"History of Lincoln, Oneida, and Vilas Counties Wisconsin"

Compiled by George O.Jones, Norman S. McVean and Others. Printed in 1924 by H.C.Cooper. Jr. & Co., Minneapoli-Winona MN. ill. 787 pages. The first two hundred pages are history of the three counties, the remainder of the book is biographies.


The settlement and development of Oneida County, and, indeed, of northern Wisconsin generally, has been due primarily to the lumber industry. It was the lumberman who cleared away the primeval forest which covered nearly the whole vast territory, and opened up a way for the farmer, and whose need of readily available sources of supplies of provisions, tools and other equipment provided initial opportunities to the merchant and started many a little hamlet on its way to temporary if not permanent prosperity. Some of those little hamlets, favorably situated, have since developed into busy and populous villages or cities.

    The first logging that was done north of the Tomahawk River was in the win-ter of 1857-58 at Rhinelander. In the fall of 1857 Helms & Co. cut out the "tote road" from Grandfather Bull's Falls to Eagle Lake on the Eagle River in what is now Vilas County. The crew that cut out this first road arrived at Eagle Lake on New Year's Day, 1858, and shortly after commenced to cut and bank logs. Helms & Co. were from Stevens Point and they banked that winter about 20,000 logs and drove them to Mosinee, Wis., to be sawed. In the winter of 1859-60 Hurley & Burns began logging on Eagle River, as also did Edwards & Clinton, both parties having mills below Grand Rapids (now Wisconsin Rapids) and driving their logs to their mills.

    When Rhinelander started on its career as a community center, the heaviest growth of white and Norway pine in the state lay tributary to the Wisconsin River just north of here. This belt was 18 miles wide and 40 miles long. All the driving streams about Rhinelander passed through this tract of pine and the rail-roads brought other timber tributary not secured or conveyed by the Wisconsin River. It was estimated that this belt contained nearly 700,000,000 feet of pine and some 300,000,000 feet of hemlock, besides large quantities of other timber. Twelve miles northeast of Rhinelander was a large tract of fine birch, birdseye maple and curly maple, affording excellent inducements for hardwood mills. Also near Rhinelander there were 50,000 acres of spruce (on estimate 1,000,000 cords of this timber) suitable for pulp and paper making, which industries later developed. It was to the pine that the early lumberman gave his attention. In 1882 Abner Conro came to the site of Rhinelander from Oshkosh, bringing a small portable sawmill, and he and J. B. Tolman, operating under the firm name of Tolman, Conro & Co., cut the first lumber in this section. In 1882-83 they erected a large saw and planing-mill here and continued in operation under the same business style until 1889, when Mr. Conro bought out his partner's interests. He subse-quently continued the business with his sons until his death in 1912.

    The Brown Brothers, to whose initiative was due the founding of the village and much of its subsequent development and prosperity, also built a good-sized mill, both mills being ready by the summer of 1883. The capacity of the Brown Bros. sawmill was 75,000 feet of lumber per day of 11 hours, and by September 60 or more men were employed in it. The two mills together cut about 15,000,000 feet of lumber in 1883. Logging was carried on with vim in the vicinity of Rhine-lander during the following season, other firms or individual operators being al-ready in the field. The Menasha Woodenware Company operated two camps to the south, with 24 men in each, in what is now the town of Enterprise and between Noisy Creek and Pelican River. The Michigan Lumber Co. logged on Rocky Run and built a tote road 35 miles out to the northwest. James McIntyre and Dereg & Averill had camps on Noisy Creek. McCord & Wright and John Loper had camps on the Wisconsin River at Big St. Germain Creek 30 miles north, and Frank Smith had one in what is now the town of Newbold. With each season the work gathered additional momentum and during the winter of 1885-86 about 20 camps were procuring supplies at Rhinelander. The total estimated cut was 46,000,000 feet. In the Eagle River district, where similar activities prevailed, the cut was estimated at 58,000,000 feet. In December, 1886, seven firms were logging in the pineries east of Three Lakes, while at Gagen the firm of Washburn & Crane of Rhinelander were employing more than 100 men. It was in that year also that F. S. Robbins began his exten-sive operations here in association with S. H. Baird under the firm name of Baird & Robbins. They built a mill in Rhinelander on the site of the present C. C. Col-lins Lumber Co.'s plant. A review of logging operations for the season of 1886-87, printed in the New North newspaper in February, 1887, estimated the amount of timber cut on the Wisconsin River above Rhinelander at 107,700,000 feet, the work being divided as follows: In Eagle waters, 35,000,000 feet divided among twin firms or companies; on the main Wisconsin and tributaries, 72,700,000 feet divided among 25 firms. There were also two camps on the Pelican River, both supplied from Rhinelander, which cut about 6,000,000 feet of logs.

