Rusk County, WI
Flambeau Settlement on the Chippewa--by Peter A. Weddig, May 21, 1971
Wisconsin contains hundreds of scenic rivers and streams and thousands of picturesque towns, villages and settlements. One of these rivers, and, indeed an important one in Wisconsin's history, the Chippewa River, alternately winds and meanders gently and rages and foams furiously on it's 180 plus mile journey through Wisconsin. Several towns have been constructed on it's banks from it's source in northern Wisconsin to it's mouth on the Mississippi River in the Southwestern part of the state. One of these was a small French settlement named Flambeau. To find Flambeau before modern roads, one person could direct another to the point where the Flambeau River junctions with the Chippewa in southern Rusk County. If one were to give directions today, since it is no longer designated on the State Highway map, one could choose from three alternatives. Six miles north of Holcombe, on highway 27, county highway D extends westward along the Chippewa River to the Flambeau area. Touring county highway E south from Bruce fifteen miles will also lead the traveler to Flambeau. A third route can be accomplished by motoring east on highway D from Island Lake, which is located on highway 40.
Many have asked how Flambeau got it's name. I have not been able to positively find the answer. We know that a majority of the early inhabitants were of French ancestry. This is ascertained by talking to descendants of those early inhabitants and visiting the local cemetery. In the French language the term flambeau is translated as a "torch, candle or candlestick." (1) Flambeau could have possibly gained it's name because of a very high hill located just to the south of the river. It is known as Flambeau Mountain. It can be viewed for miles around because it is the highest elevated piece of land in this locale and in autumn with the various shades of orange and red leaves changing color, it may have resembled a torch to a passerby.
Flambeau may possibly be named because the Flambeau River joins the Chippewa at this spot. One person that I talked with suggested that it was named by Father Marquette when he went down the river. This latter idea seems rather remote. First of all, Father Marquette would have had to make this journey over two hundred years before the settlement at Flambeau was founded. Would the name remain at this one, unsettled spot for a period of time equivalent to the length of time the United States has been an independent country, even if it were given by as prestigious man as Father Marquette and the few Indians that would have accompanied him to Flambeau. Although we know that Father Marquette was near Ashland, there were certain traits of his that cast a shadow of doubt over his possible exploration of Northern Wisconsin farther than the Lake Superior vicinity at all. "Marquette served as missionary for the comparatively brief space of six and one-half years; He was not like Father Allouox, S.J., and so many others, a pioneer and founder of missions, barring perhaps Mission St. Ignace. In the summer of 1669 Marquette was sent to the LaPointe Mission at Chequamegon Bay to replace Allouox who had been instructed to found a mission at Green bay. During the six years (1669-1675) he worked among the Indians in the new west there was obviously little chance for Marquette to undolf? any spectacular intellectual activity. He was more interested in converting the Indians to Christianity than in furnishing scientific information about them or in recording his experiences and successes among them. His writings during these years are relatively very meager. (2) Marquette was in the Chequamegon Bay area for a second time in 1671-1672, but apparently couldn't have done much exploring because of the "unrest that developed among the resident Indians and in the end forced Marquette to accompany the restive Huron and Ottawa back to Mackinac Straits." (3) Indeed if Flambeau were to be named by a Frenchman three hundred years ago, a more logical choice would be Father Menard. "In the spring of 1661...he set out with one companion, first by land trail to Lac Court Oreilles then by canoe down the rushing Chippewa River." (4) Father Boucher, a contemporary of Father Marquette and founder of Boucherville, Canada later stated that "I have learned from four or five Frenchmen, lately returned from there, who went with a Jesuit Father Menard, who died in the summer of 1661, toward the source of the Black River of Wisconsin." (5) If this is true, most certainly the priest passed by Flambeau several years in advance of Father Marquette.
Another possible exploration by Frenchmen may have been made in "1668... Radisson and Groseilliers went out to the southern shore of Lake Superior, and on Chequamegon Bay near Ashland they built the first white man's habitation in Wisconsin. They spent two winters there ranging far afield in the meantime." (6) and may have come as far south as Flambeau.
Certainly Father Menard was farther south three years later. The origin and originator of the name, Flambeau, for the community still remains somewhat of a mystery.
