Stories on the Barrens

Humans on the barrens: "Too dang cold" for the Hillocks

posted Nov 18, 2018, 10:35 AM by david.g.peters   [ updated ]

Originally posted Aug. 9, 2018 by Dave Peters.

(Once the homestead of Benjamin Hillock at the corner of Dry Landing Road and St. Croix Trail.) 

Humphrey Hillock may never have seen the Namekagon Barrens.

Born 1836 in Michigan, he moved as a young man to Webster City, Iowa, just in time to join a militia formed in 1857 after the “Spirit Lake Massacre,” an Indian attack on frontier settlements during a severe winter. Over the years he was quite successful in Iowa, serving as a county commissioner and a sheriff, running a meat market and operating a farm in nearby Rose Grove.

Then at 65, in 1901 and 1902, he agreed to pay the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway more than $4,000 for about 1,600 acres in four sections, most of it in the heart of what are now the sands of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area. The area was some 300 miles north of his home, and the purchases were probably the largest land acquisition ever made in the area by a person. The railroad, known as the “Omaha Road” and later bought by the Chicago & Northwestern, had been given more than 100,000 acres of Wisconsin north woods and barrens in 1882 as a federal incentive for building a railroad from the St. Croix River to Superior and to Bayfield.

It’s not clear why Hillock bought the land and there seems little evidence that he did anything with it before he died in Iowa in 1911. (His death was front-page news in the Webster City Freeman, which called him “one of the pioneer settlers of Hamilton County,” “a good man and an exemplary citizen.”) But the opening years of the 1900s was the time the railroad and others were promoting the barrens as farmland. Settlers were beginning to homestead and buy land in the area. What the railroad didn’t own, the government was offering to farmers for sale or for homesteading. It’s possible Hillock rented his land out but census records indicate virtually everyone counted by the census enumerator in Blaine Township in 1910 was a land owner. If he bought the land as an investment, no records show he re-sold to make a profit. Apparently, he donated three acres for the community’s Evergreen Cemetery just south of Five Mile Road in east Blaine Township.

At any rate, in 1912, his widow, Jennie, deeded the land over to their daughter, Grace Hillock.

Grace and Humphrey Hillock

Grace, too, seems not to have taken an active role with the land. She lived in Webster City, a teacher and a bookkeeper and a frequent subject in the social columns of the Webster City Freeman newspaper. At one point she left town to start a poultry business with her mother but soon returned. The newspaper noted various social gatherings she attended or hosted and travels she made, including a visit to her brother in Minong, Wis. (More on him shortly but the one brief mention is the only indication that Grace ever visited her land. Then in 1917, she and her mother moved to Seattle, where another, much younger, brother Hugh Royden Hillock lived.

A grandson of his told me Grace lived with her brother toward the end of her life and worked with him in a Seattle deli. She died in Seattle in 1941 at age 68, without marrying or having children.  Her great nephew told me had never heard of the Wisconsin land. In the meantime, that barrens land had gone back to the county for delinquent taxes in 1929. It thus shared the fate of much of barrens land at the time and ultimately became a sizable fraction of what is now the state-owned wildlife area, home to sharp-tailed grouse, deer, bluebirds and blueberries.

But that’s only half of the Hillock story on the barrens.

Humphrey Hillock had another son, Benjamin, older than Hugh and younger than his sister Grace. And he actually did try farming the barrens. Like his father, Benjamin bought land from the railroad and he also homesteaded 160 acres. His land lay on either side of what is now Dry Landing Road at its intersection with St. Croix Trail.

On Dec. 20, 1904, Benjamin Hillock married Ruby Sarah Gage, who had apparently arrived in the neighborhood with her parents, Joseph and Sarah Gage, from Walworth, Wis., near Milwaukee. She, too, bought land nearby.

They started a family. It was in 1915 that the Webster City newspaper mentioned sister Grace coming for a visit. But like so many of their neighbors, the Hillocks didn’t stay. By 1917, less than 15 years after arriving, they were in Missouri, having sold their land to a man named James Peter, also a Missourian.

I tracked down Virgil Hillock, a grandson of Benjamin and Ruby, who was familiar with the family tale, partly because Benjamin had lived with Virgil’s family before he died in 1953. Virgil, now 77 and living in Broken Arrow, Okla., said Benjamin had indeed gone north from Iowa as a young man to farm but then left because “he said it was too dang cold.”

