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Vilas County History

Vilas County was created on April 12, 1893 by act of the Wisconsin Legislature and was named after William F. Vilas of Madison, Wisconsin. Born in 1840, Vilas moved from Vermont to Wisconsin in 1851, graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1858, attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel during the Civil War and served as Postmaster General of the United States (1885-1888), Secretary of the Interior (1888-1891) and U.S. Senator from Wisconsin (1891- 1897).

The first officials of Vilas County were appointed by the governor and were as follows:
T. I. Loughlin, County Clerk
F. J. Deckert, Register of Deeds
N. A. Colman, District Attorney
T. B. Walsh, Treasurer
W. D. Neville, Clerk of Court
Max Sells, Sheriff
Daniel Graham, Surveyor
Alex Higgins, Superintendent of Schools
James Oberholzer, Coroner
E. C. Allen, County Judge (who served until 1895 when he resigned and
F. W. McIntyre was appointed by the Governor to fill the unexpired term)

Prior to January 1, 1875, Vilas County was part of Marathon County; from 1875 to 1885 part of Lincoln County; from 1885 to 1893 part of Oneida County and then set apart as Vilas County in 1893.

When Vilas County was first set off, it contained the two towns of Eagle River and Mincoqua. Aside from scattered lumbering or logging operations, the village of Eagle River was the chief place of activity in the County and was established as the county seat. Construction for the courthouse in Eagle River was started in 1893 and the courthouse opened in 1894. Eagle River has remained the county seat to this date. The second volume of the County Board shows that in 1899 the County was divided into Eagle River, Arbor Vitae and Minocqua. In 1900, Flambeau was created and in 1905 Hackley (now Phelps) was created and the present boundaries of Vilas and Oneida Counties were made final. On January 3, 1907, State Line (now Land O’Lakes) was set off from the town of Eagle River, as was the town of Conover.

Farmington (now St. Germain) and Winegar (now Presque Isle) were also created that same year. On December 8, 1910, Plum Lake was created from territory detached from the town of Arbor Vitae. On May 12, 1914, the towns of Lincoln and Washington were created from territory detached from the town of Eagle River. On May 11, 1921, the towns of Winchester (from territory in Presque Isle) and Cloverland (from parts of Conover, Lincoln and Farmington) were created. In 1927, both the Town of Boulder Junction (from a portion of Arbor Vitae) and the Town of Spider Lake (renamed Manitowish Waters in 1940) were created. With the incorporation of Eagle River as a city in 1937, the geographical boundaries of Vilas County were now complete: Towns of Arbor Vitae, Boulder Junction, Cloverland, Conover, Lac du Flambeau, Land O’Lakes, Lincoln, Manitowish Waters, Phelps, Plum Lake, Presque Isle, St. Germain, Washington and Winchester and the City of Eagle River.

Who were Vilas County’s first inhabitants? Vilas County was historically forested land before settlement. Several Native American settlements of the Chippewa band were sustained by the forests, game and fish in the abundant lakes. We know that Native Americans traversed the area, canoeing the many lakes and establishing woodland trails, which in many cases were the forerunners of later day roads. The sites of their encampments and burial grounds are still in evidence. The first recorded white inhabitant in the Vilas County area was a man named Ashman, who established a trading post at Lac du Flambeau in 1818.

In 1852, the family of John Draper settled on the southwest shore of Lac Vieux Desert where a clearing of land for raising vegetables had already been made and set up a trading post there. It is thought that the clearing was made by the Hudson Bay Company, or possible agents of the American Fur Company, and subsequently used by the Native Americans. In fact the Native American name for Lac Vieux Desert is “Ke-teg-it-tee-gon-ing” meaning “The Deserted Planting Ground” for the clearing which had been previously established there. Hiram B. (Hi) Polar built a trading post on Yellow Birch Lake, as also did Dan Gagen on the site known as Gagen Hill. These posts, or “stations” as they were known, were stopping places for the mail carriers as well as for the fur traders who purchased pelts from the Native Americans and the white trappers.

During the 1850’s, a number of early trails and “tote roads” were developed which helped to make travel easier between the frontier villages. Foremost among these were the Ontonagon Mail Trail (from Wausau, Wisconsin to Ontonagon, Michigan); the Wausau and State Line Road (from Wausau to Lac Vieux Desert); and the Military Road (from Fort Howard [Green Bay] to Fort Wilkins on Lake Superior). Although the earliest loggers used the northern waterways to send their timber down to the mills in Merrill, Wausau and Stevens Point, the early trails were avenues of transportation in the shipment of supplies to the logging camps. Who were the earliest loggers?

In 1855, Joshua Fox and his partner, Helms, settled on the east shore of Eagle Lake and built a trading post called “Kee-mi-con”, so named after the Native American guide, who when paddling Fox of the river to the site asked “Kee-mi-con”?, or “Have you found it?” Other early loggers in the area were Hurley & Burns, Edwards & Clinton, Findley & McDonald, Tabling & Bradford, Dickenson & Cook, John Curran and John Phelps. What lured these adventurous pioneers into the areas we now call Vilas County? Imagine, if you will, tall, stately pine forests with very little underbrush. Imagine vast tracts of land that could be acquired by Government patent or purchased for $1.25 an acre under the Homestead Act of 1862. Imagine sparkling streams, clear blue lakes and abundant wildlife. Who could resist! First were the loggers who left clearings in the wilderness; then the merchants who established the early villages; then the farmers who tilled the clearings left by the loggers; and most recently, the tourists and resort owners who are the mainstay of our present economy.