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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Heading North Soon?

It's now officially summer, and down here in Madison all eyes turn north, either with happy memories of the weekend just passed or in anticipation of an upcoming one.

The idea of a northwoods vacation may owe its origin to Henry Thoreau, who described his own "excursions" to the Maine woods in 1848 and 1857. They took a bit more effort than ours do today: he recommended we bring along an "Axe, full size if possible, jackknife, fish-lines, two only apiece, with a few hooks and corks ready, and with pork for bait in a packet, rigged; matches (some also in a small vial in the waist-coat pocket); soap, two pieces; large knife and iron spoon (for all); three or four old newspapers, much twine, and several rags for dishcloths; twenty feet of strong cord, four-quart tin pail for kettle, two tin dippers, three tin plates, a fry-pan" (you can see Thoreau's entire list of camping supplies here).

By Thoreau's time, railroads, steamboats, and a romantic conception of nature were beginning to lead a few eccentric urban people to the woods. But as crowded, dirty cities expanded between 1850 and 1900, thousands of middle and upper class Americans began to travel for spiritual renewal, physical regeneration, or to relive the frontier life of the childhoods. By the late 19th century, enterprising rural residents were ready to serve the needs of this new class called tourists.

One family of early Wisconsin resort owners were the Thomases of Lac Vieux Desert. In the spring of 1852 Leonard Thomas's father-in-law, G. L. Draper, left his homestead 150 miles down river in Stevens Point after a flood swept away his cabin and drowned his wife and youngest child. With the other six small children, he paddled and portaged to the headwaters of the Wisconsin, where friendly Ojibwe Indians helped him establish himself, the first white settler at the very source of the Wisconsin. Leonard Thomas arrived as a visitor shortly after the Civil War and never left, marrying Mary Draper with whom he opened the first tourist resort in northeastern Wisconsin about 1880.

Others soon followed, and some turned into northwoods institutions. The history of Bent's Camp, on the Cisco chain 12 miles west of Land O' Lakes, near the Michigan line in Vilas Co., was recorded in these manuscripts from the Society's archives. The origins of other well-known northwoods resorts are described in this 1926 article from the Merrill Herald.

For more on the history of tourism in Wisconsin, check out this page at Turning Points in Wisconsin History and these pictures from Wisconsin Historical Images. And when it rains during your vacation, duck into one of the many local historical society museums scattered through the small towns of northern Wisconsin.

:: Posted in Curiosities on May 28, 2007

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