The Great Northwoods

Welcome to Discovering the Northwoods from the Manitowish Waters Historical Society. We will take you on a journey through our local history with the help of primary source documentation. To learn more about this rich history or about the historical society – check out our website at for blog posts, YouTube Channel, and Show Notes for a full transcription of this episode including photographs and maps.

As with many historical works from this era, there are phrases, terms, and descriptions that are inappropriate to our modern sensibilities. The Manitowish Waters Historical Society in no way condones these offensive remarks or passages but chooses to read this publication in its entirety for educational purposes and accurate historical context. 

We would like to introduce two articles titled, “The Great Northwoods,” written by E.W.H. in 1904. This episode is read by me, Brenna Reilley.



Part I. The Atchison Daily Globe (Atchison, Kansas) Aug 29, 1904

In northern Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan, there is a tract of wild land known as the Great North Woods. It is nearly a hundred miles square and covered with lakes and woods. It is said that in the district there are a thousand lakes. Some of them are twelve miles long, like Lake Gogebic, while others are small, and known as ‘potholes.’

Nearly all of them are connected. On one side of what is known as “the divide,” the waters flow into Lake Superior. On the other side, the waters flow into the Mississippi. On the Lake Superior side, only bass and perch are found in the lakes. On the Mississippi side, muskellunge and pike abound.

The district is the special hobby of the Chicago & Northwestern railway and is extensively advertised by this big corporation. The Northwestern runs several lines through the district, and a letter to the passenger department of the road at Chicago will bring you maps and handsomely printed books telling you all about the greatest hunting and fishing resort in the United States.

I lately visited the Great North Woods, and spent two weeks in visiting its lakes. I left Chicago on a Northwestern train at 5 pm and traveled all that night and until eight o’clock the next morning, when I arrived at Manitowish, Wisconsin, a little town of half a dozen houses, but headquarters for several of the resorts in that section. There are two hotels at Manitowish, the proprietors of which also supply guides and vehicles. One of these hotel men captured me, and within half an hour, I started for Crab Lake, my destination. Crab Lake is twenty-three miles from Manitowish, and here is the way I got there:

Rail lines in the Winchester area, circa 1910. Wisconsin Historical Society.

I rode six miles in a spring wagon, following the Manitowish River, famous in logging history. At the end of this trip, I arrived at a place known as “The Dam” on Rest Lake. Here a dam has been built by lumbermen, at the place where Rest Lake becomes the Manitowish River. By means of this dam, the stage of water is raised or lowered, for handling logs. From “The Dam” I was carried by gasoline launch for six or seven miles, through several lakes and rivers, a delightful trip. Arriving on the eastern shore of Clear Lake, a guide met me, and we made a portage of a mile: that is, we walked. At the end of the portage, we came to Big Lake, where the guide had a boat. Crossing Big Lake in the boat we entered Rice Creek, so called because wild rice grows in its marshes, and Indigenous camp in the vicinity to gather it. Rice Creek is three miles long, and very wild and picturesque.

At one place, rapids compelled me to walk a short distance, and the guide took the water and pushed the boat ahead of him. At the eastern end of Rice Creek, we entered Round Lake. After Crossing Round Lake, another portage of a mile. The guide carried the boat, and I carried my valise. This portage represents “the divide” referred to above. Round Lake is famous for muskellunge and pike, whereas in Crab Lake, on the other side of the divide, only bass and perch are found. At the end of this portage, we came to Little Crab Lake. Crossing that, and making another portage we entered Lower Crab Lake and from that point, there was plain rowing to Kaye’s Island, where I was to be a guest.

Kaye’s Island is owned by Dean Kaye of Topeka. It is about three acres in extent, and occupied by a house of eight rooms. This house is built of pine logs, with large porches. Nearly all the chairs, tables, beds, etc., in the house, are made of small pine trees, and the effect is very pleasing. The house is completely furnished, and during the winter is in charge of a watchman, who also looks after other houses in the vicinity. During the winter, the watchman also fills the ice house with ice, and gets in a supply of firewood for fire is necessary in the Great North Woods every night of the summer. While I was there the thermometer never registered higher than 76, and one morning it was as low as 47. In winter, we are supposed to heat our homes to a temperature of 72. Melon and tomatoes will not ripen in that country, owing to chilly summer weather, and the short season.