The family lived in Missouri for a while, and then Benjamin obtained land in Arkansas and built a house. He went back to Missouri to retrieve his family and drive 30 head of cattle to Arkansas over six months only to find unwelcoming neighbors had burned his house down, Virgil said.

Virgil’s father was Charles Otto Hillock, born on the barrens. “He was a tough man,” Virgil said. I asked him how he got that way and he said, “If you drove 30 head of cattle for six months as a 12-year-old, you’d be tough, too.”

Virgil’s grandmother Ruby died of pneumonia before he was born, but he said she was an accomplished teacher who could speak four languages – French, German, Spanish and English.

By 1930, the family was established farther south and west near Clovis, New Mexico. A great grandson is the mayor of Little Elm, Texas.

Today, Benjamin and Ruby Hillock’s barrens land is divided. Some lies on Burnett County land and is forested, but the 160 acres Benjamin homesteaded is open country, filled this time of year with bergamot and other flowers, scrub oak and grass, part of the state wildlife area.

There is little, if any, evidence that anyone ever lived there, but in the southeast corner you can find the foundation of the tiny Forest Home school that perhaps a couple of their sons attended before the Hillocks moved south.

Just across St. Croix Trail lies part of what Grace Hillock owned for a time but never used. Both Hillock parcels are burned occasionally by the state to maintain the land’s barrens characteristics.


History walk: Better than a crumbling foundation

posted Nov 18, 2018, 10:27 AM by david.g.peters   [ updated Nov 18, 2018, 2:50 PM ]

Originally posted Aug. 4, 2018 by Dave Peters.

Four of us took a history walk on the barrens today, and evidence of the past was a little different than expected. Mark Nupen, Vern Drake and Maggie from Staples Lake joined me in looking around the early 20th Century homesteads of William and Mary Clemens and Samuel and LuAnn Turner on Dry Landing Road.

The walk got a little soggy because the morning rain soaked the woods and barrens. Mark's rain pants were a good idea.

We started at the site of the Clemens farm west of Dry Landing. They arrived on the barrens around 1905 and left in 1923. They and their two sons are buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Cumberland, Wis. We knew there were a couple old silo foundations but were hoping to find a house foundation.

No such luck, but we did find what apparently was the old well, a sturdily built stone shaft about 4 by 4 and maybe 10 feet deep. We discussed jumping down in but visions of Hardy boys adventures went through my mind and we decided against.

If actual building remains were sparse, we did find botanical evidence. Sharp-eyed Maggie spotted stalks of delicate asparagus scattered around the clearing and there were plum trees near where the home would have been, green fruit the size of big marbles ripening. Both seem likely to have been planted by someone living there, surviving and healthy 100 years later.

Then we drove down Dry Landing less than a mile to the Turner farm. The Turners arrived in the 19-teens, I think, and stayed into the 1930s. Friends board member Gary Dunsmoor told us that years back a badger had dug up a 1930s newspaper here, apparently used as insulation. We found no newspapers, but we did find a couple depressions that likely were from buildings. They were about 50 yards apart, one containing a little old broken crockery. In between the depressions was a huge orchard of plum trees, all bearing green fruit.

Again, we were strongly tempted to assume we were standing where the Turners had harvested. "I can smell the plum pie Mrs. Turner was making," Maggie said.

Better than a hunk of concrete.

Humans on the barrens: The wandering Arvid Lyons

posted Nov 18, 2018, 10:18 AM by david.g.peters

Originally posted July 13, 2018 by Dave Peters

We know for certain where Arvid Lyons lived out the end of his eventful life. And we know where he lies at rest in the Namekagon Barrens of northwestern Wisconsin.

 How and why he got there is a little more of a mystery.

 An immigrant from Sweden in his 60s, Lyons arrived with a big family on the sandy barrens of northern Burnett County in the opening years of the 20th Century. He and his wife homesteaded on nearly 160 acres just west of Richart Lake, land that today lies next to St. Croix Trail in east Blaine Township and is the site of the cabin and picnic shelter used by the Friends of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.

 Within 10 years, he had died, his wife had died and his many children had scattered.

 A mile away, a rusting metal marker bearing his name is one of only two or three markers still legible in tiny Evergreen Cemetery.

 But this was only the last tale of his life.   Who was Arvid Lyons?

