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One of the older communities in Oconto County is the little place of Hickory, located near Kelly Lake. Established over 100 years ago, Hickory is nothing more than quiet farm country now, but was once a busy little lumbering community with several sawmills operating in the area.
The first settler in what became Hickory was the famed Irishman, Patrick Kelly, who arrived in 1855. In the forbidding wilderness of that time, Kelly had to go as far as Stiles to find his closest neighbor. And when he needed supplies, it meant a trip to Oconto by ox team.
A great many stories have been handed down about Pat Kelly, and as time went on. the stories grew to such proportions that they became comparable to the Paul Bunyan legends. Kelly Lake and Kelly Brook are both named for this colorful pioneer.
In 1870 Joe McMahon arrived from Canada and purchased 160 acres of farm land in Hickory. He was later followed by the Lord and Trecartin families. Trecartin built a home on a hill with a large number of hickory trees around it. As he was the first postmaster in the settlement, he submitted "Hickory Hill" to Washington as the name of the post office. However, another post office had already been established using that name, so Trecartin's suggestion was shortened to "Hickory".
By 1876 the community was becoming more heavily populated. Among these early settlers Al Johnson, Darius Martin, the Cooleys, Ways, Posts, Clapps, Mathewsons, Sylvesters, McKenney's, Christensens and the Davis and Saunders families to name but a few.
While many of these pioneering people were trying to make a home out of the forest wilderness, well-to-do Chicago residents were basking in the luxurious rooms and parlors of the Kelly Lake Hotel. Thomas Trecartin opened the resort in the 1880's at the still popular lake near Hickory. An advertisement of November 18,1891, reads in part:
"Kelly Lake, the famous summer resort of northern Wisconsin, now offers unbounded attractions for the sportsman. The adjoining forests are teeming with game of all kinds, while the lake and nearby streams in the neighborhood afford the best of fishing. Conveyances will meet passengers at all trains if notified by mail" (In 1891, the nearest railroad station was at Lena.)
The Mills family owned and operated the first sawmill in Hickory. It was destroyed by fire and rebuilt and operated by Jay Dunham.
In 1887 the store in Hickory was built by L.S. Lord. The building later became the community's post office and housed the first telephone exchange in the area. The store was later sold to Fred and Nellie Butler. This store was destroyed by fire in May, 1978. But Butler opened a hardware store and Pete Buchburger opened a blacksmith shop.
The first schoolhouse, erected in 1871, was a small scoop-roofed building where a few children were taught their three R's by Mrs. L.S. Lord. A Miss Hawthorne was another early teacher.
It was from this schoolhouse that Calvin Sanford preached the tirst religious services in the community. Services were held here until 1894 when the Methodist and Christian churches were built.
In 1885 a new schoolhouse was built at Hickory, replacing the log cabin structure. H.W. Gilkey was the first teacher in this school. When the third and present school building was built in 1914, the old school was sold to the Modern Woodmen of America who used it as a hall. It was a popular gathering place for residents of the community and was used for parties and dances as well as for the annual Farmers Institute that was a popular event of bygone days.
One of the most well known people to come out of Hickory was the late "Smiley" Burnette of the motion picture and television fame. "Smiley" was the son of the Rev. G.W. Burnette, who served as minister at the Hickory Church of Christ.
Gene Autry fans will remember Burnette as Autry's side-kick "Frog". The nickname came from ''Smiley's" habit of imitating a frog during sermons preached by his father. More recently, and up until the time of his death a few years ago, "Smiley" was the fireman in the popular television series, "Petticoat Junction".
The principal means of livelihood in Hickory today is farming and stock raising. The schoolhouse is now maintained by the Hickory chapter of the Oconto County Historical Society as one of the few remaining one-room country schools in the area and is used for their meetings as well as by 4-H groups.
And as for Patrick Kelly, the founder of the town, little is left to memorialize him but the name he gave to surrounding areas. His mortal remains are buried northeast of the Hickory Methodist church, but the stones marking his grave and those of his family have disappeared. They were removed by a farmer clearing land after surviving members of Pat Kelly's family moved awav.
Hickory Church of Christ and Parsonage built in 1894.