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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A load of logs at the Fountain Campbell lumber company in northwestern Taylor County in 1909. The first phase of logging relied heavily on horses and rivers to transport logs to the mills. © DNR Photo

February 2004

100 years of Wisconsin Forestry

Some highlights in managing vast resources and working with people in Wisconsin's forests.

Randall E. Rohe


A load of logs at the Fountain Campbell lumber company in northwestern Taylor County in 1909. The first phase of logging relied heavily on horses and rivers to transport logs to the mills. © DNR Photo
The lumber era | Star Lake Plantation | Wisconsin women's clubs
The Velebit settlement | A forest-farm community experiment
A learn-while-you-work youth program
The evolution of firefighting equipment

Editor's note: So many forestry programs are celebrating significant anniversaries this year that we're thinking it's time to issue golden toothpicks or gilded pencils! It's the centennial celebration for the state foresty program, the 85th year for the Wisconsin Society of American Foresters, the 75th year of the Wisconsin county forest system, the 60th anniversaries for Trees For Tomorrow, Smokey Bear and the Wisconsin Tree Farm programs, the 50th year for the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers, the 40th anniversary of the Wisconsin Arborist Association and the 25th year for the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association. If we lit candles for all of them, we'd have to call out the fire control crews!

As part of the celebration to honor our silvicultural commitment, the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association contracted with Trails Media Group and author Randall E. Rohe to compile a history, "100 Years of Wisconsin Forestry," that will be published later this year. We've excerpted several segments from his narrative to share some interesting highlights in managing vast resources and working with the people who live and work in Wisconsin's forests.

The lumber era

Historians often divide the Wisconsin lumber era into three distinct phases. The river drive/white pine phase lasted from the beginning of the lumber era [in the 1840s] to about 1890. During this period, white pine was the major species harvested, and waterways transported logs to the mills. A series of nearly snowless winters, the exhaustion of pine near streams big enough to drive logs, and the increasing use of hemlock and hardwoods that waterlogged and sank in the streams began the next phase.

The hardwood/rail phase extended from about 1890 to 1920. Many railroads developed to bring logs to mills. The primary trees were hardwoods such as oak, maple, birch and elm. During the early years, there were many small operators. By the 1890s, however, the emphasis was on bigness. Huge sawmills, high production, vast acreages of timber and large-scale operations were the trend until the 1920s.

After World War I in phase three, the large holdings of hardwoods had been cut, and emphasis shifted to smaller-scale operations and fuller utilization of timber and timber varieties. Trucks and Caterpillar tractors replaced the logging railroad. The logging camps gradually disappeared and small, portable and semi-portable sawmills became common. Pulpwood – such as aspen, fir and spruce – for paper mills, ties, posts and poles largely replaced saw logs.

Star Lake Plantation

In 1913, E.M. Griffith [the first state forester] chose a peninsula in Star Lake, Vilas County, in what is now the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, as the location of the first state tree plantation. The peninsula once served as a pasture for the horses of the Williams and Salsich Lumber Company, and the company had fenced it off. Because of its proximity to water and a ranger station, the site was well protected from forest fires. Perhaps Griffith wanted to show that what had happened to the community of Star Lake did not have to happen with good forest management. Star Lake had once been a thriving lumber town with a population of about 700. By 1908 it was a ghost town.

Griffith decided to plant mostly native red and white pine on the peninsula. Because many people questioned the effectiveness of reforestation, he included some Scotch pine, a fast-growing European species to quickly convince the skeptics. Fred Wilson, state forest ranger, supervised the planting, which involved clearing areas about 18 inches square with a grub hoe and hand-planting the seedlings. Wilson developed a plan for the plantation based on management and thinning procedures used in Europe. He decided that after thinning, the distance between the remaining trees should be 20 to 25 percent of the height of the dominant trees. The first thinning took place in 1943 and his plans were followed thereafter. In 1977, Wilson remeasured and marked the Star Lake Plantation for a thinning cut for the sixth time. His meticulous records proved that tree planting paid off.

Wisconsin women's clubs

The General Federation of Women's Clubs began in 1890, and the women's club movement really took off in the early 1900s, a reflection of progressive movement activism and the female suffrage campaign. The federation promoted forestry almost from its beginning, and its efforts became particularly extensive and committed after 1930. Its forestry campaign centered on the observance of the George Washington Bicentennial in 1932. To commemorate it, the federation started a series of tree-planting campaigns, the first one in Wisconsin's Nicolet National Forest. Anna Leadbetter, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs (WFWC), and Wilhelmine LaBudde, chair of the Conservation Committee of the Milwaukee County Federation of Women's Clubs, spearheaded the project. They chose a tract of cutover land near Eagle River to reforest. The previous year a group of junior foresters had replanted seven acres there and named it the George Washington Memorial Forest. In the spring of 1932, more than 125 members of WFWC and others planted more than 150 acres with jack pine. In 1987, the plantation was harvested. In 1991, the club planted 7,000 more trees and rededicated the George Washington Memorial Forest. This work remains a lasting example of how women became involved in the conservation movement and contributed significantly to reforestation and conservation efforts in the state.

