"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.


Oelhafen, John generally known as the "Father of Tomahawk," whose lumbering and mercantile interests have been for many years among the leading activities of the place, was born in Germany, Jan. 22, 1836, son of Alexander and Elizabeth (BECK) OELHAFEN. He was nine years old when he came with his parents to America, the father buying a quarter section of wild government land in Washington County, in what was then the territory of Wisconsin, and engaging in agricultural operations. The whole territory was then but thinly settled, the upper portion being entirely wild. After a number of years Andrew OELHAFEN sold his farm and moved to Milwaukee, then but a small place, where he subsequently died, his wife Elizabeth having previously passed away on the farm. It makes one pause to reflect on this wife and mother coming from a thickly settled portion of the Old World where every comfort and luxury of the day was obtainable by those of fair means, and where one was surrounded by scores of friends and acquaintances, saying goodbye to them all, knowing that she would probably never see them again, and following her husband to a little known wilderness, to a life of hard work, bearing and rearing children, attending to the many household duties, and perhaps helping her husband in the fields, and at last after many years of exile and patient toil quietly yielding up her life; and to think also of her husband, worn out by the long struggle with nature, and broken by the loss of his beloved partner, giving up the place which they both had started together to develop into a new and permanent home, and seeking the nearest settlement to pass away his few remaining years. But such was the hisory of many a pioneer family of this and other states. The son John, who is the more direct subject of this memoir, grew to manhood on the Washington County farm, on which he learned the valuable lesson of industry, though a book knowledge he had little, having no opportunity to acquire more than the rudiments of an education. In 1863 he married Sophia MILLER, a native of Germany, and while still a young man moved to Milwaukee and established a grocery store, which he conducted until 1871 or 1872. He then moved to Wausau and entered into a similar business there, being very successful and his trade extending over a large territory. That place was then and for many years afterwards a noted headquarters of the lumbering industry, in which many made their fortunes, and it was not long, therefore, before Mr. OELHAFEN became interested in the land and timber business, engaging in it personally and becoming a practical worker, besides knowing it throughout in all its details. Before the advent of railroads he ran great quantities of logs down the Wisconsin River. When Tomahawk was started in 1887, he saw an opportunity to "get in on the ground floor," and coming here started a store which was the first on the site of the village, and continued to be the first, or among the first, in importance for many years, almost indeed, to the present time. He also engaged in the logging and lumber industry here, the members of his family becoming his associates in the concern, which was one of the most active and noted in this section. Besides improving and extending his own business, he was among the leaders in promoting the growth of the city and the interests of the county generally. He had large personal interests in land and timber and also owned a large farm of 800 acres, three miles west of Tomahawk, which he developed into a high condition, erecting a fine set of buildings, stocking it with cattle, hogs and other farm animals, and equipping it with everything necessary to the most modern agricultural processes. He operated from four to six logging camps every winter, owned a delightful summer home, and also had large land holdings in South Dakota. My his fellow citizens, indeed, he was esteemed a millionaire, yet he had started in life with the capital of the average farmer's boy. His fortune came from industrious and frugal habits, a quick eye for opportunities and straightforward dealings with all those with whom he came into contact in a business way. In 1914 he retired from active work and went to Wausau to pass his remaining years, where he lived until his death on Aug. 9, 1923, but he will be remembered as one of the notable pioneers of Tomahawk so long as this city endures. He was a director in the Bradley State Bank and a prominent and helpful member of the German Lutheran Church. His marriage to Sophia MILLER has been already mentioned. To them were born six children: Elizabeth, wife of August ZASTROW of Tomahawk; Andrew, residing in Tomahawk, a prominent representative of the lumber industry; John W., now one of the leading merchants of the city who is elsewhere given separate mention; Mary, wife of George PFUFFER of Wausau; Annie, wife of Ed SEIN of Wausau; and William, who has taken over his father's mercantile business and is continuing it at the original stand, 117 W. Tomahawk Street.

Transcribed by Susan Swanson, from pages 677-678; History of Lincoln, Oneida and Vilas Counties Wisconsin; Compiled by George O. Jones, Norman S. McVean and Others 1924, H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co

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