 He was born Arvid Jansson in September 1841 in the farming area of Kopparberg in central Sweden. At 26, according to church records, he moved to the town of Kumla not far away. Then on April 6, 1869, at 28, he left, heading for North America.

 Where and how he spent the next two decades, presumably in the United States, is unknown, at least far as I’ve been able to tell. Did he travel? What did he do for a living? Who did he meet? Did he have a family? And finally, why did he go back to Sweden?

 In 1890, nearly 50 years old, he returned to his homeland, according to church records in Norrbarke, Kopparberg. A main order of business, it seems, was to produce the large family that would eventually accompany him back across the Atlantic to America.

 He married 31-year-old Erika Augusta Andersdotter on Oct. 24, 1891. By then they already had a daughter, Anna Axelina Jansson, born Feb. 18, 1891. A church record confirms that Anna was born out of wedlock but also notes that the parents willingly claimed her as belonging to them.

 Then, almost as fast as is humanly possible, they produced nine more children.

 Carl Oskar Jansson was born March 28, 1892.

Axel Teodor Jansson was born Sept. 29, 1893.

Carl Edwin Jansson was born Dec. 28, 1894.

Anna Linnea Jansson was born April 14, 1896.

Einar Jansson was born Nov. 16, 1897.

Agnes Elizabeth Jansson was born Dec. 17, 1898.

Ernst Albert Jansson was born Feb. 20, 1900.

Twins Knut Emil Jansson and Ruth Emilia Jansson, were born June 17, 1901.

 In a little more than 10 years, Erika Augusta Jansson had borne 10 children. She was 40; her husband was almost 60.

 What did they do next? They moved to America. Various church, ship and census records introduce a few clues and another mystery or two.

 In August 1903, the couple and their 10 kids boarded the Volo in Gothenburg, Sweden, and then the SS Cymric in Liverpool, England. They landed in New York on Aug. 24, 1903. Both ships’ manifests and a church departure record list all the family members and indicate their planned ultimate destination was Portales, New Mexico.

 The Cymric manifest shows that passengers were asked whether they had been to America previously and if so when and where. The entry for Arvid: “Yes 1890 Seattle, Wash.”

 It’s the only clue as to the whereabouts of his first stay in the United States. The manifest notes that Erika Augusta, and of course the children, had not been to America.

 Why Portales, New Mexico?

 It’s hard to know. But the ship’s manifest for the Cymric also shows that when asked if they were going to the United States to join a relative or friend, Arvid said, “Friend Mr. Lendsey, Portales, New Mexico.”

 As it happens, Portales at the time was a nascent farm community near Clovis in eastern New Mexico territory, not far from Texas. A 1908 article in the Albuquerque Journal bragged about the prospects for the new but fast-growing little town and mentioned the desire for newcomers to come to the surrounding agricultural valley.

 The federal land commissioner in Portales was a lawyer named Washington Ellsworth Lindsey, who had grown up in the Midwest and was soon to become Portales’ first mayor and, later, third governor of the state of New Mexico.

 The temptation is strong to conclude that Washington Lindsey was Arvid Jansson’s “friend Mr. Lendsey.”

 With hindsight, I find myself wishing he had gotten there and connected with a powerful and politically connected official.  Might life have turned out  differently for the family? But no record suggests Arvid and Erika Augusta ever made it to New Mexico. Perhaps they were on their way when they saw enticements published by promoters in Burnett County to come north.

 At any rate, they instead ended up 1,000 miles away in the Town of Blaine in Burnett County, according to the 1905 Wisconsin census. They now went by the last name “Lyon,” but it was clearly the same family because all the children were named and the ages in the census matched all the birth dates in Swedish records. There was also now an 11th child, Leslie. The census lists her age as 4 months in 1905 and also says she was born in Sweden, apparently a mistake by the census enumerator. Federal land records confirm that “Arvid Lyon” was homesteading in Section 24 in the Town of Blaine.

 (A Swedish genealogy expert speculated to me that “Lyon” could have been a version of a Swedish “soldier name.” Apparently the Swedish army gave soldiers new names to differentiate among all the Janssons and other similarly named men. “Leijon” was a common soldier name, meaning “lion.” Subsequent land records,  Arvid’s grave marker and his children all used the name “Lyons.” But even if Arvid had been a Swedish soldier in his teens or 20s, the question remains tantalizing: Why change the name on arrival in the United States years later? Had he even changed it earlier during his first U.S. stay and then changed it back on his return to Sweden?)

