St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Wolf Creek Early History

This hand-colored photo of Eldie Lagoo on the Wolf Creek dam in the 1930s shows it still in good condition.  It was removed in the early 1940s, the mill having been gone since 1929.  It backed up water to a lovely mill pond and the local privately owned park known as "Fairy Glen."  

History of Wolf Creek and Nearby Areas 1855 to 1900

    One of the earliest settlements in the St Croix Valley was at the head of the rapids 8 miles upriver from St Croix Falls where Wolf Creek joins the St Croix River. The rapids hindered river transportation and made a natural boundary on the river.  The first settlement at the mouth of Wolf Creek as in the fall of 1831 when Joseph Renshaw Brown set up a trading post consisting of 6 small log buildings on the west side of the river.

It was a good place for trading, along the boundary of the Dakota and Ojibway lands.  However, for that reason, it was also a problem bringing the often warring tribes into contact.  In the spring of 1832, the local Indian Agent, Henry Schoolcraft, met Brown and his canoes headed south on the St Croix loaded with the winter trading, searched the canoes for contraband (liquor) and then proceeded north to Wolf Creek where he burned Brown’s cabins and revoked his trading permit (which had been issued by an underling while Schoolcraft was away from the office). 

As best we can tell, there was a trading post at Wolf Creek on and off for the next 15 years with what seems to be a permanent one starting in the later 1840s.  With the advent of logging after the 1837 Indian treaty opening up the area, loggers brought supplies up the St Croix to the falls, then hauled them up the roads on either side of the river to the logging camps further north, the 6 miles of rapids above the falls being an obstacle for boats.

 1855 marks the beginning of permanent settlement of the Wolf Creek and surrounding area by settlers from the East.   The Indians had given up the land in 1837 and although they didn’t all move out, no longer could prevent white settlers from moving in, cutting timber and living in the area.  Before this, the US government recognized the area as belonging to the Indians and prevented any settlement other than the temporary license to have trading posts in the area.

    Loggers had been cutting logs first illegally then legally in the area since 1837. There were many French loggers, traders, voyagers who moved through the area and had married Indian wives.  Their families were officially classified half breeds and were recognized to have special rights and payments when the Indian treaties were signed.  Although there were many French, British, Canadian and American men living or working in the area on logging crews or involved with the trading posts, there were not white women.  There was no stigma marrying with the Indian women and lots of advantages, as they were hard working, good humored, gracious and often very pretty.  The Indian families welcomed the alliances of their daughter with a trader.   Many of these women had been well educated in the missions to the Indians that had been active since the 1830s. 

The earliest settlers including people like Charles Nevers, William Holmes, Joseph R. Brown, Maurice Samuels married Chippewa and raised families who were respected.  After white women came from the east some of the later ones too often brought with them a dislike, fear and openly practiced discrimination against Indians that made being married to an Indian less desirable.  Most of the first of the white women settlers had great respect for and got along well with the Indians and valued each other as neighbors.

   Many of the Indian families and mixed bloods worked as farmers, loggers and in the mills and other businesses.  Most of the earliest white settlers can trace some of their family tree into the Chippewa villages of the area.  Many of the early settlers, loggers and traders were of Canadian, especially French Canadian background.  The French had already lived in Quebec and further west for several generations and were often mixed blood with the Indians too.  They valued people for who they were and what they could do rather than excluding them based on their ethnic background as many of the Yankee settlers from New England did.

  The land office had opened in Hudson, WI in the 1840s making it easier to purchase land in the area.  The first purchases were loggers buying white pine areas and water power sites to build sawmills. Running a logging camp required support.  Food for the crew was needed.  Hay was needed to feed the oxen.  Food for the crew was flour, salt pork or wild game, beans, flour, salt and grease.  Many logging crews had hunters to get the wild game. 
Logging photo from Noyes family likely from the Sterling Barrens.  In 1904-1910, the St John logging company did a second cutting logging of the Trade River Valley and rebuilt the logging dam at Worth to run logs down the St Croix.  George Holmes, an old man then, recalled the big white pines of the 1850s and contrasted them with the small "black jacks" and other regrowth pines.  The photo below is from Evelyn Taylor, one of the Mariette family who settled very early along the St Croix in west Sterling, loggers and farmers.  

Some food was shipped up the St Croix.  Steamboats came as far as St Croix Falls.  The six miles of rapids above the falls required hauling the equipment and food by oxen to the ferry at the head of the rapids near Wolf Creek.  Henry Bush had a stopping place at there and John Dobney ran a ferry across the river.  A good days trip was from Taylors Falls to the ferry  or possibly to make the crossing in the evening and stop at Wolf Creek.  With oxen the trip was slow.  No road came up the Wisconsin side of the St Croix initially, however Indian trails paralleled the river on both sides, and the area around Never’s Dam was a regular camping site, with a burial site on a high ridge overlooking the river a mile south.
Above the rapids the goods could be transferred to bateaus and poled and rowed up river to the logging camp when the water was high enough to get over the other rapids above.  It appears that most of the cargo came by oxen and continued that way with horses gradually replacing the oxen.  Wolf Creek was a stopping place for the loggers headed north to the white pines on Trade River, Wood River, the Yellow, Snake, Namekagon and others to the north.
In 1854 a logger named William Lowell from Washington County MN purchased land near Roger Lake in section 14.  He appears to have moved there and built a house.  In 1855 the township of Moscow (later to be called Stirling then Sterling) was organized at this house on the west side of the Lake.  To organize a township one would assume that there were at least several families living in the area. This was on the Indian trail and road that followed the creek up from Wolf Creek. 

