University of Wisconsin Press

The first generation of lumber barons in the Wisconsin northwoods, Isaac Stephenson, Frederick Weyerhaeuser, and Philetus Sawyer, amassed enormous acreage of public domain loaded with virgin pine and made fortunes sending floatable logs down river to market.  By the end of the 1880’s, the railroads were well established throughout central Wisconsin, providing passenger and freight service from the small towns to Midwestern financial, industrial, and political centers in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago and beginning to spread their tentacles north into every corner where profit might be realized.  They had land for sale – government grants to them of alternate sections for opening up the country at give-away prices – fifty cents, a dollar, a dollar and a half an acre.  In that time of unchecked  possibility in America, when individual aggrandizement was often viewed as a social good and hungry men from eastern states and many nations drifted over the land seeking opportunity in this ever-expanding, increasingly powerful country, W.D. Connor assembled his fiefs.

Two factors enabled him to become one of “the big lumber people (who) stole the whole north country.”  His father, a state assemblyman in 1889, served on the State Road and Railroad Committee and provided insider information the direction and the timing of the northern expansion of the Chicago and Northwestern and the Soo lines, and W.D. had ambition, drive and skills to use that information.

His first major expansion, in 1892, was to a heavily wooded area twelve miles north of Marshfield, a day’s trip with a good team.  Although no English Avon flowed there – instead, a French Eau Pleine – W.D. named the site Stratford.  He built a band sawmill, a store, roads, a track of railroad (the Marathon County Road) to connect with the Soo Line, and houses for his workers, many of whom came from Auburndale, where the timber had almost all been harvested.

Bent on expanding, and constantly on the move, he needed dependable agents to look after his interests.  To manage his mill and the woods he chose “keen-eyed” Sam Smith and Jerry Hughs, a farmer, butcher, and all around hustler who hauled for the company. To secure his interests in the township, he chose a sober Anglo-Saxon family man of enormous physical stature and strength and promised him “great things if (he) would play ball with him.”  Leonard Sargent’s son recounts how W.D. immediately maneuvered to make his father the town chairman.  Farmers believed their candidate outnumbered Connor’s men in the township; but when election day came, a new population brought in by W.D. a few weeks before the election (a man became eligible to vote after ten days) tipped the balance in Sargent’s favor. After the election, W.D. fired the newcomers.  He did not need the lumberjacks in the warm weather, but he did need to control the town.  Assessments could make or break an entrepreneur. 

As W.D.’s tool, Sargent became town chairman, clerk of the school board, and manager of the only hotel and tavern, Stratford House, and in that capacity received discount prices for provisions at the company store and held the saloon license, an important benefit.  The liquor trade – at five cents a shot for the throat-searing blended barrel whiskey that the laborers drank and ten cents a shot for the twenty-year-old branded bottle whiskey for the few who could afford to drink it – brought good profits.  Sometimes as many as fifty workmen crowded into the Sargent bar.

Fighting, gambling, drinking, hunting – unrestricted then by any law – and an occasional barn dance, horse race, or mandolin performance provided almost the only entertainment.  Occasionally, someone would pull into town with a wagon, hang up a gasoline lamp, announce a curiosity, and ask a fee for a look.  When a wagon with a “Petrified Man” the owner claimed to have found near Peshtigo stopped in town, Mrs. Sargent wanted to know if W.D. didn’t want to pay the ten cents for a glimpse.  “No, Mrs. Sargent,” Mr. Connor replied.  “If I want to see any petrified men, all I have to do is visit my lumber yard.”  Or, he might have added, look in the window of Mr. Laemle’s clothing store in Marshfield, where “a mummified squaw and papoose” attracted “a great deal of attention.”

Helen’s father had a quick tongue, a knowledge of prevailing business practices in the lumber game, a relentless ambition, and not a great deal of respect for many of the men, the “counts and no accounts,” who labored twelve-hour days or nights for him.  Many of the men had little respect for themselves.   They drifted from camp to camp living on temporary labor, companionship, and booze.  Young ladies attempting to settle them down to the hard routine of raising families were not often successful.