 In any case, his robust life then took a turn.

 His wife, Erika Augusta, died, apparently in 1905 at age 45. Records are scant and ambiguous, but she may be the “Lyon” mentioned in an addendum to information about the Evergreen Cemetery a mile southwest of the homestead.

 Then in 1906 one of the twins, Ruth Emelia, died. Even more puzzling is that the cemetery records list the cause of death as “burned in a bonfire.”

 By 1910, when the federal census enumerator came to the homestead (then described as being on Minong Road), only two people remained. Arvid was listed as the widowed head of household, and Anna, the oldest daughter, lived with him. (This census confirms that Arvid first immigrated to America in 1869.)

 In that census, the three oldest boys, Oskar, Axel and Edwin, who would have been in their late teens, were absent. But five younger children were living with families nearby and described as “foundlings,” clearly adopted or farmed out to neighbors. The youngest, baby Leslie, vanished from the records and it’s possible she, too, lies in Evergreen Cemetery.

 We don’t know how Arvid Lyons had tried to farm, whether he raised hay and animals like some neighbors. But on May 11, 1914, Arvid sold his land to his daughter, Anna, according to Burnett County land records. Then two weeks later, he died of stomach cancer and became the last person buried in Evergreen Cemetery. You can see his metal grave marker by walking a couple hundred feet south from the cemetery flag and monument on Five Mile Road.

 By the summer of 1916, Burnett County had taken the land for delinquent taxes. It was bought and sold after that several times but ultimately went for taxes again and was declared county forest land, which it remains today, adjacent to the state-owned Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.

 Meanwhile, apparently the same year as her father’s death, Anna married a man named Robert Sadenwasser and wound up living in West Allis, Wis., near Milwaukee, for many years. She died at age 99 on July 4, 1990, apparently without any children.

 Other descendants wound up around the upper Midwest and beyond – Axel raised a family in Waterville, Minn., and died in 1984; Ernst, one of the “foundlings,” wound up in Stevens Point, Wis., and died in 1993.  Knut (who went by Emil) moved to Dubuque, Iowa, and died in 1977. A grandson, also named Arvid, moved to Chula Vista, Cal., and died in 2011.

 One granddaughter, still living in a nursing facility in Dubuque, told me her father Emil, the surviving twin, never talked about his parents or any siblings. She knew her father had been born in Sweden, but she had no knowledge of the barrens of Wisconsin or of the name Arvid. She did say the name Augusta, her grandmother, sounded familiar.

 Two great grandchildren I found likewise said they had no knowledge of Arvid and Erika Augusta. They said their grandfathers never talked of the time growing up on the barrens.

 Perhaps that lack of memories being passed down is a comment on life on the barrens, perhaps not.

 One final quirk: About 10 years after Arvid Lyons died, barrens neighbors Benjamin and Ruby Hillock pulled up stakes in Blaine Township and headed south. The family bounced around a little but by 1930 had arrived in a new place to farm and raise their children – St. Vrain, New Mexico, about 25 miles north of Portales.

 Did Arvid paint a portrait for his Wisconsin neighbors of the land of milk and honey in the Southwest? The land he aimed for but missed?

 Like other questions about the wandering Swedish immigrant, we likely won’t get an answer, but it’s hard to avoid conjuring up the possibilities.  There’s more to be said, by the way, about the Hillocks of the barrens in some future blog post.

 Thanks for help from Vern Drake regarding Evergreen Cemetery records and the Swedish genealogy folks at the Minnesota Genealogical Society.



Humans on the barrens: Clemens family, Clemens Creek

posted Nov 18, 2018, 10:07 AM by david.g.peters

Originally posted on July 3, 2018 by Dave Peters.

At least three of us – Brian Finstad, Vern Drake and I – have poked around separately in recent weeks on what seems to be the homestead of William and Mary Clemens just west of Dry Landing Road in the barrens.

The couple came from Iowa in the early 1900s, farmed briefly, raised a family and then left after less than 20 years, among the dozens who settled in the barrens but only temporarily.

If you follow a two-track path through dense mixed forest about three-tenths of a mile west from Dry Landing, you come to a grass clearing a couple hundred feet across amid jack pines and pin oaks. The clearing is just south of what has come to be known as Clemens Creek, a short drainage flowing out of the Namekagon Barrens and into the St. Croix River.