Dean Kaye did not visit his island this summer, and Frank P. MacLennan of the Topeka State Journal rented it. He took his entire family there, over the route I have described. Three guides assisted him, and they made the journey in nine hours. His family consisted of himself and his wife, a daughter thirteen years old, his sister-in-law, his mother, and his mother-in-law. His mother is seventy-six years old, and she walked across the portages without trouble. Their supplies and heavy baggage had been shipped in several days before their arrival, by way of Marenisco, Michigan. A wagon road runs from Marenisco to Crab Lake, and a man makes a trip to the lake every time he can get ten dollars for it. The road is very rough, and a big lumber wagon is used. The distance is twenty miles. All the horses used in that country are very large, as they are used in winter in the lumber camps. The reader will understand, no doubt, that the pioneers in that country were the lumbermen. Much of the land has been cut over, and new growth is springing up. The timber comprises spruce, white pine, Norway pine, hemlock, cedar, birch, tamarack, and balsam. Last September, a tornado swept through that country for a distance of fifty miles and never touched a single house. The tornado crossed the road to Marenisco, and it cost $600 to clear out the twisted trees for a distance of two miles, which was about to average breadth of the storm.

I was to be a guest of the MacLennans, and the guide who met me at Big Lake was their employee. There are six cottages on Crab Lake, occupied only in summer. The first one I saw was that of the Ohio Club, which is quite an impressive-looking building, with several cottages surrounding it. The Ohio Club is composed of a dozen citizens of Columbus, Ohio, who visit Crab Lake in twos or threes, or when they can get away. The Ohio Club is the post office for the other cottagers, and freight from Marensisco is also delivered there. The next island was occupied by Dr. Whitesides: the next by Herman E. Dick: the next by a man named Myers; the next, Dr. Burt and the next was Kaye’s island, which I looked upon with interest.

I spent two weeks at Kaye’s Island, receiving as warm a welcome as any man ever received anywhere. I was given the guest chamber, the best room in the house, but discovered the first night that my host snored so loudly that sleep was impossible. The partitions in the cottage are made of pine logs, standing upright, with moss stuffed between the cracks. As a result, Mr. MacLennan’s snoring was distinctly audible all over the house, but members of his family were so loyal to him that they said they couldn’t hear it. I tried it a second night and then deserted the guest chamber for a cot in the guide’s tent, which had been erected by the lake shore. Ferdinand, the guide, had lived in that country all his life and is an interesting character. In winter, he works in the lumber camps. In summer, he acts as a guide, receiving $2.50 a day and board. He had many interesting experiences to relate to and did not snore. Ferdinand’s daughter Isabella helped Mrs. MacLennan and the women folks in the kitchen. We had surprisingly good meals, but no milk, and no fresh vegetables or fruit. Instead, we had condensed milk, and canned vegetables and fruits. Some of the cottagers who go up there every year take chickens and cows with them. We had good butter, and for meat, we had fish, ham and bacon, and corned beef hash. There are blueberries and red raspberries on some of the islands, and we had plenty of these when we took the trouble to pick them; blueberry cake, raspberry shortcake, blueberry pie, etc. We also found cranberries, and plenty of wild cherries, out of which we made jam and cordial.

There are a lot of things about life in the Great North Woods that seemed interesting to me. By tomorrow I hope to recover from a condensed milk bust head, and will attempt them.

E. W. H.


Part IV. The Atchison Daily Globe (Atchison, Kansas) Aug 31, 1904

I should say this would be an ideal way to visit the Great North Woods: Hire a guide, and make the trip in a canoe. An outfit–tent, cooking utensils, provisions, etc. – can be easily procured. Then you can go where you please. When night overtakes you, the guide will put up your tent, and cook supper. When you run out of supplies, the guide can procure a fresh supply in a day’s time. In this way, you could see hundreds of lakes, and that is the real joy of the trip; in this way, you might enter the woods at Manitowish, Wisconsin, and leave them at Cisco Lake in Michigan to which point the Chicago & Northwestern has a branch line.

The distance, as the crow flies, would be something like forty miles, but you would travel through hundreds of lakes and portages in making the distance. Whenever overtaken by night, you would be at home. Two persons could go together in this way, with one guide, and one canoe. The best fishing in the district would be found, and pheasants and deer would be encountered; if the guide saw fit to shoot a deer for fresh meat, of course, you couldn’t help it …There are places where you can get board and room at ten dollars a week. Such a place is operated at Spider Lake by Geo. W. Buck. Mr. Buck owns a gasoline launch, which carries passengers from Clear Lake to The Dam for fifty cents. He can supply such an outfit as I have outlined for a trip through the lakes. There is a post office at his place, but it is closed after the fishing and hunting season.

If you care to write Mr. Buck, here is his address: Geo. W. Buck, Spider Lake, Wisconsin.

By the way, the guides and lumbermen refer to Wisconsin as “Wiscons.” They will know you are a tenderfoot if you refer to the state as “Wisconsin.” Ferdinand and Charley, the guides, used to tell me a good deal about a river up there known as “The Grandmother.” Near it is a rapids, or something of the kind, known as “The Grandfather.” … There are two hotels at Manitowish; one operated by a man named Johnson, and the other by a man named Stone. Either of these men can supply guides, transportation, and everything else needed. Both of them complained to me about various resorts. It seems that bad roads are not confined to any particular section.