The area around Roger lake continues to be large marshes suitable for oxen hay.  The valley may have had white pine that could be floated down the creek.  Vivian R. Hanson whose father Pearl bought this land in the 1940s said that at that time there were large white pines growing on the west bank of the lake and creek, an indicator that the valley may have been in white pine earlier.  This was confirmed by Emil Nelson who was familiar with the area in the early 1900s.  The Roger’s Hotel (stopping place) was built with huge wide white pine planks that were recycled by the Hanson’s into their own buildings.

In 1855 at least two settlers moved into the Wolf Creek area, the Thomas Cragin family and the James Densmore family.  Land could not be homesteaded until in the early 1860s, so people either bought land at the Hudson land office, rented from others, or squatted on land with the intention of buying it when they could afford it or make a trip to the land office.
Why would people move to this area to settle down?   There was water power with Wolf Creek running steadily all year round and possibly the remains of a logging dam in the area.  The land to the east of Wolf Creek where they settled was the edge of the Barrens.  The sandy flat plan along Wolf Creek was likely open from fires and easy to break and start raising wheat and potatoes.  There was a good market for the crops in the logging camps. A lot of traffic came through the area as it was on the River Road to the logging camps.  This was true both when the road came up the MN side and crossed at the head of the rapids, and also later when a Wisconsin road was built to connect to St Croix. 

A short distance to the east, just across the creek was the beginning of the hardwoods forest.  Plenty of good firewood was there, high quality lumber could be sawn from the maples, oaks, basswoods, elms, ash and other trees.  The great marshes just to the north along the creek provided pasture, and hay to sell.   Living on the edge of the barrens and forests likely provided wonderful hunting and of course fishing would have been good in the St Croix River. 

The negative was the sandy soil that was poorly suited for long term farming.  After several years of excellent wheat crops, the fertility was used up and crops grew only with ample animal manure.  Probably if they knew about the poor quality of the land, they knew that the better land to the east would be cleared and ready for farming by the time.

   In 1855 mail was delivered to the post office at Wolf Creek.  At the time it was called Eight Mile post office in reference to how far it was to deliver the mail from the falls.  It was then called Avondale, then Wolf Creek Crossing and finally setttled down to be Wolf Creek.  It may have been named after a real wolf or may have been connected with a family on the MN side named Wolf.  Possibly the Indians had called it that in their language and it was translated to English. 

It appears to be very rare in the area to have any of the places named for anything other than people.  The exceptions appear to be Trade river and some lakes named for animals or fish(Wolf, Bass, Deer, Trade River, Wood River, Sunrise).  The early name of Moscow is not clear either, however it is most likely based on the Ojibway name for the sand barrens – moscodenk – meaning prairie.  The first mail delivery in the Sterling area was actually from across the river at Sunrise, MN at the Moscotink post office.  Possibly Moscow comes from this name—probably the name for the whole prairie area.
The story is that James Cragin of Wolf Creek persuaded the change to Stirling after the place in Scottland where his family originated from.  His family came to North America in the 1600s, so remembering a place in Scotland would be unlikely!  A 1905 homesteader in Sterling was named Sterling Russell.  Stirling was changed to Sterling somewhere early in the town history.

   In 1856 after changing the name of the township from Moscow to Stirling, the town set up two school districts, #1(later called Wolf Creek), and #2(later called the Orr school).  District one covered the area near Wolf Creek and District # 2  the area near Roger lake and around.  Families tended to be large in those days so it may have only needed a few families to have a school.  Probably schools drew students for about a 3 mile radius—so one could walk to school in an hour or less.  Schools ran one or two terms, usually a fall and a spring term, with the coldest months off.  Children could be spared for school after the fall crop harvest and before the spring planting.  School may have run for Oct-Nov and March-April when walking to school would have been tolerable.
   District 1 started school in a fixed up log shanty just down the creek from the mill in 1856.  The people couldn’t afford a new school building and most of them were likely still building their own houses.  This information comes from Lucy Orr Johnson who in 1936 wrote a history of Sterling that was published in the Inter-County Leader.

  “Sterling was organized into two school districts, No. 1 at Wolf Creek and No. 2 (now known as the Orr school). District No 1, not being able to build a school house, fixed up an old log shanty for school purposes. this building was west of the mill on the creek, on a little flat. It was about 12x14 feet, rough logs inside as well as out, two small half windows with four panes of glasss in each. Along one side a long bench for the children and a table for the teachermade up the furnishings. Miss Fannie Trimmer was Wolf Creek's first school teacher.
The school was later built 1/2 mile north of the Cragin homestead; this time also on the banks of the little creek. If I would say it was located about 1/2 mile straight east of what is now the Ben Lewis [Louis] home, the present generation would have a fairly [unable to read next two lines]

A few years later, indeed quite a few, Dr. Deneen sold his mill property to a Mr. Swingler from Hudson. Swingler erected a long two story building in which he kept a store (across from the mill, on the same flat where the first little school had been). This building was used as a store by Swingler, later by Elias Hoover, and still later by families as a residence. Hoover at this time, with Dick Salley, had a store on the top of the hill where the present store at Wolf Creek is now operated by James Birmingham[this store was on the east side of the road and was where the Birmingham Store and Post Office was.]

  So if we understand Lucy Orr Johnson correctly:  To the west of the mill on the bank of the creek on a little flat area would mean down the hill slightly from the current school (church) nearer the creek.  Probably the long building foundation would still be there.  Possibly it was all the way down the hill to the bottom of the creek.   

The three Booth brothers came to the Wolf Creek area as homesteaders and farmers after serving in the Civil War