David R. P. Guay
September 5, 2005
Our Association’s interest is in the 55 mile long Yellow River watershed in Wood, Washburn, and Burnett counties. The Yellow River has 5 lakes along its course: 2 Yellow River Sloughs (unnamed) in Wood County (3 and 5 acres in size), Yellow River Flowage in Washburn County (344 acres, maximum 17 feel deep), Big Yellow Lake in Burnett County (2287 acres, max. 31 feet deep), and Little Yellow Lake in Burnett County (348 acres, max. 21 feet deep).F Big Yellow Lake is the source of the Wisconsin Record Lake Sturgeon, a 79” long, 170-pound 10-ounce monster landed on September 22, 1979 by Jon Procai.
What Was Our Area Like B.D. (Before the Dam)?
We do not have much information on the Yellow River watershed before 1920. However, we do get some interesting “snippets” from the diaries of two XY Company fur traders who wintered at the present site of Fort Folle Avoine, George Nelson in 1802-1803H and Michel Curot in 1803-1804.B
The Riviere Jaune (French for “Yellow River”) was called such due to its yellow color, probably due to tannins in the water (I’d give anything for yellow instead of green, today! Today, it might be better called Riviere Vert [Green]). At its mouth, a “beautiful” 6-7 acre island existed in the St. Croix River. This was a very popular stopping place for individuals passing up and down the early St. Croix “freeway to the interior”.B Nelson called the two widenings of the river downstream from the Fort, “lakes” (you know where they are, now don’t you?). They were appreciated as ready sources of food since ducks were plentiful on their quiet waters.B Few other places along the river were quiet. Virtually all other parts of the river downstream form Little Yellow Lake were rapids (5-6 miles), at least one of which had to be portaged. Back then, Little Yellow Lake was said to be about 100 acres in size (not 348 acres) and was considered more of a backwater or bayou.B Big Yello Lake was said to be about 2 miles in diameter.B Assuming that Big Yellow was round, one can back-calculate a size of 204 acres (not 2287 acres).B “Hold the phone”! This probably is not correct. Looking at the 1915 plat map (5 years BD), the lakes were the same size then as they are today. When did the watershed change? I’ll get back to you! The “dead water” connection between the two lakes was said to be much larger than it is today, being 30 rods (495 ft.) wide and 80 rods (1320 ft.) long.B
Fort Folle Avoine (Wild Rice)
The sites of the Northwest (NW)Co. and XY Co. fur trading posts in the early 1800’s is familiar to all of us. Of interest, there was also a land route connecting the posts to the St. Croix River, striking it in the NW corner of section 10 (“Soo Portage”).
The paper by Oerichbauer gives an elegant description of the first archeological investigation (“dig”) at the present Fort site.A He confirmed the presence of two camps about 95 feet apart. One (the NW Co.) was well-developed, even possessing a 10 foot tall log stockade, described by NelsonH as having 2 bastions for defense. The springtime war excursions of the Sioux forced consideration of building Fort-like structures. Unfortunately, the XY Co., being a split-off group from the NW Co. and poorer, could not afford a stockade. The XY Co. dwelling was quite spartan but did use a building style very rarely seen in this area, i.e. vertical logs. The 16 – 18 foot long building, consisting of all vertical logs on the sides and ends, had 1 door and 1 window above it, the latter covered with a thin parchment skin (no glass out here!) on one end. The walls were plastered inside and out, the floor was made of split logs, and the roof consisted of a 1 foot thickness of sod covered with 4-5 inches of soil. A crude chimney completed the package.A,H I’ll get back to you regarding results of any excavations after 1982 and details of the artifacts found at the site.
In later times (1850’s), a post was located on Big Yellow Lake, about 40 rods (660 ft.) south of the junction of Big and Little Yellow Lakes in Section 23, Township 40N, Range W.B
The Yellow River and Its Role in Land Transportation
Before the railroads, the only transportation artery between Stillwater, MN and Bayfield, WI was the Bayfield Tote Road, which was little more than a Native American trail in the dense woods. The mail was carried over this road. At regular intervals, there were “stopping places” or “roadhouses” where people (and animals) could eat and even spend the night. One such place was located on the Yellow River and owned by Ed Hart.