Image of a breakfast in the open from the book, Where to fish, northern Wisconsin : the region of 1000 lakes, majestic forests and clear, cool air. Circa 1916.

At Kaye’s island, on rainy days, and days when we did not care to go out fishing, we had a good deal of idle time on our hands. Ferdinand, the guide, was usually the first one up, and we could hear him, splitting wood and starting the fire. Then he would go down to the lake after a bucket of water. Then Isabella, his daughter, would clatter down the stairs, and put on the oatmeal. One by one the members of the family would appear, but the day was not in full swing until Mrs. MacLennan appeared and decided what we were to have for breakfast. The kitchen which was quite large, looked like a grocery store, with its supplies on the shelves. You have no doubt wondered what is done with all the canned goods; you will find out if you go into the Great North Woods. And they are surprisingly good. I did not try drinking condensed milk, but in coffee and on oatmeal, it is about as good as the real thing. A man used to can apples in Atchison, and I wondered what he did with them. I found out on the trip to Crab Lake that canned apples are excellent…The only objection to the place I could find was that they had too much to eat. I cannot remember everything but I do remember being surprised every day that they could have so much so far away from the market.

Of course, we had fish every day, usually three times a day. Although I am accustomed at home to two meals a day, they had three full meals every day at Kaye’s cottage, and usually 5 o’clock tea… after breakfast, on rainy mornings, the women folks would sit around, and make balsam pillows, Ferdinand having been sent to the mainland for balsam fir. I used to make lists of the friends they intended sending the pillows to, and found that the lists were frequently changed…

A member of the MacLennan party was Miss Carrie Goddard, principal of a Topeka ward school. She is a good cook. What do you think of that: That a school teacher was able to cook such a marvel; to me that I used to sit in the kitchen and watch her get breakfast. Miss Goddard, although she has the severe way about her that school teaching and glasses bring, has the greatest respect for her brother-in-law, which was another remarkable thing to me: the school teachers I know, particularly the principals, do not either fear or respect the men; the men fear them. I have never known any man who receives as much attention and veneration from the women of his household as does Mr. McLennan. His mother, who is severity-six years old, was always hovering about him, and in a way that made you think a good deal of her. His mother-in-law also admires him. She told me one day that Mr. MacLennan did not snore at home, and that his snoring at the cottage, which had driven me to the tent with Ferdinand, was due to the fact that he had fallen while carrying a boat, and sprained his ankle. The amount of attention he received because of that ankle was enormous. While with me in the woods he would walk as good as anyone, but as soon as he landed on the dock at Kaye’s island, he began limping; he seemed to greatly enjoy the notoriety that ankle gave him with his wife, his daughter, his mother, his mother-in-law. Every night they would bathe it in hot water, then rub it oh so carefully, for fear of hurting, with arnica, and salve, and Pond’s extract, to take out the inflammation, although Ferdinand and I used to say there was no inflammation…

As explaining why Mr. MacLennan is so greatly admired by his women-folks, it is probably no more than fair for me to express my own opinion that he is the nicest man in his family I ever knew. I was expressing my admiration for him one day to his mother, and she said “Still he always gets his own way.” It’s a good idea to be patient and thoughtful and then always have your own way…One day I took his mother and his mother-in-law out rowing. Landing at one of the portages. We walked across to a lake they had never seen in which was quite an adventure for them. Usually, elderly people are impatient, and poor company generally, but you should see these two: they made me ashamed of myself, because I often think what a crank I will be unreasonable, and that there will be considerable dissatisfaction because I hang on so long. The most popular members of the party at Kaye’s cottage were the two grandmothers…Some of these days, they are coming to Atchison to look at the new Globe Office, and you will be in luck if you find the opportunity to see them…

The MacLennans have been in the woods for six or seven weeks and will leave for home tomorrow morning. When they reach Manitowish, they ought to find awaiting them a lot of cantaloupes, green corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, peaches, pears, plums, chocolates, etc.; anyway, I bought a box of things in Chicago on my way home and paid the express to Manitowish, where the MacLennans will take supper tomorrow evening.

One rainy day we tried to impress Isabella, a daughter of Ferdinand with the immensity of the outside world. Isabella is fourteen years old and has always lived in Manitowish, which has a population of about forty. She has heard, however, that Wausau, Wisconsin is a big town. We tried to tell Isabella about the ocean; she was familiar with water, but had never seen a body of water more than three or four miles long. “Think of a lake,” we said to her ”as long as from here to Manitowish!”

