WAUSAU – There were no houses, malls or streets when the first European settlers came to Wausau.
But there was a vast, seemingly endless sea of trees, which the settlers were about to use to their advantage. Shortly after the first inhabitants built their houses, the timber trade began to flourish, in the second half of the 19th century. Every winter, men headed north, felled trees and dragged the logs to the Wisconsin River.
Every spring, when the river thawed, logs rushed to Wausau, which was then little more than a tiny logging outpost, said Gary Gisselman, a historian with the Marathon County Historical Society. Workers hauled logs from the river, which then crushed the wood and sent it to a growing country in need of materials.
One of the most important sawmills, the Barker-Stewart Sawmill, located on what is now Barker-Stewart Island, was one of 13 sawmills that helped create Wausau’s fortunes and leave a little piece of his heritage. The factory was run by prominent lumber barons CC Stewart and Hiram Stewart. The mill opened around 1881, Gisselman said, and closed in 1915.
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Although not much remains of the mill, the foundation still sits on the island, which is located in the Wisconsin River near Wausau on the Water Entertainment Center, and the Historical Society still tells the stories of the days when the families moved to Wausau. be part of the softwood lumber boom.
The experiences of workers in the early wood industries will be the focus of “A Cut in Time on Barker-Steward Island,” an event hosted by the Marathon County Historical Society that aims to share those stories through re-enactments.
“There are people who are afraid to go to this island,” said Jane Janke Johnson, who will be one of the actresses playing a historic role during the tours. “Because it’s mysterious. But it’s a great opportunity to learn more about the river.”
The tour will begin by transporting visitors back to 1881, when the small island mill employed hundreds of workers.
“(The Mills) brought a lot of people to Wausau,” Gisselman said. “There was work to be done. That’s really what put Wausau on the map in the early years.”
The speakers, who will be dressed in the style of the time, will tell the story of the railway that transported the wood from the mills to other towns, the men in charge of transporting the logs from the river to the island and how the river became deadly for a family in the late 1800s.
But the focus will be on the impact of sawmills on the city itself.
“Because of the success of the timber industry, people have become rich,” said Janke Johnson.
“Then they formed things like the Wausau Company, which led to the telephone company, Marathon Electric and others,” Gisselman said. “There was an incredible amount of money won.”
Although there were many mills along the Wisconsin River in Wausau, the remnants of Barker-Stewart Island are all that remains of the long-gone industry, and Janke Johnson and Gisselman hope visits will help keep the stories alive for many more generations.
“That’s pretty much where Wausau started,” Gisselman said.
Contact Going Out reporter Laura Schulte at 715-297-7532 or email@example.com; on Twitter @schultelaura.
Learn about the logging history of Barker-Stewart Island
Or: Barker-Stewart Island. The parking lot is located at 800 First St. behind the Eye Clinic of Wisconsin. The island is accessible by the Riverfront Trail.
When: May 21, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: $5 donation to the Marathon County Historical Society