    In August, 1887, the Baird & Robbins mill at Rhinelander, with a capacity of 40,000,000 feet, had just been completed. It had a circular saw and band saw, and the firm had a contract to cut 80,000,000 feet of logs for J. P. Underwood of Big Rapids, Mich. This made the third sawmill in Rhinelander and the mill cut was increased that year to 25,000,000 feet. In 1888 the Olson & Frye mill was built and the cut for that year was 45,000,000 feet. This mill subsequently be-came the property of George Clayton. The work of mill construction now pro-ceeded rapidly. In 1888-89 the D. B. Stevens & Sons and the Rhinelander Lum-ber & Shingle Co.'s mills were both erected and the mill cut for the year was in-creased to 50,000,000 feet. The latter mill, which subsequently came into posses-sion of Chafee & Co. (Charles Chafee, G.S. Coon and John Barnes) was burned about August 1, 1893, and was not rebuilt, though there was an insurance of $15,000 on it. The Stevens mill was established by D. B. Stevens and his two sons, Willard T. and Charles, the former of whom, Willard, became president of the company. It was located on the Wisconsin River and had a capacity of 50,000 feet of lumber, 35,000 shingles and 30,000 lath every ten hours, the whole plant covering about 15 acres. Willard T. Stevens subsequently bought his father and brother out and for many years operated the business himself, about 1912 beginning to saw for the Mason-Donaldson Company. The mill burned May 2, 1917. It was rebuilt but burned again in 1922, which second disaster put an end to its operations, as Mr. Stevens has not since been active in the lumber business.

    In 1889-90 the "Soo" and the Buttrick mills were built and the cut amounted to 70,000,000 feet. In 1890-91 the cut was 85,000,000 feet and in 1891-92 it was 110,000,000 feet. There were also produced by the sawmills of Rhinelander in the year last mentioned about 55,000,000 shingles and 600,000,000 lath. In De-cember, 1892, there were from 60,000,000 to 70,000,000 feet of lumber piled in the yards of Rhinelander, and 30 cars of lumber were shipped from here each day. The "Soo" Planing-Mill Co., above mentioned, was organized in June, 1892 and made a specialty of custom planing. It had a capacity of 75,000 feet of dressed lumber per day.

    The Buttrick mill, built by D. E. Buttrick in 1889, was operated by him until May, 1892, when it changed hands, coming into possession of Brown Bros., and being purchased from them by the Oneida Lumber Company. The latter com-pany, which had been organized in April, that year, at once began operations, employing about 140 men. Its saw and planing-mill were located on the west bank of the Wisconsin River. In 1889 the plant passed into the hands of H. J. Falls & Co., and in 1897 the mill was burned. Other firms or companies which sprang into existence at about this time, or perhaps before, were the Eagle River Lumber Co., Olson & Meiklejohn of Rhinelander, and the Garth Lumber Co. Gilkey & Anson were logging in the latter 80's near Cassian; Cohn & Curran and the Stewart Lumber Co., the members of the latter company being Alex Stewart and Walter Alexander, were among the early operators around Rhinelander, saw-ing their logs at Wausau, to which place they drove them down the ,river; some, however, were driven to Grand Rapids (now Wisconsin Rapids),

