Minocqua, Woodruff and Arbor Vitae have been delighting vacationers longer than you might think
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Minocqua-Woodruff-Arbor Vitae Area Visitor Guide
Into a lake once called Kawaguesaga, a fist of land reached southward, knuckles nearly brushing the opposite shore. Norway pines and white pines—80 to 100 feet tall, three to five feet across their trunks—towered over the land for miles around. The wigwams of a Chippewa village gathered near the west shore of this odd-shaped peninsula, so much like an island, connected to the mainland by a narrow, swampy wrist.
Through the waters of the lake rowed a little fishing boat. It had come from a logging region some thirty miles to the east, and it held Minocqua’s first summer tourists. The year was 1886.
Lore has it that Minocqua and Woodruff, both founded in the 1880s, began life as logging towns. When the timber ran out some thirty years later, so the story goes, locals turned to tourism to keep the towns alive. But the story isn’t true. Minocqua and Woodruff were never industrial centers. From the earliest days of settlement, this corner of the Northwoods was a destination for recreation and commerce—just as it is today.
Minocqua and Woodruff each had a sawmill, but not on the scale of the great logging centers nearby. Still, the logging industry was key to their growth. Loggers visited these towns for trade and for fun. Summer was the off season for logging, and a good time to enjoy the natural beauty of the Northwoods. When logging opened up the forest floor to the sun, the acidic soil grew wild with all sorts of berries—strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries—which Native Americans would pick and bring into town, for sale to merchants who would sell them as far afield as Chicago. And for decades, Minocqua was home to the only bank and the only hospital for miles around.
In the latter half of the 19th century, railroads and lumber companies worked together to speed the harvest of northern Wisconsin’s virgin forests. A railroad company would build a railway to an agreed-upon spot. Once the track arrived, the lumber company could set to work putting in a sawmill and workers’ housing.
As early as the summer of 1886, guides brought fishers from logging towns like these to the area that later became Minocqua. An early tourist, John Mann, returned in the fall of that year to build Minocqua’s first permanent building: a fishing resort on the mainland overlooking the “island” (then as now, this is how the peninsula is usually described). Here loggers and others from nearby communities could while away peaceful summer days fishing for muskellunge and pike (walleye) in the quiet of the Northwoods. This building, the earliest in Minocqua, survived until sometime in the early 1940s; no one is sure when, why or how it was finally destroyed. In 1887 the railway came to Minocqua. It passed just a few yards from Mann’s year-old resort. The following year, Mann sold out his interest in the resort and moved farther north. It’s said he left because he felt Minocqua was becoming too crowded.
It wasn’t easy bringing the railroad across the moist earth of the Lakeland region, as workers on the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway discovered. The extension from Merrill to a point some miles north of Minocqua was expected to be finished by late summer. But sinkholes, swamps and marshes defied the efforts of construction crews. Laborers quit, plagued by flies and mosquitoes. Worst of all was a half-mile stretch of swamp and marsh near the present day Kawaga Road, not far from Minocqua. Winter was approaching as the men built one trestle after another across the marsh, only to watch them sink into the dark 90-foot depths. They tried stretching a log road across the marsh. The marsh swallowed the road, along with twelve oxen, six horses and 13 railroad sand cars. It wasn’t until January that the first locomotive chugged across Lake Minocqua onto the island. Today, the tracks leading into Minocqua are gone, and the hard-won rail bed has been converted to a bicycle trail, the 18-mile Bearskin State Park Trail.
By the spring of 1888, the island had been logged off and the town platted. Hopes were high for the spot’s recreation potential. “It will be a fine summer resort,” predicted the Lincoln County Advocate. “The town will be beautifully situated and right in the center of the best hunting and fishing districts in Northern Wisconsin,” remarked the Northern Wisconsin News. The town grew steadily: by 1891, Minocqua, population 200, boasted six hotels and ten saloons. Whole families rode the train from Merrill, Wausau, and points south for fishing parties. Resorts and summer cottages sprang up along the shores of the region’s lakes. A headline in the Rhinelander Vindicator proclaimed Minocqua “The Queen of Summer Resorts.”
