The Native Americans apparently visited a site on Manitowish Lake, location unspecified: "The Indians had an age-old gathering place on the eastern shore of Manitowish Lake. Here they met to trade, to distribute funds from Federal paymasters, to bury their dead."
Tallyho! Who's ready to ship off to chop down some trees and dance on sawn-off log tops?
The railroad penetrated the county in 1888. In its wake came the great logging days, a swashbuckling era during which you might have seen stuck into the ground in front of a tavern the pike-poles or canthooks of a hundred or more lumberjacks drinking inside. The Chippewa Lumber and Boom Co. opened the logging age here. In 1892 CL&B forces built the Rest Lake dam with heavy timbers, three spillways and huge iron bullwheels to control the gates; the same year its men also built a steamboat with a backbone of tamarack and cedar ship knees hewn on the Island Lake shore. For the life of the CL&B activities here, the most exciting event of the year was the log drive. For several weeks early each summer pine logs were sent through the spillways in great bunches and washed downstream with huge gulps of penned up lake water. The river might then be a solid mass of logs for many miles. Skilled drivers prodded them along. Leading and trailing the drives were wanigans or cook boats, built below the dam for each year's drive. It took almost all summer and the efforts of up to two hundred men to push the drive all the way to its Chippewa Falls area destination. The rest of the year lumberjacks who lived in long, low, log camp buildings below the dam labored to replenish the log supply held behind the dam in preparation for the next season's drive. They took only the finest of pine, so light that it could float indefinitely and was called cork pine; in the winters teams and sleds pulled the newly felled timber to the icebound shores; in summer giant wheels were used. On the waters of the lakes, raised up to sixteen feet above their original level by the new dam, and thus spreading over a much wider area, the steamboat worked almost round the clock to shepherd huge rafts of logs to the dam. The boom, however, could not go on forever, and by the early 1900s and certainly by 1906, the crude little paddle wheel steamer, its whistle stilled, lay pulled up on the shore where modern day water skiers stage their shows. A few families clustered around the dam, which deteriorated and even was left open for a while; the landing where boats met travelers was located on the present Ilg property. The horses, ponies and wagons were kept there and a man named James McKinney kept a tavern there before 1910.
Dunn makes a point: the boom "could not go on forever." Indeed -- like many things that seem such a good idea initially, the logging era had the effect of decimating Wisconsin's original forests. We are left with patches of "old growth" here and there, preserved thanks to the foresight of individuals in Wisconsin's past. To get a sense of what this land might have looked like before the lumberjacks showed up with their chainsaws, visit places like the Porcupine Mountains State Park or the Sylvania Wilderness.
The logging era revived when railroads drew closer to the lakes and could haul our hardwood logs too heavy to float downriver in drives. The Milwaukee Road built in to Boulder Junction in 1903 and on to its Papoose Junction Point by 1906. One leg of the wye at the junction point ran up to Buswell, a Papoose Lake mill village; another leg ran roughly along the present bed of country highway K to reach Riley's Hoist on the shore of Rest Lake just north of the present YMCA camp. The daily local train of the Milwaukee was not only an important carrier of outbound logs consigned to sawmills further south. The mixed freight and passenger train was the carrier too of inbound supplies for the owners of summer homes on the lakes. At Big Lake Creek near Island Lake these supplies were transferred to barges for lake delivery. From Chicago & Northwestern near Powell a spur cut across Powell Marsh to reach a loading hoist between Star and the Grass lakes (now Stepping Stones). Yawkey-Bissell, Stange Lumber Co. and Brooks & Ross are just a few of the names of lumber or logging firms that cut in what is now Manitowish Waters. Hardwood logs were partially dried to ensure their staying afloat until another little lake boat, like the gasoline powered Skiddoo, could raft them to the two landings for loading on railroad cars. From the Star Lake spur track there also radiated little railroad spurs over which lightweight but standard gauge "Peggy" locomotives (geared locomotives, most likely of the shay or screwdriver variety) pulled in loads of logs from the woods; some of these temporary lines ran as far as Alder and Benson lakes. Big logging activity ceased between 1911 (when the last Yawkey-Bissell activity ceased; that firm's last local camp was near Mud Lake, now Fawn) and 1914 (when the last logs had been shipped from the hoist at Star Lake). In 1919 the Milwaukee Road removed its track along the north side of the chain; the spur to the C&NW was quietly taken up around the same time. The lone sawmills to operate after that era in the area were operated by Bob Loveless, who cut timber in the few pockets of virgin forest during the 1920's, and Marvin Loveless, who ran a small mill into the 1940's or 1950's.
The resort business developed alongside the homesteading that brought the early settlers to this area. First to offer hospitality to sportsmen and other visitors in a lodge was Abe LaFave. In 1892 George Buck settled some land at the narrows between Spider and Manitowish Lakes, probably by homesteading it. He too developed a resort business, which stayed in the Buck family until it was sold in 1916 to the Koerners, who began operations under their name the next year. What is now Deer Park Lodge was begun in the 1890's by one J.A. LaMotte of Wausau; its succeeding owners included Jay A. "Dad" Paine, Max Engemann and Charlie Doriot. After spending several summers camping here, Henry Voss built his first cottage here in 1909 and opened an American plan resort in 1911 that is still operated by the family. Supplies were hard to get in those days and Henry Voss' establishment kept farm animals, including cows. For years he arose at four or five in the morning to deliver his milk to local residents and summer home occupants. His pantry had to stock not only supplies sufficient for the resort kitchen but also for sale to housekeeping cottage tenants and neighboring summerfolk.
Until motor travel was common, resort launches met guests borne by stage to the dam from trains at Manitowish or to Star Lake landing by Sherman's buckboard from the station at Powell. Road travel was eased considerably when a bridge was built across the narrows at Buck's, in 1912 and 1913; it replaced a makeshift ferry. Early vacationists [sic] were hardy souls, mainly sportsmen. They usually spent several weeks on their vacations in the early resorts, for most of them were people of means.
On the whole, farming has been neither very successful nor very popular in the Manitowish Waters area, with the exception of a little dairying. A few would-be farmers were lured up here by big city exploiters and land promoters, were soon disenchanted by the meagre results that attended their exertions, and abandoned their efforts.
In 1923 a new dam at Rest Lake was built; it now maintains a water level eight and a half feet above the original waters before 1892. In winter water levels are dropped by three and a half feet.
In 1927 local residents, chafing at what they felt was neglect by the town of Flambeau to which they then belonged, had a bill passed by the states legislature creating the new Town of Spider Lake. (The name changed to the more specific Town of Manitowish Waters in late 1938.) The new town built a town hall during 1929-30 and the present school the next year or two; the school has been doubled in size by a 1946 addition. The town board authorized a community cemetery in 1935; the earliest burial dates from 1936.
Between 1949 and 1964 the tax list rose from 300 bill-receiving taxpayers to 565 owners.