ago, thanks to a federal grant. Babler was instrumental in its creation and support, say those who nominated him for the award.

Barron County was one of 11 counties across the U.S. who received a grant for this type of court. “It’s a big deal that we got it,” he said.

They set out to prove that the court could work in a rural county. “There’s a lot of work to it,” he said, “but we have a lot of successful cases.”

The court includes frequent contact with the justice system. “We meet every two weeks with our participants. Currently, we have between 10 and 12 families in the program.”

The investment includes time as well as emotion. “They have their ups and downs, and we encourage them. I like to say that we are their cheerleader — but we also hold them accountable. The reward is that their children are returned to them.”

The court’s success “isn’t flashy news, but it really makes life better for the children,” he said.

Prepared for the pandemic by coincidence

At the Barron County Justice Center, it is the Branch 1 judge who you turn to when the technology stops working. “I’m really interested in it,” Babler said. It is out of that interest that Babler has served 15 years on the CCAP Steering Committee.

And in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic required a fast shift to virtual courtrooms, the only item the courthouse needed was a Zoom license. “We have a modern courthouse. We’ve always kept our technology current,” Babler said.

By coincidence, a new video system was installed just three weeks before the orders to move to virtual. The new system had replaced one that could not handle Zoom. “Our screens were ready — simply because we had just updated them,” he said.

In addition, “we stayed open during COVID,” Babler said. “We always allowed people to come into the courthouse — unless they were sick.” It’s something they are proud of. “Some of the most important things in life happen in court — so the system needs to keep running.”

Looking ahead

Meanwhile, he is active with his church, and works out several days per week both to keep fit and relieve stress. He’s also relearning German, a language he took up in college and subsequently never used. “I’m using the Babel app,” he said.

At age 66, Babler isn’t ready for retirement. “I have no plans,” he said. “Lord willing, I will serve out the next six years.”

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ABATE rally in Rice Lake promotes motorcycle awareness

Before taking off for a ride on a sunny May day, motorcyclists who belong to ABATE of Wisconsin, a motorcycle rights and safety organization, lined South Main Street in Rice Lake to let motorists know it’s time to keep their eyes peeled for motorcycles.

Standing for A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments, ABATE seeks to educate the public to keep motorcyclists safe and stand up for their legal rights.

Every first Saturday in May, which is motorcycle safety awareness month, ABATE holds rallies across Wisconsin. In Region 6A — Barron, Washburn, Burnett, Sawyer and Rusk counties — the annual event rotates among the counties, and this year was Barron County’s turn to host.

Motorcyclists started riding into a parking lot at the Coleman Street intersection at about 10 a.m. and quickly lined Main Street, whooping and hollering, and holding yellow signs saying, “Look for motorcycles.”

The event was about education and safety, said Ken Nelson of Rice Lake, who is the district director for Region 6A.

“It’s to let people know we’re back on the roads again, and to watch out for motorcycles,” said Nelson, who has been riding since he was 12 years old.

Also on display at the event was a motorcycle upon which two riders had died after a vehicle hit them broadside, and Nelson said there’s already been a fatality in Chippewa County.

ABATE not only promotes safety by cautioning vehicle drivers to watch for motorcycles because they can be easy to miss, it urges motorcyclists to get trained and endorsed, and stick to what they know how to ride, Nelson said.

The group also works against legislation, such as mandatory helmet laws, that may infringe on their rights. Although there are no pressing legislative issues they have an eye on, members are becoming concerned about self-driving car.

“Will they even recognize motorcycles?” Nelson said.

At about noon the motorcyclists hit the road, enjoying prime weather for riding through the countryside.

“It’s a beautiful day and looks like we’ve got a good showing,” ABATE regional representative Scott Moran said.


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