The Mission in Northwestern Wisconsin
In 1833, the first movement in opening the way for the influx of white settlers occurred when an “Indian mission” was opened at the outlet of Little Yellow Lake. All of the mission personnel came from Mackinaw, the general depot of the fur traders during the last years of this activity. The mission was under the patronage of the “American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions”. (I’ll get more details.) Reverend Fred Ayers and his wife and Miss Hester Crooks (teacher and daughter of an American Fur Co. trader) arrived on September 16, 1833. School opened on September 24, 1833 with an enrollment of eight students! After wintering with Dr. Borup, the local trader (trading post was about 1 mile away), the mission resumed operations in spring 1834. The objectives of the mission were to provide schooling to Native American children, to aid the Native Americans in planting gardens and other forms of agriculture (rendering them an agrarian society), and to provide seeds to them. In April of 1834, 25 Native families had camped near the mission and four had planted gardens and were sending their children to school. Three of these four families were influential in the band, one having a chief who had visited Washington, D.C. during the Adams administration (named “Cat Ear” or Gis-kil-a-way). Miss Crooks married Reverend William Boutwell, the couple subsequently moving to the Leech Lake mission. J.L. Seymour, Miss Sabrina Stevens and Henry Blatchford (local interpreter) became new personnel at the mission. However, things were not going very well. A chief and Menominee from the Green Bay region (Waiingas or “The Wolf”) announced that the white inhabitants had to go, by force if necessary. Some Natives were concerned about possible land losses. Over the course of the next few hours, after negotiations among themselves, the Natives reversed their decision and asked them to stay. However, things were never the same as they once were and in spring 1836, all whites left for Pokegama/Snake River after an invitation by the Natives there. The four reasons cited for this move were as follows: Pokegama had a superior food supply in place, they could serve more natives there, the soil was better at Pokegama, and Pokegama was much closer to St. Peter, the only site at that time where one could purchase the goods important to whites.G
The exact location of the mission has been the subject of controversy in the absence of any archeological investigations. It has been said that the mission was in Section 23 in the former location of Kirchner’s Brookside Resort.E
Native Americans Along The Yellow River Watershed
The Yellow River watershed played a significant role in the lives of the native people. Large lodges were build at the junction of the Yellow and St. Croix Rivers, on Big Yellow Lake, and on Little Rice Lake in eastern Burnett County near the head of the Yellow River.E Even in the late 1800’s, 1000 natives lived on the shores of Big Yellow Lake and a Native village existed on Little Rice Lake.B In fact, at Little Rice Lake there were large burial plots for the natives on the banks near the lake.E Burial mounds also existed on the high banks of the north shore of Big Yellow Lake as well.E
From times long before the coming of the white man, huge throngs of natives would gather on the shores of Devils Lake (yes, the Devils Lake close to us) to hold tribal ceremonies and dances. This all came to an end when, during a crossing of the lake for a party of natives in birchbark canoes a long, horned fish leaped from the water and snatched a child from a canoe, never to be seen again. Thenceforth, they called it “Devils Lake” and changed their meeting place to a flat area on the Yellow River near the Darius Connor homestead (details to follow).E
Spooner Lake (formerly called or Vaseux or Mud Lake) is also near the head of the Yellow River. In Ojibway, it is called Ka-kwa-kish-ka-ka-kog (meaning “shallow, muddy lake”). Again, even in the early 1900’s a native village of considerable size still existed. A fur trading post existed on an island in Spooner Lake, now called Harper’s.B
Human Habitation on the Yellow
In 1855, a new village sprang up on the shore of the Yellow River, about 1 mile upstream from where it drains into the St. Criox River. “Meshodena” was a product of speculation in a new railroad, the St. Croix and Lake Superior RR. It had a $10000 sawmill (? owned by Isaac Staples), general store, and a dozen houses at its peak. After the Panic of 1857 ended plans for the railroad, Meshodena quickly faded away.
The name for Union township came from the U.S. Civil War.E Captain D. W. Fox, a pioneer settler on the lake, coined the township name. He had been attached to General Saxton in the Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. Fox also named the settlement on the west side of the lake “Veteran” to commemorate Civil War veterans.E After hostilities ended, a Veteran school was established.E The first families settled on Yellow Lake in 1874, including the Marquis Bickfords, Andrew Mellands, C. O. Christiansons, B. Johnsons, Olaf Anderssons, P. J. Lindells, Fremstads, and Saunders (lakes were named after the last two families).E Around 1900, school children would celebrate Memorial Day at the Bickford’s and the veterans would fire a salute from a civil war gun over the lake.E
The town of Yellow Lake was located along the northeastern shore of Big Yellow Lake by the Soo Line RR. The Yellow Lake post office was established in 1903. Andrew Melland was its first postmaster. He and his daughter managed it from 1903 until 1951!!E The first local school opened in an old log house, on a site donated by Andrew Melland, in 1898 and a Miss Fox was the first schoolteacher.E A frame schoolhouse was completed in 1899.E The only nearby church, that of the Lutheran faith, was organized in 1900 but did not have its own church building until 1921.E
A large number of resorts have opened their doors onto the Yellow River watershed over the years, especially on Big Yellow Lake (Log Cabin Hollow, Lucky Strike Resort, Birch Grove, Pursel’s Resort [aka Ike Walton], Atlasta Resort, Yellow Lake Lodge, and Norway Slope! There was even a Yellow Lake Resort Owners Association!E More details to follow!