The earliest recorded date that I could find on Flambeau coincides with the arrival of a few Frenchmen and several French Canadians who worked the lumber camps. "Flambeau is a post village on the Chippewa River, fourteen miles south of Bruce, the nearest shipping point. It was settled in 1868, and has a post office, church and a district school, with about 100 residents. Mail is received and distributed twice a week. The total population of the township for 1890 was 289." (7) Although Flambeau now lies in Rusk County, it was formerly a part of Chippewa County, as recorded in 1880 is shown as follows: Chippewa Falls, 4,003; Auburn, 1,230; Anson, 730; Bloomer, 1,886; Big Bend and Flambeau, 589; Eagle Point, 2,626; Edson, 884; LaFayette, 1,903; Sigel, 849; Wheaton, 1,287. Total 15,987." (8)
One of the landmarks of the early history of Flambeau which still stands is the church. A priest would come from Chippewa Falls once or twice a year to conduct services. The rest of the year there were none. The church "was erected (1881) by our director of the Indian Missions in the Northwest, the zealous and amiable Father Casimir." (9) A few modifications of the church took place, but it was originally "a well built frame building, neat in it's proportions, clean and tastefully painted, and has those quaint looking Indian mattings on the sanctuary floor." (10) One of the modifications was a bell steeple and vestibule added to the front of the church. Originally the bell occupied a covered platform in the church yard. The bell itself has interesting history and story to tell. "The bell for the St. Francis church was donated by a man in Saint Louis and was hauled to St. Francis from Chippewa Falls by Mr. Frank Sinette" (11) on it's last leg of it's journey from St. Louis. The bell still can be heard in Flambeau on Sunday mornings in the summer. Services are conducted between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Of prime economic importance to Flambeau and probably it's reason for existence in the late Nineteenth Century was the Daniel Shaw Lumber Company.
Daniel Shaw Jr. was born in 1813 in Industry, Maine. Apparently he had an early affection, zest and knowledge for lumbering because he operated a sawmill in Industry before he was twenty years old. "In 1856, Daniel Shaw & Company located at "Shawtown", now the West side of Eau Claire." (12) immediately, on his arrival here, in company with his brother-in-law, C.A. Bullen, to get out logs for sawing, and in the following spring built a mill on the site now occupied by the Daniel Shaw Lumber Company. This mill was operated until it burned down in 1867. A new and larger mill was built on the site and was kept in operation by Daniel Shaw & Co. Until the firm was incorporated as the Daniel Shaw Lumber Company in 1874, with Daniel Shaw, president. (13)
The Shaw company established a headquarters at Flambeau and built a farm on a hill on the south bank of the Chippewa River a few yards downstream from the point where the Flambeau River joins the Chippewa. This was to be known as Flambeau Farm. The house, though now deserted and in ill-repair, still stands and was inhabited until a few years ago. This house was the hub of all activity around Flambeau in the lumbering days and became quite famous as the only house with an indoor water system.
To get some idea of the importance and influence of the Shaw Company to Flambeau about 1875 we can examine the company's accomplishments. "D. Shaw and Company cut thirteen million five hundred and eighty-four thousand feet of lumber, three million two hundred and fifty thousand lat, and three million one hundred and ten thousand shingles. They owned a store and shops, and a fine grist mill. They employ two hundred men." (14)
Flambeau was certainly not only a French settlement, but a majority of the early population consisted of Chippewa Indians. The Chippewas, although scattered throughout the area, had a particularly large congregation at the eastern end of Flambeau on the Chippewa River past the church. This was known to the inhabitants as "Squaw Point." A man who was born at the Shaw farm in 1891 remembers the Indians living in "wigwams" and a lady who began teaching school in Flambeau in 1922 recalls the Indians living in small wooden houses. The Indians spoke English, but many also spoke French as did most of the French Canadian settlers about the turn of the century. The Chippewas also were also dependent on the Shaw Company for work . They were hard workers and adept at moving the logs downstream.
Whenever one looks into the history of an area it is fascinating to compare the past to the present. I would like to attempt to manage this by reconstructing the past through conversations that were conducted with a few early inhabitants of Flambeau. Today, there are two bridges that cross the Chippewa River, one conveys highway D near the school house and the church where Charlie Bell's tavern is located at the eastern end of Flambeau. The other is located approximately one mile west where highway E juts northward from D at the junction of the two rivers and Flater's resort. The eastern most bridge is the older of the two, it being built in 1905, and is due to be replaced very soon. Even earlier a wooden bridge has been built at this point but it had been washed out by high water. The other bridge was built about twelve years later and has been replaced once. One of the old supports can still be seen just downstream of the new bridge.
Before the bridges existed there used to be a ferry operated by the town. It's cable was strung across the Chippewa approximately from the church on the south bank to an inlet near where Justus farm is today. The ferry was large enough for two teams of horses, and they were operated by a man on each bank turning a large wheel. There also is a legend of another ferry that operated just west of the newer bridge at the western end of Flambeau.
In more prosperous days Flambeau had the services of a post office, a blacksmith shop, two schools, one of which still remains and is currently being used as a summer home, two cheese factories and two saloons.
