Wisconsin’s northernmost counties make up the region known as the Northwoods. No other part of the state seems more pristine and natural than this region, with its dense forests, abundant lakes, and countless meandering streams. Yet the environmental history of the Northwoods region is a story of the dynamic between people and land. The Northwoods was originally home to various Native American groups. Artifacts found as far north as Oneida County date back more than 8,500 years. The Ojibwes and the Menominees were the two principal groups at the time of statehood in 1848. The region today contains a number of sizeable reservations: Red Cliff, Bad River, Lac du Flambeau, Lac Courte Oreilles, and Menominee. The tribes of northern Wisconsin have been its most enduring inhabitants and the most persistent defenders of the Northwoods environment. The Menominees, for example, have developed a model for careful forest management that is looked to nationwide, and various Ojibwe bands have been instrumental in calling attention to proposed mining developments and practices and other water resource issues.
This region is the one most strongly associated with Wisconsin’s logging past. Virtually all of it was covered by forest prior to 1850. White pine was the royalty of the forest. It grew on sandy soils and in enormous stands, with individual specimens reaching two hundred feet in height and seven feet in diameter. Early loggers liked its strength and the fact that it floated. Small-scale logging on the banks of the Wisconsin River began shortly after statehood and was soon taken up along the banks of other northern rivers. Railroads penetrated the north country in the 1870s, ushering in an entirely new phase in the development of the industry. Massive logging and milling operations emerged, financed by great amounts of outside capital.
Logging camps sprang up across northern Wisconsin, and sawmills appeared on just about any stream that could float a log. The region’s largest cities came to life during this time: Merrill, Tomahawk, and Rhinelander developed as the main milling and supply centers on the Upper Wisconsin River; Marinette, Peshtigo, and Oconto became major lumber towns along rivers emptying into Green Bay; and Ashland, Washburn, Bayfield, and Superior emerged as important milling and port cities on Lake Superior’s shore. Although some small lumber towns like Crandon, Park Falls, Hayward, and Ladysmith survived the logging era, others like Nashville, Jeffris, Heineman, and Coolidge came and went with the passing of the industry. By the early twentieth century, nearly all of northern Wisconsin’s forest had been eliminated by axe or fire. Less than one percent of the forest at the time of statehood remains today.
Timber was not the only resource to be exploited. In the mid-1880s the Gogebic Range in Iron County emerged as the state’s premier mining district. This narrow eightymile belt, which straddles the Wisconsin-Michigan border, produced iron ore for the steel mills of Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Gary for nearly eighty years. Mining companies established numerous small settlements, called locations. Many, such as Annie, Germania, and Hennepin, were ephemeral, but others, including Montreal, became permanent company towns. Other townsites were developed and promoted to provide services to the people on the range. Hurley was a notorious center of vice for the entire mining district and northern Wisconsin. The state’s northern shore was drawn into a much larger web of commerce and production by the iron trade. Facilitated by enormous ore docks, Ashland and Superior became overnight boomtowns as traffic on Lake Superior, which began in 1855 with the completion of the Soo Locks, expanded rapidly during the 1890s. Superior, incorporated as a village in 1887, had become the state’s second-largest city by 1900.
By the late nineteenth century, northern Wisconsin was rapidly becoming the “Cutover.” This was of little concern at the time because it was commonly thought that it would become the state’s next great agricultural region. Between the 1890s and the 1920s, agricultural settlement in the north was vigorously promoted. Logging companies, railroads, land and colonization companies, the state, and the University of Wisconsin all claimed a stake in its development. Railroads distributed brochures with optimistic, unrealistic rhetoric concerning the potential for farming. Colonization companies built entire farmsteads to lure settlers. The university, perhaps the most zealous promoter of all, prepared manuals, conducted experiments, and provided field demonstrations.
Many who were attracted to this last frontier came late in the nineteenth century or early in the twentieth and were immigrants from Eastern Europe. They took their place alongside Americans and Canadian, Scandinavian, and German immigrants in the region’s lumber camps, mines, and cities, and increasingly on its farms. Among the largest of these groups, Finns began to arrive around the turn of the twentieth century and worked in the mines and logging camps and on the docks. Economic depression and discrimination in the mines drove many Finns into farming. The Finnish farmstead was unique among others in the state, especially because of its ubiquitous backyard sauna. Yet farming the Cutover was essentially disappointing. The land was difficult to clear, the soils were often sandy or acidic, and the growing season was short. By the 1930s, agriculture was in retreat.
The promotion of agriculture was followed as early as the 1890s by the promotion of reforestation, but the movement got its greatest boost in the 1920s when tax delinquencies on abandoned agricultural and timberlands multiplied. Spurred by state legislation and facilitated by Great Depression–era work projects, the reforestation of northern Wisconsin began in earnest during the 1930s. By the 1960s, over two-thirds of northern Wisconsin was forested again.
Reforestation helped the region’s modern economy, which is based on recreation. As early as the 1880s, wealthy midwestern urbanites were coming to northern Wisconsin in search of “wilderness.” Elaborate Rustic resorts soon followed. The typical turn-of-the-twentieth-century resort consisted of a two-story main lodge built of local timber and fieldstone in a distinct Northwoods vernacular style along with, typically, five to ten cabins. Guests would often stay for a month or more. Almost all resorts at this time operated on the American Plan, providing everything from three square meals to cigars and fishing hooks. This changed with the widespread use of the automobile, the development of better roads, and the growth of the middle class. Beginning in the 1920s, housekeeping resorts began to replace their American Plan predecessors. Little in the way of activities or services was offered, and there was no primary social-meeting place, such as an elaborate main lodge. After World War II, private shoreline development for seasonal houses increased dramatically. In some parts of Vilas County, a center of an extensive recreational district, seasonal houses made up more than half of all the residential dwellings by the 1980s. This remains true in the twenty-first century.
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