As he enlarged his timber empire, W.D. borrowed heavily, delayed payment of his bills to suppliers, and paid his workman with scrip, paper money issued by the company in 5.00, 10.00, 25.00, and 50 cent and one and two dollar denominations.  While the scrip was illegal, it kept “real” money available for expansion and essential “outside” charges.  A new engineer at the sawmill who was smart enough to know the rules, upon finding that scrip was used to buy postage stamps at the post office, which was located in the company office, notified the post office inspector, who dropped in and put an end to the practice.  The fact the engineer lost his job did not go unremarked.  W.D.’s reputation as a man bent on getting ahead and willing to bend the rules spread.

In 1896, the year of his father’s death, with successful operations in Auburndale and Stratford, W.D. pursued his march to fortune. Together with his eighteen-year-old brother, Rob, and a cruiser, Herman Langer, by foot and horseback, he explored the timberlands north of Gillett, then Northwestern’s northernmost point.  He judged timber values, calculated costs, and bought from the railroad corporation about 100,000 acres of alternate sections in anticipation of the railroad’s coming.

In the almost roadless land inhabited by Indians, wild cats, bear, and timber wolves, he discovered what became his principal fiefdom: the great virgin hardwood forests east of Crandon surrounding the tiny settlement called Laona in a county aptly named Forest. The county was “at the end of the world” in those days.  The area, almost as full of streams and lakes as woods, was an ideal location for a major mill, and in the heart of the great forests lay Birch Lake.  Deep and clear, it was fed by underground streams and bordered by towering pine and graceful white birch.  The men camped by its shores, and W.D. declared that lake, with its island at the center (which the Indians refused to visit thinking it rested on a serpent’s back and would turn over), his own into perpetuity for his family’s personal use.

Having scouted the land and sized up the population – the impoverished Chippewas and Potawatomies, who had not relocated further west but stayed on, or returned, to starve and freeze in the meager acreage the government allotted them;  European castoffs, “Kaintucks,” the few Swedish farmers, the railroad “boys,”the camp suppliers – W.D. strove to establish order, to build a new community according to his enlightened self-interest.  Seeking greater financial flexibility, he incorporated a new company: the Connor Lumber and Land Company, whose stock, like the R. Connor Company and other of the nation’s major lumber companies, was held in family hands.

Over the next few years, he cleared land for “his” Laona on the forty he owned north of the original railroad settlement known as Lower Town, where a few independent saloon owners, shopkeepers, and railroad workers lived.  He dug wells, filled in marsh land, cleared land for a company farm, brought in pigs and cattle, and built a round barn, slaughterhouse, blacksmith shop, electric utility, lumber yard, mill, roads, dams, and railroad tracks for his own feeder line, the Laona and northern.  (It ran parallel with the Chicago and Northwestern and linked with the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault St. Marie Railroad and the Soo Line at Laona Junction.)

He gave the land and lumber for the Presbyterian, Catholic, and Lutheran churches and brought trusted family men from Auburndale to Laona including Albert Schuette, Jes Derme, Sam Smith, John Kissinger, and the Baltuses, Aschenbrenners, and Maedenwalds.  He moved his faithful agent, Len Sargent, from Stratford to run his new town and put his younger brother Rob, finished with his studies at Hanover College, a Presbyterian institution in Indiana, in charge at Stratford.  He built another company store where, once again his employees spent the money he issued.  He built a boardinghouse, which the workers called the Prune House, and a hundred company houses with no waterworks, where the soot and cold winds blew through the primitive structures, and he collected the rent.  No one working for Connor could buy in any store but Connor’s or rent a room in Lower Town after 1900, when Sargent’s thirty-room hotel went up in W.D.’s town.

No detail in W.D.’s empire was too minute to attract his interest, no scheme too grand.  He built dozens of logging camps in the woods surrounding Laona, simple wooden shacks where meals were eaten swiftly and silently and men slept short nights and worked long days and were so filthy and so cold in the blew-zero winters that lumberjacks claimed that, although they were all loaded with lice, not a head louse could be found among them; they were all down on their bodies where it was warmer.

Word of the new town and work in northern Wisconsin spread.  Charles (Charlie) Edward Barney heard about it and came from southern Michigan, where the woods had been cleared and everything had turned to farms and he didn’t like farming.  He came to Laona with his wife and children, four hundred pounds of household goods, seven dollars, and a canary, and there he settled for life.  As a young man he worked in the woods and the mill and hauled wood, coal, and groceries to the camps around Laona. Sometimes it got so cold (52 degrees below zero) that the only things moving were those head lice going south.  The sleigh runners wouldn’t slide until they doubled up the team.  The potatoes froze in the open sleigh.  But men got the meat they needed to keep them going.  When he got old, Charlie became W.D.’s caretaker at Birch Lake, keeping poachers away from the walleyes.