Isabella thought of it and was greatly impressed; the distance of Kaye’s islands to Manitowish is twenty-three miles.

But she had heard of the game known as King William, she said a bold boy came to Manitowish once from Wausau and introduced it at school and that she played it. Whereupon we all said:

“Why Isabella!”

We pretended that we had never done such a thing in all our born days, and Isabella blushed because she had been led into it by that bold boy from Wausau.

When I went away they all came down to the dock to see me start, and Isabella gave me her address as I had requested her to do. It read: “Isabella Duronso, Manitowish, Wisconsin. Write soon.”

Possibly we did not entertain each other very well at Kaye’s cottage; anyway, I have seen five persons seated at one table playing solitaire at one time. There was very little gossip in our neighborhood, except as we invented it. I invented some one day on Mrs. Burt.

“You all know what a nice woman we think Mrs. Burt is,” I said. “Well! All sit a little closer and I will tell you something. I was over at her island the other day and she was showing me through the house. You know the old story of a mother telling her child, when she punishes it, that she does it for the child’s good, and that the punishment hurts the mother worse than it does the child” Well that’s the way Mrs. Burt punishes her little daughter Frances; and do you know the child believes it! Frances actually cries when she is punished because of the suffering of her mother!”

As I have said on some trips we took both guides with us. It is amusing to see two guides together. When Ferdinand was alone with us, he would make all sorts of statements, and we could not contradict him, because we knew nothing about the facts. If we asked about a berry, tree, shrub, or animal, he would promptly invent an answer. But if Big Charley were along, and we asked Ferdinand the distance to Press Keel Lake, and Ferdinand would reply twelve miles, Big Charley would say; “What’s that, Twelve miles!”

And then Big Charley would look in that peculiar way which indicates that the ignorance of some people is surprising. Whereupon a jawing match would arise, and we would add as much fuel as possible to the flames. So it would go on all day; Whatever Big Charley said, Ferdinand would deny, whatever Ferdinand said, Big Charley would deny. On my return home, there was a very heavy wind on Big Lake, and the two guides were discussing the best way to cross it with a rowboat. Big Charley argued in favor of one side and Ferdinand in favor of another, but Ferdinand finally won.

Guide Cabin at Manitowoc Club, circa 1985. Catalog Number 2019.11.74.

On reaching the shore, Ferdinand had recommended, we really found the water much quieter, and Ferdinand said to me softly; “Had we gone to the other side, we would have gone to the bottom.” … At Big Lake, I may say incidentally a man named Laflin, a rich powder manufacturer, has a place where he often entertains twenty friends at a high time. That’s about all a rich man gets out of it; the privilege of “entertaining” more…At Big Lake also there is a club known as the Manitowoc, where a number of gentlemen own cottages and dine in a common dining room. But these people are in comparative civilization; they are only one portage removed from an electric launch, and fresh meats, and milk, and vegetables and fruits.

One night, we had a real excitement at the cottage; Our neighbor, Mr. Dick came over and said one of his guides had been lost. He feared he had attempted to cross one of the lakes in spite of rough winds, and had been frowned. He wanted to borrow Big Charley to go in search of the missing man. Big Charley was in bed in the tent, and dressing hurriedly, departed in a boat. Before going many miles, he had found his man, returning home, he had simply “laid up” until the storm subsided.

On the trip across Big Lake, Big Charley told of a peculiar character found in lumber and hunting camps known as The Jumper. A jumper is a very nervous man and when you approach him suddenly and say loudly “Look Out!” He jumps a great distance and acts in a very excited manner. Meet a jumper in the woods, and say Hello to him when he is not looking and does not know anyone is near him, and like as not he will turn quickly, and shoot you. It was quite a story as Big Charley told it, but Ferdinand informed me privately that there was nothing in it.

The guides have an expression you seldom hear. A place where you can get a boat through in going from one lake to another, it is known as a thoroughfare. If it is necessary to portage the boat, there is no thoroughfare between the two lakes. This made me think of Dickens’ novel “No Thoroughfare.” When I first read the book, I had never heard the expression…When a guide carries a boat he usually has a pack saddle; a padded affair fitting over his neck and adjusting itself to the boat as it is turned upside down. He is also supplied with pack straps, and packing bags, articles which seem queer to a man from the prairie country.

On a certain Friday night, I parted with Ferdinand at Clear Lake, and with Big Charley at The Dam. On parting both said the same thing, “Well, take care of yourself.” I wish I could…After a ride of six miles, a telegraph pole began to appear then I heard the tinkle of cowbells. Soon after, the wife of a hotel proprietor was surprised at the actions of a man who made out a pretty good meal on bread and milk.

E. W. H.