    In 1892 the Brown Bros. plant covered 30 acres of land and was covered by the firm's numerous buildings and lumber yards. The firm was known as Brown Bros. until Jan. 1, 1890, when it was incorporated as the Brown Bros. Lumber Co., with a paid up cash capital of $100,000. The company is still in existence but is not now manufacturing lumber. They own a planing mill in Rhine-lander and are jobbing in white pine lumber. They have timber lands in Washington, Oregon and California. The Conro plant on the neck of Boom Lake and the Wisconsin River also covered 30 acres. The mill's cut per day was 65,000 feet of lumber, 50,000 shingles and 25,000 lath. These mills, and later others, were accustomed to work night and day during the cutting season. The year 1892 was a busy one for the lumbermen. It was in July that year that the James S. Kirk Co., of Muskegon, Mich., decided to build a large box factory in Rhinelander, which plan was soon put into execution, and this factory afforded an outlet for some of the lumber of inferior grade. A similar factory was established by the Yawkey-Bissell Lumber Co. at Hazelhurst. The Keller Lumber Co. had also started work in Rhinelander and in the following year, at least, were employ-ing George Clayton, then proprietor of the old "Soo" mill, to cut for them. This city was the main trading center and outfitting place for lumbermen's supplies.

    The Rib River Lumber Co. had a mill across the river from Rhinelander, but in the same year sold it to H. J. Fall & Co. of Stillwater, Minn., who ran it, cutting for the Rib River Company on contract. The planing-mill equipment was very complete. The company owned large blocks of standing pine and also bought scattering pieces as they came on the market as well as logs which came down the river. Wixson & Bronson, employees of Brown & Robbins, bought and operated the Brown & Robbins planing-mill. The Day Bros.' Lumber Co., a Rhinelander concern which operated in this vicinity for years, and whose mill had burned, quit business here in 1894. They had been very active, doing most of their logging on the "Soo" railway east of the city. Two other concerns which were quite active for a number of years were the Underwood Lumber Co., which began operations in the latter 80's and the J. H. Queal Lumber Co., The latter was bought by W. D. Brown, Jr., and since 1910 has been conducted as the Rhinelander Builders' Supply Co. The S. H. Bowman Lumber Co. (now having headquarters in Minne-apolis) and the Green Bay Lumber Co. worked jointly at or near Rhinelander, owning a mill together. The Rhinelander companies at one time, when at the height of their activity, felled 700,000,000 feet of log timber per year. The Pelican Boom Co., which came to Rhinelander about 1885-1887, handled and sorted the logs, some being sawn here and some going down the river. George E. Wood, one of the early lumbermen of Oneida County, logged at Woodboro, which place was named for him. After logging of the timber there he left this part of the country. Other individual operators were exploiting small tracts in various parts of the county. The inflammable nature of the material, both raw and manufactured, resulted at times in considerable losses from fire, and besides the forest fires in dry seasons, many of the original mills burned down sooner or later, but were quickly replaced if the owners still had plenty of work ahead. Several such fires occurred at Rhine-lander. One in April, 1902, destroyed about $10,000 worth of lumber, the loss being divided among several firms; it started in the Stevens Lumber Co.'s yard. Another, on July 19, 1904, started in the planing-mill of the Johnson-Hinman Lumber Co., far out on the north side, and besides destroying that building, burned a part of the J. H. Queal lumber yard and 19 dwellings. A still greater fire occurred on Oct. 4, 1905, when the Brown & Robbins lumber yard was burned, together with one or two churches and 44 dwellings. The firm of Brown & Rob-bins had succeeded that of Baird & Robbins, Mr. Baird having retired and W. H. Brown come in as partner. The business was incorporated under the new name Dec. 3, 1894, and continued under that name until Feb. 1, 1901, when the concern became the Robbins Lumber Company, with F. S. Robbins as president and treasurer; R. D. Caldwell became vice president and Hattie McIndoe secretary. While operating under the name of Brown & Robbins a mill was built at Robbins, on Sugar Camp Lake and operated for five years. By 1898 this concern had five miles of narrow-gauge railroad pushed into their timber holdings and it was then incorporated under the name of Brown & Robbins Railroad Co. Later it became the Robbins Railroad Co., and the road was extended until it amounted to 45 miles of track.