The Forest County operation grew enormous. Over the years, W.D. replaced his wooden buildings, store, and bank with brick buildings and added at three story brick hotel with a billiard and pool room and a bowling alley in the basement, making it “one of the finest in Northern Wisconsin.”  There no alcohol was served; it was a genteel place attractive to moneyed people.  He invited Ernest Ovitz, the fearless doctor on horseback who loved medicine, hunting, and fishing equally, to be the company doctor and built a brick hospital for him.  The first public library in Forest County was housed in the brick school building he built.

In the winters, hundreds of men were in Connor’s woods; many, if not most, of them, had been “caught” by the “mancatchers” W.D. hired to stake out the saloons in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Superior, and Chicago to trap likely men.  They loaded the drunks in cars and delivered them to Laona, where at least half sobered up and stayed on to work.  Most worked long enough to pay off the fare owed the company; some wandered off before doing so, leaving behind their gunny sacks with family pictures and a few possessions.  The unclaimed sacks, called “turkeys” by the townspeople, periodically were gathered in a pile and burned. 

Many of these ensnared wanderers – Finns, Russians, and Poles – came down with smallpox, prevalent among the Indians living in the woods.  The “Bohunks,” as the Anglos called them, were sequestered then, quarantined in the “Pest House” on Mill Street, the main street running west to the mill and mill pond and east to Birch Lake.  The children and workers’ wives living on Mill Street watched as food was taken up to the sick men, but none ventured out to the cemetery a night when the corpses were buried.

No labor laws protected the workers, many of whom would wake up after a night of heavy drinking at Sargent’s Bar in the “snake room” of his hotel.  Nothing prohibited child labor. The work was dangerous, the logging work, and the work in the mill.  Men were crushed under logs; sparks from machinery lighting on dust in the mill caused horrible fires; a body moving among the line shafts could get caught in one of many turning belts.  But if a man were mutilated, and many were, it was too bad for him.

It was too bad for one “green foreigner” who got his foot caught in a conveyor chain and had his toes on one foot cut off.  The doctor trimmed the end of his foot, folded the sole up, and sewed it.  But he couldn’t work anymore, and his wages stopped, and as soon as his accumulated wages were used up for board, he was kicked out of the Prune House.  He went to the parish priest, as he would have “in the old country.”  Father John J. Loerke put him on train and sent him to Green Bay with a personal message to Joe Martin, “one of Wisconsin’s most famous attorneys.”  The young man’s pitiful condition, along with the informative letter about labor conditions in Laona prompted Martin to write a stinging letter to W.D.

Learning that Father Loerke was responsible for the employee’s seeking outside help, W.D. ordered the priest to come into the company office.  Father Loerke responded: If you want to see me, you come over to my office.”  Instead of going, W.D. “ordered the company to shut off the electric lights at the church and parsonage.”  By candlelight, the priest “delivered a sermon that was a sizzler.”  Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to Green Bay.

Everyone in Loana knew W.D. showed more concern for his horses than his workers and would fire a man on the spot for beating one of them.  Horses were harder to get and cost more.

W.D.’s control over the hard place was complete.  Through that control he prospered, helped develop an undeveloped area of the state, provided livelihoods, however marginal, for many.  Known among his fellow lumbermen in the hardwood business as “a thinker from way back,” a philosopher and orator who had “a facial resemblance to Demosthenes and a calm, unostentatious manner of a supreme court judge,” he was called the “high mucky muck” by his workers and “King William the Silent” by journalists.  As W.D. carved out his fortune and his place in the history of the young state, he was feared and respected, admired and hated.  At home, he was the handsome, loving, devoted, fascinating father whom Helen adored.

~  End of Story  ~
        Photo from the book A Mind of Her Own: Helen Connor Laird & Family, 1888-1982.
    Chapter Three - Getting Ahead
from the book
A Mind of Her Own: Helen Connor Laird & Family, 1888-1982
by Helen L. Laird