The main features in the clearing are two round, poured-concrete foundations about 10 feet across, presumably the bases of silos for hay at one time but now filled with trees. Other remnants of civilization are a rusty bed or hideabed, a concrete slab embedded with bolts, even an old aluminum TV antenna. So it’s hard to know what might have belonged to the Clemens family and what came later.

There isn’t an obvious house foundation that any of us found, but perhaps further exploration would reveal something. This land was homesteaded just after 1900, among the many parcels from which settlers at the time were trying to eke out a living.

William Clemens was born around 1870 in Geneva, Iowa, to parents who had come from Pennsylvania. Geneva is close to Webster City in Hamilton County, which is where other barrens homesteaders and settlers also hailed from.

In about 1902, he married 16-year-old Mary, whose parents were Bohemian and who had come from Nebraska.

The couple apparently arrived on the barrens around 1905. They do not show up in the 1905 Wisconsin census but a listing in the 1915 Burnett County plat book indicated they had come to the county in 1905 and raised hogs, cattle and chickens. They registered their 160-acre homestead with the federal land office in 1913.

They had three children – Alfred, James R. and Edith (spellings vary in different records) – and were counted in the 1910 and 1920 federal censuses. The 1915 plat book lists their postal address as Fivemile. That was a general store and post office about four miles to the southeast in Washburn County. In 1920, they had a boarder, a school teacher named Anna McGrew.

And at some point, the creek running past their land came to be named for them, although there has been confusion over the decades with the name Rand Creek, named for a family of neighboring settlers. Some records show Rand Creek as a tributary to Clemens Creek from the north but many people refer to that as Clemens Creek.

William and Mary Clemens sold their farm in 1923 to a couple named Joseph and Mary Brown, who in turn sold it again in a couple parcels in 1925 and 1926. By then, the barrens’ poor farming prospects were apparent and nearby parcels were going to the county for failure by owners to pay taxes.

When the Clemens family left the barrens, they wound up in Cumberland, Wis., about 60 miles south, where son Alfred apparently died in 1923. They later moved to Hennepin County in Minnesota, where William farmed, Mary (also spelled Marie) worked as a mender in a laundry and son James was a filling station attendant. Living with them was a 7-year-old grandson, Robert Gross.

Perhaps the family moved back to Cumberland; when they died – William in 1947, James in 1953 and Mary in 1961 – all were buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Cumberland, joining Alfred. The record for daughter Edith is scant, but perhaps her hand can be seen on Mary’s 1961 tombstone, inscribed simply “Mother.”

Today, the Clemens homestead lies on Burnett County forest land, adjacent to the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area. So what was once a farm now is close to open scrub oak areas that are regularly subject to controlled fires, but the homestead itself remains a mixed forest. William and Mary Clemens didn’t stay long on the barrens, but their name comes up frequently because of the good birdwatching along their namesake creek.

Humans on the barrens: Jim Anderson

posted Nov 18, 2018, 9:53 AM by david.g.peters   [ updated ]

(Originally posted June 27 by Dave Peters.)

Vern Drake and Dave Peters visited Jim Anderson on June 5, 2018 and he shared with us several documents, photos and his memory of his grandparents and other people who lived in the area around Little Sand Lake in the west part of the Town of Minong and in the east part of the Town of Blaine. This is a summary of that visit written by Dave Peters.

 If the people who eked out a living in the barrens in the early 20th Century live on through anyone, it would be Jim Anderson, who lives on Little Sand Lake in Washburn County, just east of the Namekagon Barrens. Vern Drake and I spent a couple hours with Jim one afternoon a few days before his 83rd birthday in early June 2018.

Jim’s paternal grandparents were Nels and Louisa Anderson, immigrant Norwegians who met on the boat coming to America, married in Minneapolis and had their first child December 22, 1893. They named her Ethel Marie Mjoen, using their surname before they changed it to Anderson. In the early 1900s, they moved to northwest Wisconsin and  homesteaded 152 acres in Section 4 of Minong Township just east of Little Sand Lake in Washburn County. This is just east of what is now the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.