The Velebit settlement

Numerous ghost towns were left in the wake of the lumber era, and attempts to farm the Cutover also produced their share of abandoned settlements. A good example is Velebit, a Croatian farming community once located about eight miles east of Eagle River. Most of the Croatians settled there at the encouragement of Joseph Habrich, a Croatian immigrant and an agent for the Sanborn Land Company. Habrich came to Eagle River in 1915 and in the next several years (1915-1925) helped 100 Croatian families settle at Velebit. The immigrants named their settlement after their home near the Velebit Mountains in the former Yugoslavia.

A resettlement house built in Oneida County in 1934. The Resettlement Act relocated isolated subsistence farmers to new communities in northern Wisconsin built nearer jobs and transportation corridors. Many folks found work reclaiming the areas that would become the Chequamegon and Nicolet national forests in Wisconsin. © Eugene Sanborn
A resettlement house built in Oneida County in 1934. The Resettlement Act relocated isolated subsistence farmers to new communities in northern Wisconsin built nearer jobs and transportation corridors. Many folks found work reclaiming the areas that would become the Chequamegon and Nicolet national forests in Wisconsin.

© Eugene Sanborn

Apparently the Sanborn Land Company used some deceitful advertising to lure settlers to Velebit. Ads included a photo of a farm with a well-constructed house, a barn and a concrete silo. Some of the immigrants expected to find a cleared farm, a house, a barn and a cow on the land that they had bought. Instead, they found a heavily forested or stump-filled tract of 40 acres with no buildings.

The settlers at Velebit primarily cultivated potatoes, corn, cabbage and hay. They kept cows, pigs and chickens. Many of the men worked seasonally in local logging camps or sawmills to supplement their farm income. Besides the farmsteads, Velebit eventually grew to include a school and a Croatian Fraternal Union Hall. As in much of the cutover area, however, a short growing season and poor soils made farming a tenuous undertaking. By the late 1920s, unable to make a satisfactory living, many settlers had abandoned Velebit. Today, little remains of the settlement except for some ruins and foundations along mostly unpaved forest service roads and trails.

A forest-farm community experiment

As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the federal government initiated a number of projects to relocate isolated settlers to better land within the Cutover region. Here, they could combine subsistence farming with work in the expanding network of county, state and federal forests. The Drummond Forest Community of 32 homes within the Chequamegon National Forest was one such project. The Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) and the U.S. Forest Service started the project in 1935. Project officials chose a location about seven miles southwest of the town of Drummond in Bayfield County to relocate nearby, isolated rural families. The sites had soil suitable for agriculture and were accessibile to forest work, good roads, a modern school and a market for farm produce.

The project had three main objectives: foremost, to relocate and rehabilitate isolated families from areas with no adequate sources of income; second, to develop a skilled, reliable and easily accessible source of labor to rehabilitate the lands recently acquired for the Chequamegon National Forest; third, to develop a model of combined forest and agricultural economy that might work in much of the cutover lands.

The project area was divided into 20 acres of land with five acres cleared for crops and five acres brushed for pasture. The houses (23 four-room homes and 9 three-room homes) consisted of neat frame buildings with modern plumbing. Each unit had a combination barn-garage. From August 1930 to the end of 1940, the community was nearly fully occupied. The opening up of defense jobs and profitable work outside the community, however, caused occupancy to drop to about 20 percent between 1943 and 1944. As a result, the government decided to terminate the experiment and sell the homesteads to the residents. The Drummond project was imaginative and relatively well-managed, but the unexpected improvement in the economy brought on by World War II undermined it.

A learn-while-you-work youth program

In 1961, Wisconsin began an environmental education program that included jobs for youth. Building on the Civilian Conservation Corps tradition, the state established the Youth Conservation Camps program (YCC) to provide summer employment for the state's young people in conservation work projects. The early YCC was administered cooperatively by two state agencies: the Public Welfare Department ran the camps while the Wisconsin Conservation Department handled the work programs. Within nine months, 200 youth had enrolled. Two-thirds of the nearly 80,000-worker-days expended in the first five years of the program went into timber stand improvement such as clearing, planting, thinning and release projects, along with parks development.

The Kellett Reorganization Act of 1967 transferred sole responsibility for the YCC to the new Department of Natural Resources. Between 1967 and 1985, nineteen thousand boys and girls participated in the program and accomplished some $15 million worth of work. [The Wisconsin Conservation Corps was a distinct agency not associated with the YCC program. It was an independent agency to give young adults practical job skills while preparing to further their education. It was dissolved during the current budget crisis.]