The post office, which was located where the Schultz farm is now, was closed before 1920 when Holcombe assumed the job of delivering mail to Flambeau. While Flambeau still had a post office, the mail was brought there from Chippewa Falls by horse.
The cheese factories became the prominent industries as more lumbermen turned to farming in the wake of the lumbering decline. At the height of the lumbering boom, the only farming here was the raising of hay for the horses and a vegetable garden for the individual families. A small amount of grain was raised by the settlers, who would, in turn, transport it to Chippewa Falls where they would have it ground.
By 1920, Flambeau had dwindled to about sixty inhabitants and one school. There were two rooms in the school, one for grade schoolers and the other for high school students. There were about forty students in the grade room, most of them from Flambeau, and twenty high schoolers, most of whom had been transported in from other areas.
One of the saloons is worth mentioning because of it's uniqueness by present day standards. Each spring when the lumberjacks returned from the winter camps, somewhat prosperous and full of high-spirits, the saloon was the establishment that many paid their initial visit to. Because of their boisterous and devastating reputation, one saloon on the south bank of the Chippewa, not far from the Flambeau farm, was annually constructed in as temporary a fashion as feasible. After the onslaught of drinking, brawling, and desolating lumberjacks, not much remained of the saloon to the dismay of neither the lumberjacks or the proprietor.
Today, the north bank of the Chippewa River is a successful potato growing concern. This area was originally logged over and became grown up with brush and left in worthless condition. They, surprisingly enough, between 14,000 and 15,000 sheep were brought into the area and raised for many years. The sheep cleared the land and it and it was sold for the present purpose of raising potatoes. It seems that a flock of sheep coming down the road would frighten any horse coming past and consequently cause a handling predicament for it's rider.
It's truly a shame that we will never experience some of the spectacles of days gone by. When the river used to be very rough in the spring with the ice shooting up thirty feet in the air. It was a fantastic sight and people could hear the ice in the distance "booming like war." (15) in the spring the logs would :jam up near the island just downstream from the church so high people couldn't see the other bank of the river." (16) The trees were so dense that people couldn't see more than a few yards in any direction."
Sights such as these will never again be viewed in Flambeau or any other part of Wisconsin, but the memory of their occurrence lingers in the minds of those who experienced them and they are richer for these reminiscences for we can only attempt to visualize these grandiose displays of unbridled nature that frequented Flambeau settlement.
- F. E. Mansion. Mansion's shorter French and English Dictionary. P. 268.
- Rev. Francis Borgia Steck. Essay Relating to the Jolliet-Marquette Expedition 1673. 1, pp. 15, 16, 23, 24.
- Bertha Kitchell Whyte. Wisconsin Heritage. P. 171.
- Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society-History of the Ojibways. V. p. 404.
- William Francis Raney. Wisconsin a Story of Progress. P. 17.
- Historical and Biographical Album of the Chippewa Valley Wisconsin. George Forrester. od p. 62.
- History of Northern Wisconsin. P. 191.
- Father Goldsmith. The History of Chippewa County. 1. Pp. 33-37
- Ellis Baker Usher. Wisconsin its story and Biography 1848-1917. 1. P. 197.
- Forrester, op. Cit.. P. 388.
- Charles R. Tuttle. An Illustrated History of the State of Wisconsin. P. 37.
- Mrs. Edna Gourdoux, Interview
- Mr. Lester Sinette, Interview
- Anonymous, Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society-History of the Ojibways St. Paul Minnesota Historical Society, c. 1885.
- History of Northern Wisconsin, Chicago, The Western Historical Company, c. 1881.
- Flater, Joanne, Interview.
- Forresters, George, Historical and Biographical Album of the Chippewa Valley Wisconsin, Chicago, A. Werner, c. 1891-2.
- Goldsmith, Father The History of Chippewa County. Vol. 1, Chicago, S. J.Clarke, c. 1913.
- Gourdoux, Edna, Interview.
- Raney, William Francis,. Wisconsin a Story of Progress. New York, Prentice-Hall, Inc., c. 1940.
- Sinette, Lester, Interview.
- Steck, Rev. Francis Borgia, Essay Relating to the Jolliet-Marquette Expedition 1637 Vol. 1, Pro Manuscripts, c. 1954.
- Tuttle, Charles R., An Illustrated History of the State of Wisconsin, Boston, B.B. Russell, c. 1875.
- Usher, Ellis Baker, Wisconsin its story and Biography 1848-1917, vol. 1, Chicago, The Lewis Publishing Company, c. 1914.
- Whyte, Bertha Kitchell, Wisconsin Heritage, Boston, Charles T. Brandford Company, c. 1954.