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Oconto County


Researched, written and contributed by: Gloria A. Olson

Town of Pensaukee  -
  1855 to 2005

   The Early Years

The town of Pensaukee made application for township in 1855, and was officially created on 20 Feb. 1856 at latitude 44829N and longitude 0875811W.  It became the third township in the county, which was formed in 1851.  The town of Oconto was formed on 7 April 1852 followed by  Marinette, the second township formed, on 1 March 1854.  Pensaukee included all the land in Township 27N from the shore of Green Bay to the western edge of the county.  There were three developing communities in the eastern part of the town.  The community on the Pensaukee River, which was on the river, east of what had been the first mill site of 1827.  The original mill site had been contracted for, by J. P. Arndt, with the U.S. Government and the Menominee Indians, being the first in the northeastern part of Wisconsin. Oak Orchard developed around the stopping off place of John Windross, and Brookside along two crossing Indian trails to the southwest of the river, an area originally settled by Delano families, relatives and others from Watertown, Jefferson County, N.Y.

The settlement of Pensaukee was the largest in the township when it was formed.  On the 1850 census, at best, there were three individuals, who may have been located there.  They were John Place, age 41, born New York, and Josiah Colston (Colson), age 22, and Sewell Miller, age 16, both born in Maine.   The census sheet does not give a location except “3 on”, but enumerated on a separate sheet, dated the same day as Oconto and the day before Oak Orchard, in Suamico township, so it is probable they were on the Pensaukee River.

By the time of the 1852 Property Tax roll for the county, there obviously had been a lot of development in the area.  There is a mill site at the mouth of the river, which lists the owner as Moses Hardwick, who was the second largest taxpayer in the county.  Also on the tax rolls are Charles Windross, son of John, with the second highest evaluation in the town and the only other property in the town with personal property assessed against it.  Ezra Livermore had a parcel of land as well as Marcus Delano.  Marcus was located in the Oak Orchard area across the Indian trail from the Windross family.

Brookside had the honor of constructing the first school in 1855 on the northwest corner of the crossing Indian trails, built by William Delano, who along with the Birmingham brothers, Jessie and George, had cleared the area in 1853.  The school was deeded to District 2, prior to 1857, when it is shown on a deed transfer of land to John Goddard as being excluded.  The sale covered land on the northwest corner of the intersection of the Indian trails at Brookside.

The village of Pensaukee developed rapidly because of the mill site, but Brookside did become a commercial center something Oak Orchard never did.  Oak Orchard was the site of the first commercial fishing fleet in the town.  Henry Plucker, who married Susan Powell, daughter of Isaiah Powell, who ran the Arndt mill for a number of years, joined the other families in this area.  Henry had first hauled lumber on sailing ships, for the Jones family in 1846 at Oconto, before doing the same for Mr. Gardner in 1852, from Pensaukee.  Henry established a farm in the Oak Orchard area and along with the Windross brothers, Charles and John are considered pioneer fishermen in that area.

By the time of the 1855 state census, the village had a considerable growth in population and includes as residents’ Ezra Livermore, Moses Hartwick, Henry Ketchum and Isaiah Powell, but not Mr. Gardner.  In 1857 another mill was built on the Pensaukee River to the north of the east west Indian trail at Brookside.  This mill was built by James P. Davis and W. H. Sawtell and brought Nemiah Sawtell Chase of Maine and John Goddard of Massachusetts to the Brookside area.  The mill was built in a period of low lumber prices and did not last long.  At the peak of lumbering, the Pensaukee River had seven dams on it to help control the water for spring log drives.

When the 1860 census was enumerated, the township had the third highest population in the county, indexed with 363 residents in the district.  Marinette and Oconto were higher with Little Suamico the lowest.  Among the families added during this time were the Joseph Dodd, Peter Christian, William Dutton, Isaac Bobcock (Beaucock), Joseph Hungory (Longrie) and Owen Farley families to name a few.   Pensaukee also built a school, thanks to the generosity of F. B. Gardner who donated the land and paid for its construction and there was one at Oak Orchard. This period also brought scheduled stagecoach runs from Green Bay running as far north as Marinette and Menominee.

The 1870’s brought increased influx of settlers plus a little more culture with more religious organizations like the Christus church at Pensaukee which records start in 1877.  Zion Lutheran Church was next in the village, incorporation in 1893 and built in 1894 to the west of the schoolhouse.  Aa Presbyterian Church was established at Oak Orchard.  The 1880’s brought a German Lutheran church to Brookside and later a Methodist church.  Those attending Catholic services had the choice of Little Suamico, Stiles and Oconto and later Abrams.

