St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sterling Old Settler's Picnic 1960

Today is the 77th annual Sterling Old Settler's picnic at the Cushing Community Center.  Back when I was a newspaper columnist, I wrote a memory of a 1960 picnic, a time when the picnic was closer to the original one, 1937, a homecoming and reunion for the folks who had pioneered the west Sterling sand barrens, farmed and moved on to better land.  The settlement out there was 1860s - 1910, and then disappeared with the wearing out of the thin prairie sand topsoil.

The picnic is a community picnic, a homecoming, and to honor the older folks in the community.  We invite every one who wants to have a picnic, as Sterling Township covered everything in NW Wisconsin back when it started in 1854 -- all the way up to Douglas county, into Barror county and Polk, Burnett, Washburn and more.  No one but loggers lived in most of the area.  As folks moved in, Sterling shrunk to the 2-township area it is today.

The annual June picnic of the Sterling Old Settlers had been going on for many years before I first remember going with my parents.  At that time it was held near Wilson hill on Trade River just next to where Cowan Creek joins the river.  The land was owned by Northern States Power Company but had been for many years a Boy Scout camp and so was somewhat like a park.

About a week or two before the picnic, people on the organizing group would start the preparations.  The 1st National Bank of Grantsburg with a branch at Cushing would be contacted as they provided the ice cream.  Big Christ Christensen and his family would start getting out the plank benches, tables, and other equipment.  They had the Wolf Creek school water cooler with bubbler attachment.

Mom was on the committee so Dad would volunteer himself and us 4 boys to help with getting the site cleaned up.  By this time the “horse people” had started camping in the area so we would bring pitchforks to clean up the hay piles and shovels for the processed hay.  We brought a scythe to cut back any brush and poison ivy that had moved in under edges of the huge white pines that formed the roof over the picnic area.

  Dad, Big Christ and his boys and others would see what they could do to repair the outdoor toilet.  Normally this meant bringing lumber to rebuild the door and other parts that had been kicked in since last year.  These were not kicked in by the horses but the dumber animals that rode the horses and others who seemed to think that the proper treatment for an outhouse was smashing it.  One year they built a cement block outhouse that stood up pretty good for several years except for the always broken door.

After pitching the hay and manure, cutting the brush and a general cleanup, we took our garden sprayer and sprayed the bushes with DDT, especially if it was a buggy year.  We used to think that the mosquitoes, gnats, and deer flies were what kept people from living on the Barrens, for at that time one could count the people west of Trade River without having to take off your shoes.  A sign was put up that said reserved for the Old Settlers picnic to keep out the weekend horse riders.

The morning of the picnic started with filling the milk cans with water from the pump.  Mom would have cooked something for the potluck dinner.  We dressed up in our good clothes(although not our Sunday clothes).  When we got there we helped set up the benches, wide planks from the Christenson’s on short sawhorses, and some makeshift tables.  As soon as this was done, we went to watch Aaron Lundquist make the coffee(he took the place of Nordstrom and later was followed by Walter Neufeldt).  A big tinned copper wash boiler was set on two stones straddling a fire and filled with water from the milk cans.  Huge amounts of coffee were put in and the whole boiler fired up early.  Aaron came from Rush City but had lived on the Barrens as had his parents in the 1880s near the Sunrise ferry area.

After our chores were through we ran through the many Boy Scout paths to the river and crossed and re-crossed their swinging bridge and if brave enough tried their cable slide across the river.  We then hiked up the east side to the spring from close to the road and a few 100 feet from the river.  A pipe came out of the ground horizontally and ran a small stream of water year round.  This was the water supply for the scouts and was a great attraction for people driving by.  Some of the adults complained that they thought the boys had taken the pipe from the Mush cemetery fence, but as many of them said it was the poor West Sterling residents who needed it in the depression that had put the gaps in the fence.

  After exploring the camp, it was time for dinner.  There was lots of food and lots of variety.  Aaron Lundquist’s  fresh strawberries were popular expecially if there were any left for the ice cream for dessert.  Sometimes the ice cream was Sterling brand, made in Dresser, WI, hand packed into the round tubs.  The tubs were put one after the other down an olive green cylindrical canvas bag and packed in dry ice to keep it cool for several hours.  Dry ice was a novelty and even warnings about burnt fingers were not enough to keep the boys from trying to get a piece.

 After dinner was the program.  Normally the small portable pump organ from Trade River church was brought to accompany a few songs by some of the local talents.  If someone didn’t sing in Swedish or Norwegian their would have likely been a change of the committee!.  There was always a sermon, usually from the minister from Wolf Creek, Trade River or other surrounding churches.  This of course was the most difficult part of the program for kids.  We had to sit still and listen until it was over and the final prayer over.

  The next part was the awards for oldest men, women and married couples.  Since we knew most everybody there it there wasn’t much mystery in this other than would another lady finally admit that she was old enough to claim a prize.  The visiting restarted after the program was over.  A “free will” offering was taken to cover costs.

  One year I was put in charge of the pop sales.  We had a tub filled with ice and cans of pop that sold for 10 cents each.  The glamour of being a salesman was pretty good, but not as good as being free to roam the river and surroundings.  Most of the picnic’s allure for kids was the wonderful paths, bridges, and games of hide and seek and just pure running around!

After the prayer we would walk down to the bridge and throw rocks in the river, wade in Cowan creek and see if we could stand the cold water, and them climb Wilson hill to the old cemetery and see if we could read the stones, admire the iron fence in the middle and explore the hill top.  The cemetery was overgrown with brush, fallen trees and not kept up at that time.

  In 1963, the Sterling Town board(at my Dad’s suggestion as a board member) hired my 3 brothers and I to clean it up.  The goal was to clear all of the dead trees and brush and we were to know when we were done by having pushed the mower over the whole cemetery.  This took two days of work, but the interest at uncovering a buried stone and the feeling of accomplishment at seeing the great improvement was much more satisfying than the $10.00 we charged for the work we did.  I still have my handwritten bill given to Walter Gullickson for the job.  We found that after that a short spring cleaning about picnic time and two mowing per year kept it looking good.  As we left and town boards changed, the cemetery again fell into neglect until some history minded volunteers came in and really fixed  it including the repairing and painting the fence, making new wooden markers for those missing and building a small chapel.  The only disappointing part was the removal of the iron fence in the center that added a little mystery to the place.  Who had been rich enough to fence in their plot?

   As the end of the day came and the farmers had to leave to milk cows we helped with the cleanup and re-packing of the benches.  We loaded the milk cans and totally tired out from the drove back east to civilization again.  The barrens roads were pretty much just sand with an occasional load of gravel on a hill.  If you were so foolish as to stop your car to pick a crocus on the way up a hill, you were likely to get stuck in the sand.  The joke was that if the Barrens all burned off, it would be just one big road.

In latter years the picnic moved to the Sterling Townhall on the corner of Evergreen and the Old River Road.  The years of battling horse messes and repairing toilets was given up by the second generation of Old Settlers.  Instead of the wonderful river and pines the new site at the bare road corner was pretty sad.  However the old townhall was interesting to explore, Wolf Creek was nearby with the bridge and beaver dams.  In the last few years even this had been lost as the move was made into the 1950’s Cushing School with its bare school yard, old gymnasium and kitchen.  The playground equipment had to be removed “so we won’t get sued”, a far cry from when kids ran free at the river and in the biq woods