They built a sturdy log house and lived in it for decades. They raised six children and buried six more as newborns. “Six lived; six didn’t,” Jim said. Those who died were buried in Evergreen Cemetery on Fivemile Road a few miles to the west in Blaine Township in Burnett County. A flat, red stone still marks the plot but the inscription “Anderson baby’s” is barely readable. The youngest of the surviving children was Jim’s father, Fred.

The Andersons scratched out the best living they could, Jim said, hunting and fishing, tanning hides, raising cattle, cutting timber, growing vegetables and hay. An old school ledger shows payments to Nels as early as 1909 for “hauling children” to school each day for 10 cents a head, presumably by horse and wagon or sleigh. There were payments also for delivering wood and to Louisa Anderson for cleaning.

 Jim said Nels was a whiz at making things with his hands, including his own buckskin clothing. Jim remembers staying with his grandfather for short times as a child and being told to speak Norwegian when asking for his food, even though Nels and Louisa were fluent in English, he said. Quite possibly the Andersons were the only homesteading farmers to stay in the barrens area through drought, public buyouts and the Great Depression.

 Several times a year, Jim remembered, Louisa would take a wagon and horses to the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of her babies.

Nels died in 1952 at a hospital in Superior, and Louisa died a few years later. The house they lived in was torn down just two years ago in 2016.

Meanwhile, just a few miles west in east Blaine Township, the Henry and Mary Zach family was farming on 40 acres they bought in 1917 from the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railway. The family arrived from Sioux City, Iowa, and by 1932 had nine children, Dorothy, Mildred, Hazel, Frances, Ester, Henry Roy, Elmer, Deloris and Robert. There is a photograph of the Zachs’ large, solid log home, along with several outbuildings. In 1931, the Zachs moved to Oakland, south of Danbury, and in 1938 finally sold their homestead in the barrens to the county. You can still see evidence of the farm structures in the southeast corner of Section 23 in east Blaine Township. This land is just south of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.

In 1930, Fred Anderson and Mildred Zach married, and they had three children, Mary, James and David. Jim was born in Dairyland in Douglas County on June 9, 1935. Years later, Mildred and her sister Dorothy wrote a two-page remembrance of their childhood on the barrens – cold winters, blueberry picking with nearby Indians, house parties. When he was 6, Jim and his family moved north 25 miles to South Range, just east of what is now Pattison State Park. Jim’s dad bought land along Bacon Creek, where they hayed the meadow for cattle feed. Later, he bought the lake property where they fished and camped for many summers. Jim and his wife, Joan, live there today. “Even though we ‘moved away,’ we never did leave the area,” he said.

Jim still has fond memories of his grandparents and stories they told – eating out-of-season venison with a game warden, listening to Indians in nearby Dogtown playing tom-toms on summer evenings, dragging reluctant siblings to Forest Home School on St. Croix Trail in east Blaine, where the foundation of the old school can still be seen.

One tale involved his grandmother Louisa going to Minong for supplies with a horse-drawn wagon. She apparently developed the habit of racing the train to a crossing, barely beating it on one occasion. Another reminiscence was the tale of the only time Jim’s grandfather Nels drove a car. It was a Ford Model T a neighbor owned, and as he approached a barn, instead of applying the brakes, he shouted “whoa, whoa” and plowed into the side of the structure.

Jim showed us photos of his grandparents and of neighbors and their sturdy log homes. One is a classic “American Gothic” portrait of Nels and Louisa, he the tall balding farmer, she a short plump woman; both are smiling.

Another showed the Zach family in 1932, the parents and all nine living children, dressed up and smiling broadly. Jim was close to his uncle Henry Roy Zach, who was born in 1918 but seemed to him more like a brother. Henry served in the army during World War 2 and survived the Dec. 17, 1944, massacre near Malmedy, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge.

Jim still lives much of the year on Little Sand Lake between the former farms of his two sets of grandparents and just a few miles east of where he was born.


Humans on the barrens: Severne's lilacs

posted Nov 18, 2018, 9:32 AM by david.g.peters   [ updated Nov 18, 2018, 9:45 AM ]

Originally posted June 4, 2018 by Dave Peters

The lilacs of Severne Bradley were the telltale, opening a window on a century-old community of struggling farmers in the sands of northwest Wisconsin.

 In a mixed forest of pine, oak and aspen a half mile south of the main unit of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area in East Blaine, Vern Drake, Mark Nupen and I spent a late May morning exploring remnants of at least four settler homes in what was the community of Fivemile.

