"[History is] a cyclic poem written by time upon the memories of man." -Percy Bysshe Shelley

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Remembering when... Manitowish Waters was in its infancy

More memories of Manitowish Waters in the old days abound, as cataloged by Jean Rein in a July 10, 1998 Lakeland Times article, excerpted below. Inspired by an evening presentation that Ruth Dickerson Gardner gave at the Koller Library, Rein delves into the history of our area.
In 1889 [Ruth] Gardner's great-grandparents Susanne and Henry Levi LaPorte arrived as loggers, settling in Manitowish, near what is now Murray's Landing on the Turtle [Flambeau] Flowage. ...

More important than knowing the chronology of events, Gardner believes, is understanding what life was like during these eras, and feeling the adventurous spirit that brought these people to a rugged wilderness where they worked extremely hard for many years to achieve their dreams. [...]

The recollections began with the town's earliest settlers, Peter Vance and his wife "One Eyed Sara," [a Native American] whose appearance scared all the children, although those who knew her remembered her as quiet and loyal and maker of the best moccasins in the country. Peter, however, had a reputation for stretching the truth, such as the time he sold Ruth's grandfather a "gentle, good milker" cow which kicked so hard her grandmother could not get near her. The cow bolted a fence and ran back to Pete's cabin.

[Gardner] told about the lumberjacks, their grueling life in the woods felling huge trees, using brute strength to get them to water by heaving the logs on skids for horses to drag, piling them on ice and later controlling them as they floated down rivers to the mills. Many who stayed on after the logging era ended were also recalled, with hilarious stories of their roughness, fondness for drink and frequent fights, combined with true respect for women, depths of knowledge in many areas, and the ability to fascinate others with their stories.

The fishing guides, the occasional [Native Americans] who mingled among the settlers, including Chief Basil DeCoteau of the Red Cliff band of Ojibwe, were described with humor and kindness. The chief, a resort caretaker, and his wife operated the town's first telephone switchboard; this unique man was not only proud of his heritage but of his education, being a university graduate. He is one of the many early settlers buried in the town cemetery who became an honored ancestor to the many in the audience that evening.
My great-grandfather, Jack Nutter, was in fact good friends with Chief DeCoteau. Family lore has it that they traveled down to the 1933 Chicago World's Fair together, where they walked around with a birch bark canoe, promoting the northern Wisconsin area.
Some interesting insights on flourishing moonshiners were also shared with the audience.

The early resorts and their owners were described, including Abe LaFave's first resort started in 1880, on an island in Island Lake, the fact it had the first bathtub in the area (people wondered why it was needed with all that water surrounding the resort) and another less known fact, that Abe lost part of his nose in a fight.

The era of the roaring 20s was recalled, when the resorts all had large dance pavilions, big bands played regularly, and special draws such as tightrope walker Bob Loveless and a caged bear at the "Howling Bear" were big attractions. Betty Hennings's act as "the human muskie" when she wore a harness over her head and was reeled in by eager customers was described to the audience's delight.

A favorite musical group of earlier days was the "Rhythm Queens," three elderly ladies who appeared regularly at Voss's. Natives Gerry and Phyllis Andrews played the piano and drums while Anna May LaPorte, a southern belle who had played in a Memphis symphony orchestra before she met and married fishing guide Lloyd LaPorte, was featured on the violin. Others would join in the group, playing various homemade instruments, shaking cans filled with unpopped corn, singing whether or not they knew the words, and dancing. Occasionally a visiting famous musician would join in, such a famed banjo player Eddy Peabody, making the evening a night to be long remembered.

Another musical group, the "Kitchen Band" made up of local women, played for all kinds of events, many of them in the old community center near the cemetery. Although the local young people were sometimes not too thrilled to have their mothers supplying their dance music, they now are fondly remembered.

The residents who catered to visitors during the vacation season and the cranberry growers who also had a long strenuous season of work, had many great times during the rest of the year, Gardner said. There were important school programs, for which the whole town turned out, many card parties and dances, and true "Come as you are" parties where the hosts personally rounded up their guests and gave them no time to even comb their hair. The community center was used for dances, fish fries and church services, Gardner said.

The telephone operators were an important key to community life.

There [were] no automatic telephone dialers. You "rang up" the operator and gave her the number you wanted; if the person wasn't home, chances were the operator knew where he or she would be located. The operators knew everything going on in town, and so did many citizens since listening in on party lines was common. The flip side of this lack of privacy was that it helped everyone pull together; when there was a problem, everyone pitched in to help, Gardner noted.

It is this concern, intimacy, friendliness and warmth that Gardner remembers about growing up here, and what she hopes can be preserved. She hopes seeing the pictures of the town's beginnings, of its enterprises, such as the only municipally owned fish hatchery it once maintained, and its simple one-runway airport... and most of all its people who instill the pride and love for her hometown into the hearts of its many new citizens, and ensure that they will work to promote its values of hard work and compassion for each other that she values.

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