"The simple truth of the matter," said DNR's last YCC Chief, Ray Hendrikse, "is that without the assistance of the youth camps, development, restoration and maintenance of state parks, wildlife areas, forests, streams and lakes would be severely reduced. Without them, conservation work would continue to get done, but to a much lesser degree..."

As testament to the success of Wisconsin's YCC program, in the 1970s the federal government established its own youth conservation program, modeled on Wisconsin's program. The Youth Conservation Corps proved so successful that Congress expanded it and made it a permanent national endeavor on September 3, 1974. The new legislation authorized $60 million annually for the federal Youth Conservation Corps.

The evolution of firefighting equipment

Early fire wardens and firefighters provided their own equipment, which usually consisted of a shovel or an ax and gunnysacks or burlap bags. About 1911, patrolmen were furnished with canvas buckets to use where water was available. Backpack pumps came into general use about 1918. In the early days, the idea of setting backfires and building fire lines with horse-drawn plows represented state-of-the-art fire-fighting techniques.

For the most part, firefighters traveled on foot or horseback because roads were few and often impassable for vehicles. Sometimes logging railroads offered the best or only means of access to isolated areas. Here "pedes," or hand-operated railroad velocipedes, were widely used. In 1914, the state pointed with pride to its fleet of 10 hand-operated and one motor-powered railroad speeder. As roads developed in forested areas, horse-drawn vehicles came into use. The state purchased its first motor truck for hauling firefighters and supplies in 1915. In 1917, auto patrols began, and they soon came into general use.

Plowing a fire break/fire lane. Wisconsin was a pioneer in developing plows and tractors powerful enough to open furrows in forest soils and create firebreaks.
© DNR Photo
Plowing a fire break/fire lane. Wisconsin was a pioneer in developing plows and tractors powerful enough to open furrows in forest soils and create firebreaks.

© DNR Photo

In 1915, Wisconsin was the first state to use an airplane for forest fire detection. The plane, a Curtis flying boat, had the ability to land on and take off from water. Lack of communication with the ground and difficulty flying in windy weather, however, limited its effectiveness.

By 1927, headquarters buildings and a truck with a power pump, water tank, hose and hand tools for fighting fires had been provided in each of the established fire-protection districts. A system of 54 lookout towers and 400 miles of telephone line provided direct contact among patrolmen. The plow came into its own as standard firefighting equipment with the use of the Caterpillar tractor about 1930.

During the 1930s, L.W. Lembcke designed and constructed many pieces of firefighting equipment – a double moldboard fireline plow with rolling coulter, a tilting platform trailer to transport plows and tractors, a heavy-duty centrifugal pumper-trailer, and a standard trailer hitch for department cars and trucks. The "Wisconsin Plow" was the forerunner of firefighting plows now used in many other parts of the country. These and numerous other devices initiated the modern era of mechanical fire control. In the 1930s, the Wisconsin Conservation Department began using airplanes on a regular basis for fire detection and for reconnaissance during fires. After some futile attempts to utilize radios in fire prevention and fighting, the Federal Communications Commission approved the use of ultra-high-frequency radios in early 1938. The Conservation Department immediately equipped primary fire tower crews, rangers' vehicles and the planes with them.

Today much of the work of firefighting is done by the tractor-plow, bulldozer and power pump. Each of the state's 57 fire-response units has a forest ranger equipped with modern initial-attack, four-by-four, 850-gallon tankers, and bulldozers equipped with a tractor-plow unit, water tanks and pumps.

Aircraft are used along with fire towers to detect fires, and specially equipped aircraft drop retardant from the air to aid in controlling forest fires. Planes also serve a safety role by observing firefighters in hazardous situations. While early lookout towers served only for fire observation, modern towers have two-way radios to facilitate communication with other towers and ground crews.

During the 1997 fire season, the DNR staffed 97 fire towers in Wisconsin, but the number of staffed towers is steadily decreasing as the agency relies more heavily on other means of fire detection, including citizen reporting and aerial sighting. Today, the DNR uses automated weather stations, which collect moisture and temperature data, and electronically transmit the data to a central computer to predict fire danger. Wisconsin has a network of 26 weather stations that closely monitor forest-fire conditions across the state.

Surveying the changing equipment used for fire control during the past hundred years provides a good measure of our progress. Firefighting equipment has come a long way from the days when backfiring was the only known method to stem spreading fires.

Randall E. Rohe is a geography professor at UW-Waukesha. "100 Years of Wisconsin Forestry" will be available later this year from the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association, P.O. Box 285, Stevens Point, WI 54481, phone: (715) 346-4798.