 Fivemile was a short-lived and geographically ill-defined barrens farming settlement of more than a 100 people, with a general store and a post office that lasted from 1908 to 1920. What we saw were a few tangible reminders of a few farm families who settled on the dry, sandy barrens starting just after 1900 and remaining a few decades at most. Two sisters who grew up there recalled years later that this was a time of picking blueberries with Indians, house parties, cold winters and, finally, departure.

We were guided by Kraig and Kory McConaughey, brothers whose family has had a cabin in the area for decades and who have poked around in the woods for years.

We made several stops and identified the scant remains of homesteads of William and Grace House, Olaf and Rena Johnson, Henry and Mary Zach and, perhaps most satisfying and evocative, Ingebregt T. and Severne Bradley.

The Bradley homestead lies on 160 acres mostly southwest of Bradley Lake, on the Burnett-Washburn county line. A short driveway off Fivemile Road led to a clearing in the mixed forest several hundred feet across.  Most remarkable was the pink-lavender lilac bush in full and fragrant bloom.

The lilacs seemed to provide more clearly than anything else we saw an account of a  century-plus-old effort at settlement and domestication. We easily found the adjacent square foundation of a house measuring about 36 feet by 36 feet, each block of poured concrete about two feet long and perhaps 10 inches wide. The walls were gone, of course, but there were smaller depressions nearby, perhaps outhouses, storage places or the like.

We saw two other structures nearby. Another set of poured concrete blocks marked the rectangular foundation of what was perhaps a barn, and a circle of blocks were the remains of what was apparently a silo, about 12 feet across and several courses high.

The Bradleys arrived in Blaine Township around 1904, according to the Burnett County plat book, and homesteaded the 160 acres. Ingebregt (sometimes spelled Engebregt or Englbregt) was born in Norway in 1854, Severne (sometimes spelled Severene or Severena) was an Olson from Minnesota, born in 1868. They had married in Albert Lea, Minn., in 1887.

They came to the barrens with at least three children, possibly five, and had a sixth while living there. The 1910 census shows four children living with them, ages 3 to 17.

Ten years later, the 1920 census shows the only person living with the couple was their granddaughter, apparently the child of their daughter Tena. By this time, Ingebregt was 66 and Severne was 52. Records are incomplete but it seems likely that three of their children, daughters Carolyne and Stella and son Severt lay buried a mile west in Evergreen Cemetery.

By the time of the 1930 census, Ingebregt had died, and Severne was living alone, listed as a “farm manager” in the census enumeration. Daughter Tena was married and living in Chisholm, Minn. In 1935 or 1936, apparently after a failure to pay property taxes, the farm was foreclosed on and the land went to the county.

That was the eventual end for virtually all homesteads on the sands of the barrens, but this homestead stands out among those for miles around partly because the buildings were of a size that almost suggests relative prosperity and also because it had been inhabited by the same family for so long.  The building foundations and the lovely touch of lilacs are all that remains. Lilacs were introduced to the North American colonies in the 18th Century and were a popular – and long-lived – flowering bush in climates where the May blooms were particularly welcome after a hard winter. It’s compelling to think of them as Severne’s lilacs, marking a homestead where she gave birth to her youngest, saw a daughter grow up and move on, witnessed the death of other children, then outlived her husband.

The four homesteads we explored didn’t last long and there is little left of them. The land has largely grown over in aspen, oak and jack and red pine and is mostly owned by Burnett County as a result of the difficulty settlers found in making a go of things. But they are evocative remnants of a group of hardy people who came from all over, struggled to make a living on tough land and ultimately had to concede to the reality of  nature.

 (This map shows the four sites of early 20th Century farmsteads just south of the north unit of Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area (dark green outlined in blue). 1. William and Grace House. 2. Olaf and Rena Johnson. 3. Henry and Mary Zach. 4. Ingebregt and Severne Bradley.)

(This map shows the four sites of early 20th Century farmsteads just south of the north unit of Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area (dark green outlined in blue). 1. William and Grace House. 2. Olaf and Rena Johnson. 3. Henry and Mary Zach. 4. Ingebregt and Severne Bradley.)