Dams on the Yellow River
During the early years of the Twentieth Century, Aaron Dahlberg supplied electrical power to much of Polk County. In the spring of 1920, he and his 5 sons (Edward, Carl, Frank, Gothfrid and Fred) began to construct a dam on the Yellow River near Danbury and transmission lines. Edward, who had originally purchased the land, looked after the machinery, while Carl, Frank, and Fred developed the transmission lines. Gothfrid hauled material via truck and the father Aaron financed the project. In 1920, the sons worked without pay.
The dam was 20 feet high and the AC generator (150 KVA, 2300 volts) was driven by twin turbines (today, it is rated at a capacity of 1080 kilowatts). The towns of Danbury, Webster, Siren, Falun, and Alpha signed contracts to purchase electrical power. Ownership of the dam has passed through a number of corporate entities over the years, most recently Northwestern Wisconsin Electric (beginning in 1943) and today North American Hydro (beginning in TBA). But there are other dams on the Yellow (Spooner, Barron, more?) So, I’ll get the details this winter…
Chartered Logging DamsG
Dams were often constructed on rivers used for log transportation in order to build up large “heads” of water in the spring to allow for “log drives”. After the logs had been dumped into the river from their winter storage locations, the dams were “opened up”, creating a great rush of water to carry the logs along. In Northwestern Wisconsin, all rivers led to the St. Croix and then to the mills of Stillwater, MN and the Twin Cities.
The Namakagon Totogatic Dam Company received a charter from the state Legislature in 1869 to construct two logging dams (one at the outlet of Lake Namakagon and one on the Totogatic River). In 1870, the charter was amended to allow 16 dams to be built on the Upper St. Croix, Moose, Eau Claire, Namakagon, Totogatic, Clam and Yellow Rivers. The name was also changed to “The St. Croix Dam Co.”. The Company was allowed to hold back water during seasons when it was not necessary for navigation on the St. Croix River. For the Yellow River, this characteristically occurred during March and April of each year. For the dams as a group, the “heads” of water varied from 7 to 10 feet and the average cost per dam was $4000.00. This Company generated its income by charging lumbermen/lumber firms a “toll” which was calculated on the basis of the amount of wood being transported. Generally, there was a “toll” collected for every one thousand board feet (a board foot = 144 cu. in. of wood [ eg. 2” x 4” x 8’ = 8 board feet]). On the Yellow River, the tolls ranged from 3 to 10 cells per 1000 board feet (on some of the other rivers, the tolls ranged up to 25 cents).
Sometimes the dam companies did not make friends with landowners along the rivers. For example, Robert Davidson dynamited the Clam River dam in 1886 because of the effects it had on his meadowlands. Over the winter, I’ll find out what happened to him. In addition, I’ve located source documents on these Dam Co.’s and I’ll work on the Yellow River damsite(s).
I hope that I’ve given you some interesting facts about our northern paradise. There certainly is more to learn and I’ll have more to share at our next Association meeting in 2006. So, until then, have a safe and enjoyable fall, winter, and spring!!
P.S.: If you locate errors in this text or have information or material to share with us, please feel free to contact me:
Home phone: 952-894-5507
Home address: 13174 Inglewood Avenue, Savage, MN 55378
“Up North” address: 27702 Cty FF, Webster, WI (here most weekends year around
but DONT SEND MAIL HERE)
“Up North” phone: 715-866-7797
I can duplicate materials and get originals back to you.
A. Oerichbauer ES. Archaeological excavations at a site of a NorthWest and XY Company wintering post (47-Bt-26): a progress report. Wisc Archeologist 1982; 63(3):153-236.
B. Thwaites RG. A Wisconsin fur-trader’s journal, 1803-04 (Michel Curot). Coll State Hist Soc Wisc 1911; 20:396-471.
C. Strolling Through a Century. The Story of Grantsburg, Burnett County, Wisconsin from 1865-1965. M. Crownhart, Grantsburg Centennial Committee (eds.). Privately printed, 1965.
D. Durand Derrick B. Great Scott! A History of Northern Wisconsin’s Earlier Days. Privately printed, 1965.
E. Pioneer Tales of Burnett County. Burnett County Homemakers Club (eds.). Privately published, multiple publication/reprint dates starting in 1940’s.
F. Wisconsin Lakes Directory. Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources website (http://dnr.wi.gov/org/water/fhp/lakes/alpha/lakes_y.htm). Accessed 12/11/04.
G. Folsom WHC. Fifty Years in the Northwest. 1999 Minnesota Territorial Sesquicentennial Facsimile Edition (first published in 1888). Nelson CW (ed.). Taylors Falls Historical Society, Taylors Falls, MN, 1999.
H. Nelson G. My First Years in the Fur Trade. The Journals of 1802-1804. Peers L, Schenck T (eds.) Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, MN, 2002.
I. Kanne E. Pieces of the Past. Pioneer Life in Burnett County. Privately printed, 1986.