    A report of conditions in the lumber trade, published Dec. 11, 1902, in a local journal, showed that the Brown Bros. had cut something over 35,000,000 feet that season and that their mill had been in operation since January. They had camps in the vicinity of Star Lake and State Line and were also engaged in buying Cali-fornia timber lands. The Wixson-Bronson Lumber Co. had sold their Rhinelander business, including their stock and planing-mill, and purchased an interest in the Daly Lumber Co. at Big Lake, Wash. They had operated for some years in Wis-consin. Rice and Thrall had sold their sawmill at Rhinelander to the Tremont Lumber Co. at Tremont, La., the mill to be taken down and shipped. It will thus be seen that the great timber resources of the Pacific slope and the South were already attracting northern operators. The Robbins Lumber Co. were then in operation day and night the year round. They operated two sawmills, two plan-ing-mills and in time a flooring factory, and in one year logged, sawed and put in 30,000,000 feet of lumber. The company did all the work, no jobbers or teams being hired. At different times two of the Robbins mills burned down but were replaced by new ones. In February, 1903, Charles A. Conro and C. H. Donaldson, both young men, organized a lumber company in Rhinelander. It was dissolved within a year, however, Mr. Donaldson instead entering into business with George W. Mason and forming the Mason-Donaldson Company, a wholesale concern now doing business. At this time the construction of the Rhinelander paper mill was being rushed a great enterprise depending upon the forest for its supply of raw material, and which has since developed into one of the largest and most important concerns in town.

    The lumber industry saw its halcyon days in Rhinelander in the early nineties, when eight large mills were in operation, for the most part running day and night; but even then there were those who saw that such activity could not last forever, as the timber must in time become exhausted. It was but a few years later, in fact, when the ebb tide set in, and a writer reviewing the situation for a Chicago publication, said: "For the work of 1898 but four mills give signs of preparation of the eight mills which at one time were the pride and stay of Rhinelander." Six years later, in 1904, it was estimated that Wisconsin's white pine would be ex-hausted in four years at the rate of sawing then being maintained-some 2,000,000,-000 feet annually. But when the supply of pine was pretty well depleted, the lumber firms turned their attention to hardwood, of which there was still quite a quantity, so the diminution in the volume of work has been gradual, and even now some logging is going on in Oneida and adjacent counties, of pine as well as other timber, with active mills at Rhinelander, Gagen, Tripoli, Winchester and Winegar. The present-day activities, however, are but feebly reminiscent of those of the feverish 90's.

    One by one the great lumber kings of the past, in this section at least, have glided from the stage, or are playing other parts. The Brown Bros. sold their mill in 1916, having stopped logging the previous winter. Anderson W. Brown passed away in the spring of the present year, 1923, but Webster E. and Edward O. Brown are still leading figures in the business life of Rhinelander along financial and manufacturing lines. F. S. Robbins is now retired. In 1915 the Robbins Lumber Company sold their plant to C. C. Collins but continued to cut until 1919, operating near Three Lakes. In 1917 they built a new mill, but in 1919 they sold it with their timber tracts and railroad to the Thunder Lake Lumber Company. The latter are now actively operating, their timber tracts being located in Forest County, east of Three Lakes station on the Chicago & Northwestern Railway, where they have several camps, with work enough to last for ten years. They have 45 miles of narrow-gauge railroad, also a store at Virgin Lake, near Three Lakes, with 150 men in the yards at Rhinelander. The officers of the Thunder Lake Lumber Company are (1923): J. D. Mylrea, president and general manager; J. 0, Moen, vice president; S. D. Sutcliffe, secretary and manager; and R. J. Mueller, assistant secretary and sales manager.

   The Robbins Flooring Co. was incorporated Oct. 8, 1919, and is an outgrowth of the Robbins Lumber Co., the latter being no longer active except in the opera-tion of two large farms at Robbins in the town of Sugar Camp. The company are manufacturers and wholesalers of hardwood flooring, buying their lumber from the C. C. Collins Lumber Co., who are still logging, and whose plant is contiguous to their own in the north end of town; also from the Thunder Lake Lumber Co. and the Mason-Donaldson Co., the last mentioned company doing their cutting in the Crosby mill at Gagen. The product of the Robbins Flooring Co., is sold practically all over the country, chiefly in such markets as Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburg, several eastern cities, and, to some extent, the Pacific slope. The men at the head of this company are Albert H. Abendroth, Paul W. Abendroth, James M. Caldwell and Frank S. Robbins.
   There are now about 15 lumber companies in Rhinelander, but the Thunder Lake and Collins companies are practically the only ones still actively engaged in logging, the others being wholesalers.

Transcribed Sept 2004

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