The 1870 census shows the arrival of Charles F. Swaer from New York State and his brother, Henry, born in WI.   Shortly after arriving, Charles married Francis Rost of Little Suamico, and their descendents will later play a big roll in the fishing fleet of Pensaukee.  The railroad reached Pensaukee in 1870, the new train station being the biggest addition to the area.  With the arrival of the train the stage coach service ended in the eastern part of the township. John Wensing migrated to the town in 1871, shortly after which he married Mary, a daughter of John Plucker of Oak Orchard.  John farmed for a few years, and is recognized as one of the pioneer fishermen out of the Pensaukee River along with Joseph LaValle.

The town had two natural disasters inflicted on it during the 1870’s.  The first being the devastation of the 1871 fires.   The township lost a considerable amount of virgin timber during the fall fires as well as loss of personal property.  It appears the mill site received no direct damage. The Peshtigo fire, which occurred on the night of October 8, 1871, was the most devastating of the fires that fall.  The next event was the 1877 tornado, which nearly destroyed the village of Pensaukee and did damage in the town as it approached from the northwest as well as in the town of Oconto.

The village of Pensaukee recovered from the tornado with Mr. Gardner rebuilding the mill structures, and the school.  He never did rebuild the luxury hotel, the pride of northeastern Wisconsin, before being destroyed in the tornado.  The lumber industry was already decreasing in prominence in the area at the time of the tornado, partially due to the decrease in timber as a result of the 1871 fires and the low price being paid for lumber.  Many residents of the village left the area, immediately after, in order to obtain housing and never returned, and the mill and village never regained its size and prominence.

Michael Baumgartner with his family arrived in the area in 1878 to open the first tavern.  Articles on the 1877 tornado states there were none at the time of the tornado.  He built his establishment on the north side of the river on the east side of what is now Topel Road, then the highway. The bar ran across the front of the structure, except for a small kitchen, which ran parallel off one side and had a combined dining and sitting room to the rear of the bar.

By the time of the 1880 census there are 1,420 people enumerated in the township, showing a substantial growth over a 10-year period.  The town had now developed into an area of general farms, a fishing fleet out of Oak Orchard with the mill still being the biggest single employer.  On Dec. 24, 1883,  Freeland. B. Gardner died in the village of Pensaukee while walking to catch a train at the depot.  He dropped dead about ½ block from the depot.  A friend had gone ahead to ask the stationmaster to hold the train until Gardner got there, when he did not arrive he went looking for him. He left an estate, which was exceedingly tangled.  In 1884 his properties in Pensaukee were sold at public auction to the Oconto Land Company.  With the destruction of the mills, by fire, in August 1886 during the forest fires, which occurred in the area, the Gardner legacy ended.  It is during the 1880s that a number of descendents of the early lumbermen left the area following the industry either north into Michigan or west.  It also marked the arrival of Albert Topel with his Krischefski stepchildren and brother, Gustave, from Germany. They were joined shortly by their brother, John, and his family, all of whom would have descendents involved in commercial fishing.   The stage was now set for the commerce of the village to change to commercial fishing, along with the growing number of farms, which surrounded it, as the main industries.

During the 1890’s, the township continued to develop into the economy base it would have for the next 50 plus years.  Pensaukee, being the center of the fishing fleet. The Indian crossroad community of Brookside now had several stores, a butter factory, a blacksmith, school and churches. The first general store at Brookside had been opened by George W. Delano and later sold to John Bovee.  Charles Windross, who in 1896 constructed a store at Brookside, opened Pensaukee’s first general store after the company store. He was followed by Jacob “Jake” Moe a Norwegian immigrant, who opened a store in Pensaukee in 1893, at the location of the Gardner Hotel.  His brothers, Andrew and Peter, joined the fishing fleet and another, Ole, became a boat builder.   Jake’s store became the location of the longest operating and last general store in the village of Pensaukee, which is also true of Charles Windross store of Brookside, which was the last in the township.  Oak Orchard never developed any type of commercial district.