For seven years, Minocqua was at the terminus of its rail line. The St. Paul Railway promoted the town as a tourist destination. For the area’s many logging camps, it was an important supply point.
Meanwhile, a competing railroad company, the Lake Shore Railway, planned to connect Rhinelander to Hurley, several miles to the northwest. Where the railway passed just north of Minocqua, the town of Woodruff was born.
Woodruff’s 1888 origin is something of a mystery. Lakeland towns are typically situated right along a body of water or a waterway, but Woodruff is not. For a village located in the heart of the world’s most dense concentration of lakes, this is a puzzle in its own right. Another unusual feature: Woodruff’s main street was sited several blocks away from the railroad junction that would be the central feature in a waterless town. And, Woodruff was founded years before the junction even came to be. No one may ever solve the riddle of Woodruff: no written records from its settlers survive, and the 1888-1889 issues of the newspapers most likely to have recorded its early days are all missing.
In fact, the town foundered in its early years. But in 1893, the economy got the boost it needed. Overnight, Woodruff became a popular destination for the hard-working loggers in a new lumber town just to its northeast: Arbor Vitae, a company town where the sale of liquor was not allowed.
For over 100 years, Woodruff and Minocqua have successfully built their economies on recreation and commerce. Compared to the booming logging towns, Minocqua and Woodruff grew relatively slowly. But when the trees were gone, Minocqua and Woodruff didn’t experience the economic crashes that many other Northwoods towns suffered.
In contrast to Minocqua and Woodruff, Arbor Vitae was a company town, built around the Brooks & Ross Lumber Company’s massive sawmill. In 1914, when the virgin wood was gone, the lumber company pulled out—and took the town with it. The company dismantled the mill and the homes, packed up what they could on the train, and rode out, leaving behind a Northwoods ghost town. Today, a single building remains of old Arbor Vitae. An out-of-the-way, abandoned little white structure with a glass storefront and a faded sign, “Mykleby’s Store,” is all that remains of the building that once housed a company store. Here Jacob Mykleby and his son, Albert, opened their own general store the year the lumber company left town. Nearby, at Big Arbor Vitae Lake, where a sawmill roared and lumberjacks toiled, cheerful summer housekeeping cottage rentals, condominiums and homes are woven along the shore among shady trees.
The giant virgin pines of the Northwoods are, sadly, gone, but new forests have grown in their stead, cared for by today’s stewards of the area’s natural resources. Today, more than a century after their birth, Minocqua, Woodruff and Arbor Vitae carry on a tradition of hospitality that continues to nurture and refresh those who come to enjoy the serenity of the woods, the amusements of the lakes, and the beauty that is Wisconsin.
Minocqua Historical Museum
416 E. Chicago Avenue
Step inside the Minocqua Historical Museum and travel back to the community’s early days. Each year, the museum showcases artifacts from a different pioneering Minocqua family. “We keep it in sequence as to when they came into the area,” says Mary LeFrenier of the Minocqua Historical Society. The Karl Witt family, featured in 2002, arrived in 1892. The Witts farmed a plot of land southwest of the island in Riversmeet, named for the confluence of the Tomahawk and Squirrel rivers. The Witt descendants have since dispersed around the country, but, says Mrs. LeFrenier, the family still owns the original homestead, and members “come up for reunions every year.”
While at the museum, be sure to obtain a copy of “Strolling Back in Time,” a guide to the 1.25 mile historical walking tour of Minocqua. With this 24-page booklet in hand, you can trace the town’s development. Find the oldest surviving building in town, which was the home of Bolger Brothers’ General Store from 1896 until the early 1920s. The current establishment, T. Murtaugh’s Pub and Eatery, is named after one of the Bolgers, who lived upstairs with his family. Formerly on Front Street, Minocqua’s first commercial strip, the Bolger building was moved to the corner of Oneida Street and Milwaukee Street in 1904. The move saved the building from Minocqua’s fire of 1912, which destroyed half the town’s commercial district.