New Screen Door "Finally" for the FNBWA Cabin at the Barrens

posted May 31, 2018, 7:50 PM by Larry Leef   [ updated May 31, 2018, 7:54 PM ]

May 20, 2018

The FNBWA cabin had an old beat up screen door that wouldn't stay closed until you pushed a large rock in front of it. Replacing the screen door has always been a priority of mine as the "rock closure" feature always looked pretty "tacky". So yesterday, Mark, Dave, and I finally installed a new screen door and it
looks great with a window screen that actually works. The old door is on the left, and I'm about to toss the old rock when Mark took this photo. Thanks to Gary for purchasing the new door and Mark and Dave for installing it.


You probably noticed that it was pretty chilly and breezy yesterday. Too breezy to put the metal roofing panels on the picnic shelter so we decided to install the new screen door and Gary and Jerry replaced the wood planking on a picnic table metal frame that was donated. So now we have five great 8 foot picnic tables.

Submitted by Vern Drake

Construction Continues on the Picnic Shelter at the Barrens

posted May 31, 2018, 7:30 PM by Larry Leef   [ updated May 31, 2018, 7:35 PM ]

May 14, 2018 - Yesterday we worked from 9am to 3:30pm on the picnic shelter with a break for spaghetti lunch at my place. As you can see in the photo, we used the DNR tractor to lift the long trusses into place. Gary is running the tractor, Mark is on the left positioning a ladder, and my neighbor Duane Arneson who I recruited is steadying the truss as they tend to swing around a lot. It was a great day for construction, cool and cloudy in the afternoon. As you can see we got a lot done, but 6 hours is about all of us older guys can take in one day. More bracing is needed, but we're getting close to putting the steel roofing panels on. Two more good outings should do it. We want it ready for use for the June 9th event, “Explore the Beautiful, Bountiful Barrens.”


Note to Jed: Thanks for use of the tractor, it would have taken twice as long without it, and it was a lot safer than using ladders.

In the photo below, it's Gary high up on the picnic shelter nailing down a purlin brace to tie the trusses together. Gary is the "brains" behind the project as he's the one with experience. The rest of us are basically helpers.

Submitted by Vern Drake

Isle City Academy Charter School of Cumberland Visits the Barrens

posted May 31, 2018, 6:36 PM by Larry Leef

May 8, 2018 - I met up with Tirzah and her assistant Ms. Johnson (can't remember her first name) after 10am on Tuesday. The teachers drove the bus and there were 27 kids of different ages, I'm guessing maybe 8th to 12th grade as it’s a charter school. I led them to the north sharp-tailed grouse blind where I read some of the notes left by the latest observers and explained the STG mating ritual. They seemed interested in the mating ritual and had a few questions. We then moved to the east STG blind and did the same thing. Tirzah said that she was returning early Wednesday morning with 5 kids; there would be 3 people each in the north and east blinds. She was coming back on Thursday morning with more kids as she had reserved all 3 blinds.

I then led them through the barrens and on to the clubhouse past the recently burned quarter section. Here I had a large map and explained the barrens areas, the importance of the habitat, why prescribed burns were necessary, etc. There were a few questions and all in all the group of kids were well behaved and interested.


Since they were all teachers and students, I thought we should stop at the foundation of the old Forest Home School and I passed out the sheet that explains that the school opened in 1906 and closed in 1933 and that the first teacher earned $45 a month. Note: Here's where we found many pasque flowers and some photos were taken.


Then we proceeded down to the little Evergreen Cemetery as generally people of all ages enjoy cemeteries and some took photos of the nice granite memorial. Then we stopped at the Namekagon canoe landing for lunch as there are toilets and a picnic table. Lastly I led them up the hill to the south unit, and then sent them south on Namekagon Trail to get to Hwy 77. It was a good group and a good outing for all.

Submitted by Vern Drake

Pulsatilla on the Barrens

posted May 31, 2018, 6:29 PM by Larry Leef

On Tuesday, May 8th I went to the barrens and saw many pasque flowers (see my photo below). You can find them right off St. Croix Trail around the old school foundation. As you can see the ones I saw were almost white. Apparently there are many varieties around the world. They remind me of the familiar crocus flower, but the crocus is of the iris family.

Look it up at:

I was surprised to hear that they are very toxic. 

Submitted by Vern Drake

Pulsatilla - Wikipedia

Use and toxicity. Pulsatilla is highly toxic, and produces cardiogenic toxins and oxytoxins which slow the heart in humans. Excess use can lead to diarrhea, vomiting and convulsions, hypotension and coma.

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