In 1893, John Wensing gave up fishing and built the Pensaukee House in the village of Pensaukee and became an innkeeper.  This was a combination of a hotel, restaurant, plus a bar.  Joseph LeFevre in 1903 put up a similar type business at Brookside, giving the travelers a place to stop and relax or stay the night.   Mr. Wensing left the area for Suamico by 1898 and his business in the control of his son-in-law Albert Krischefski a/k/a/ Topel, who had married his daughter, Susan.  During the time of 1910 to 1920 Napoleon Drolette obtained ownership and operated on the site while he continued to farm.  His daughter, Ruth, was married to Floyd “Chubby” Bartz and they ran the business, as “Chubby & Ruth’s” until the structure burned down in 1957.

 Michael Baumgartner, the first bar owner, was murdered on June 8, 1895 in his residence under very suspicious circumstances.  His wife was the principal witness and considered a suspect during the course of the investigation.  Arousing suspicions was the fact that the safe was locked when authorities arrived and contained neither money nor the will he had told his children was in it.   For a man who always paid in cash, could easily cash a 100-dollar bill, no funds were found in banks.  Adding to the mystery, was the fact that her description of the robbers fit no one known to be in the area and she could never identify any suspects; plus his wife, Augusta’s, description of events did not make sense.  His wife was at one time detained because of allegations of a handyman, but released because of insufficient evidence.  While the investigation was on going, widow Mrs. Michael Baumgartner in 1896 married Michael Carney of Trout Creek, Michigan.   This is still an unsolved murder in the village along with the earlier one of a Mr. Kennedy, which occurred prior to there being a road to Oconto from the area.

    A New Century

With the start of a new century, 1900, the township settled into a commerce which would dominate the area for the next 50 to 60  years.  It contained one of the largest commercial fishing fleets on the west side of the bay, numerous general farms and two commercial areas, one at the community of Pensaukee, the other at Brookside.  Henry and John Breed, brothers, immigrated to the area in 1904 from Holland, which added Dutch, to the growing nationalities represented in the fleet

In 1919 Jake Moe, decided to retire and the general store continued operation under the leadership of his son Adolph, and his new partner, John Olsen.  John was Adolph’s cousin, son of Anne Moe, married to Jacob Olson, a fisherman.  Adolph and John operated it until 1922 when they sold to Jacob Issackson.  In 1927 John decided to retire from fishing and bought the store back.  It was John and wife Mabel, with the assistance of long time clerk, Emma Livermore, who ran the store till it closed in the 1960’s.

With the invention of the automobile and its increased popularity and the improvements of roads, the community saw major changes in the 1920’s.  The Zion church was stuck by lighting and burned to the ground and the property sold in 1922 to the school district.   Christus, the German Lutheran church, in 1926 merged with First American Lutheran in Oconto.  At this point it appears, the remaining members formed Grace Lutheran Missouri Synod had control of the original German Lutheran Church property , and susequently  merged with an Oconto church, circa 1938.
In 1929 a new highway was built in the township, which changed its location and highway designation.  It went from Highway 15 to Highway 41, and passed to the west side of the village.  In 1928 in recognition of the upcoming relocation of the highway, Napoleon Drolette had a building moved from the south side of Main St., now County SS, to the northeast corner of the new intersection.  There his son Wilber Drolette established a service station and the Modernistic Bar.  It is there, with his wife Mabel Beaucock he is enumerated on the 1930 census as gas station operator.   Willie operated there until his death and then his son, Donald, took over.  Donald, when he retired, sold to Scott O’Connor who now operates it as “Bottoms Up”, the last bar in the area of the village.

The mid 1920’s brought the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation to the area.  They were working to obtain easements to install power lines along the new highway being built in 1929.  The farmers just to the west of the village of Pensaukee in Jan. 1926 were negotiating with the company.  It is then that Charles and Elizabeth Ziesmer signed the easement for their property.  With the installation of these lines people with property along the highway could obtain electricity for the homes and business starting in the early 1930.  Those not on the highway had to wait until the early to mid 1940’s and the rural electrification program to get electricity to their properties.

Fish Shanty Row, had now developed along the south side of the river towards the bay.  It consisted of a series of boathouses constructed on the narrow piece of land between the river and the road.  Besides the fish shanties, there were the smokehouses, net reels for drying, repairing and storing of nets plus Ferdianad “Cap” Topel’s ice house.  They were along what is now known as Fish House Road. The fishermen, including Oak Orchard, were Frank and Herb Livermore, descendents of Ezra, a number of Topels including Fred, Joe and Albert; Adolph “Butch” Kralapp along with Ed Swaer and his sons, Art, Raymond, Walter and Norbert who made up the German portion of the fleet.  Norwegian fishermen, were Chris Polson, Albert Everson, Nick Peterson, Johnny Johnson and John Olson, with John and Henry Breed who had come from Holland, representing the Dutch.  The Windross brothers, plus Lee Beaucock, represented the English, and Jack Mealey represented the Irish.  It was a fleet with an international flavor and they all, most of the time, got along and worked with each other. The fishing fleet at Pensaukee was now one of the largest on the west side of Green Bay, especially considering Oak Orchard moored boats, also shipped out of the Pensaukee train station.

