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A Brief History of Lac du Flambeau by Ben Guthrie

The following article on the history of Lac du Flambeau was written by Ben Guthrie for the bicentennial editions of "The Lakeland Times" and "The Vilas County News Review". It is published in "The Messenger" posthumously, as edited by Gregg Guthrie.

colageThis area's habitation apparently began at least 9,000 years ago, as Indian hunting parties followed the withdrawals of the Valders glacier. Six major cultural changes followed before recorded contact by early explorers, fur-traders and missionaries. Then occupied by Dakota Nativess, Lac du Flambeau was contested by the Dakota and the Chippewa, migrating westward, for about 150 years, because of its vital wild-rice fields and its position at the crossroads of the Montreal River-Wisconsin River route and the Big Bear River-Flambeau River-Chippewa River route to the Mississippi.

Keeshekemin (Sharpened Stone) moved his band here about 1745 and Lac du Flambeau has remained a permanent Chippewa settlement ever since. The North West (Fur Trade) Co. established its headquarters post "for the waters of Wisconsin" on Flambeau Lake in 1792, followed shortly by a post of the XY Co. The companies merged in 1804. Following the war of 1812, Astor's American Fur Co. maintained the post here until furs petered out of this region about 1835.

The Natives returned to their annual migration cycle from early spring sugar camps to planting grounds-to hunting along the shores of Lake Superior-to fishing areas (often at Madeline Island). Early fall found them in the wild-rice fields, then moving to harvest their plantations, gather nuts and berries, and as the leaves began to fall, canoeing down the rivers to hunt on the prairies, finally gathering together just before freeze-up for winter camp.

In 1885, when the government decided to log the reservation, which had been set apart in the Treaty of 1854, many bands returned to this area to receive their allotments of land and to work for the loggers. Meanwhile, Rev. Hall, a Presbyterian missionary, had visited the village in 1832, Bishop Baraga in 1842, government agents occasionally, and a blacksmith at intervals.

Four logging outfits, staked by Weyerhaeuser's "pool" suddenly appeared. "Cap" Henry being the first to start cutting in November, 1885. Almost 10 million board feet were cut in the winter, 30 million the next, the logs being driven down river to the mills at Chippewa Falls. Incensed by flagrant violation of federal regulation, logging was stop-ordered until a single contract was awarded to "Cushway, Herrick and Sterns" in 1893. In the meanwhile, the first Indian agent ("farmer") to be stationed here had arrived in 1888, and in 1889 the "Milwaukee, Lake Shore and Western Railroad" was extended across the reservation.

With both a 3-saw mill operating night and day from 1894 to 1912, and a planning mill finishing 12 to 15 car loads of lumber daily, this mill became the largest operation in the area, with the largest lumber yard in the state of Wisconsin. The mill company developed its own general store, boarding houses, residences, pool-hall, barns and jail and held almost autocratic power in the new town except for the missions and government school.

The first church (Catholic) built at the "old village" in 1894, was soon abandoned for another built near the mill the following year, Rev. Odoric Derentha, O.F.M., being the first resident missionary in 1897. A Presbyterian church followed in 1898.

A boarding school opened in 1895 with a capacity of 200, it's curriculum equally divided between "industrial" and "literary". Few children enjoyed the strictly regimented "life-style" enforced. Its boarding program ended in 1932. The present school followed shortly, becoming a public school about 1950.

The Lac du Flambeau area was in the Lincoln County until 1893, when Vilas County was created. Flambeau township, was established June 5, 1900, extended to the Michigan line. Following divisions to the town of Presque Isle in 1907 and the Town of Manitowish Waters in 1928, Flambeau township assumed its present boundaries.
The first town election and meeting was held April 2, 1901 at the lumber company's boarding house, all elected officials being company employees. The first tax roll totaled $265,668, but following a protest by Strange Lumber Co., forcing a re-assessment, it became $600,322. In 1903, practically the entire difference being in Flambeau Lumber Co. valuation, but Mr. Herrick quickly gained control, cutting his taxes in half the next year. The first town tax levy was $3,200, for "roads, bridges, schools and poor funds", but a $241.39 deficit resulted. The next year a smallpox epidemic swept the area, materially increasing taxes for a "pest house and board and nursing services."

In 1896, shortly after the mills opened, Mr. Herrick asked Ben Gauthier Sr. to build a boarding house for his lumber buyers and mill supply salesman. Starting with a four-room house, then the largest in town, Mr. Gauthier built additions each of the next 16 years. This was the fore-runner of today's tourist business in Lac du Flambeau. Salesmen and buyers spread the work about the fine fishing in this recently opened area and in 1913 Mr. Gauthier built a new, then very modern, resort. George Goller built a few cottages on Sand Lake in 1910. "Ojibwe Lodge", a private club, was built on Fence Lake in 1914. Several resorts and summer homes followed in 1924 marking the real beginning of Lac du Flambeau as a popular tourist center. By 1945 there were over 100 resorts and 1000 summer homes around Lac du Flambeau lakes.

Today, Lac du Flambeau has the largest population as well as the largest equalized valuation in Vilas County. Unique in having it's governmental authority divided between the Tribal Council and the Town Board, Lac du Flambeau is growing steadily while changing character. Government programs help to provide modern housing, community facilities and employment. Resorts are continually vanishing as refugees from the cities and retirees increasingly discover the Lac du Flambeau areas year round attractiveness.