Starting in the early 1930’s, Ed Swaer and his son, Art, formed a partnership, E. C. Swaer and Son, the purpose of which was to import fish from Canada and set up a processing and wholesale operation at Pensaukee.  This became a very successful operation for the next 30 years.  His son, Art, also established a mink ranch between Pensaukee and Oconto.  This solved the problem of how to get rid of the waste from the fish cleaning operation.

In the early 1930's, one of the locations for dances was the Pensaukee House on the second floor.  The other site for dances in the town was built by Raymond “Boots” Matravers, next to the original Joe LeFevre hotel at Brookside.  This was followed in 1938 by the Pensaukee Milk Pool, built along the highway west of the village of Pensaukee.  All of these could host dances, plus Boot’s and the Pensaukee Milk Pool, would bring in traveling entertainment groups for plays and was a place for private parties. While the Pensaukee Milk Pool, also offered roller-skating on Sunday.

Boot’s Danceland at Brookside, closed in the late 1950’s while the Milk Pool location, outlasted the others until 1985, with many changes.  The original owners sold it in 1948 with the first long time operator being Bud and Elva (Thome) Livermore who operated it from 1948 to 1962.  They made a major change when they discontinued Saturday night dances and started renting the hall out for weddings and special occasions while they continued using the hall for roller-skating.  They were followed by Chet and Florence Kaminski and Eugene & Bernice Nowak, who had several tenants run it.  Bernice sold it to Ervin and Ruth Strand in 1970 and they remodeled the hall structure and changed the name to “Little Ponderosa” before selling it to Thomas and Joan Gottheardt in 1973. The Gottheardt in 1977, sold to Thomas and Michelle “Shelly” Osuske who operated it until 1981.  The last owners were Alfred “Took” and Kay Gokey from 1982 to December of 1985.  In 2005 the only reminder of these once popular places for entertainment is the original beer stand, later liquor bar, built in 1937 by the Pensaukee Milk Pool for their 1937 picnic.  Its located on what is now the private residence of Rick and Alice Wright.

In discussing the village of Pensaukee we cannot forget “The Frog Leg Man”, the teller of tales Louis VanZoonen.  Louis was from Holland and made his living by fishing and hunting frogs for their legs.  He like the fisherman shipped his daily catch, including those purchased from local children, out on the train each evening.  Many a child in the village area made extra spending money, froging and selling the frog legs to Louie.  He paid for the legs by size, so much a dozen.  In the 1960’s Louie was still buying frog legs from the local children, many grandchildren of his original suppliers and shipping them off by train.  By that time he was down to shipping a few dozen a day, but for the delicacy of frog legs it still brought him spending money.

The unexpected closing of the village post office located in John Olson’s store, on 3 days notice, on June 30, 1957, seems to be the changing point for the village of Pensaukee.  This came at a time when John was contemplating retirement by reducing his inventory to close the general store.  The fishing fleet was shrinking in size due to the decrease in fish available in the bay plus sons not following in their father’s occupation because of reduced profitability.  The village started shrinking in size and density.  In May 1969 the one room school was closed under the unification of school districts through the county and the children were bused to Oconto.  This marked the closing of the last one room school in the county.

Besides Pensaukee, Brookside and Oak Orchard, there is an area in the township that was referred to as Greenwood in newspaper articles and by older generations.  This was an area located around the intersection of what is now County Truck J and Krueger Quarry Road. The main structures were a country school and a cheese factory, both of which no longer exist.

   Village of Pensaukee Today

With the start of 20 century the village of Pensaukee shows none of its past bustling lifestyle and size.
The village has become a sleepy country hamlet.  Many of the homes have been torn down or moved from their original locations, the train station and general store have been torn down.  The school still stands used as storage by Dean Swaer one of the last commercial fisherman in the area.

There is now a boat-launching site on the Pensaukee River where the general store stood.  Fish shanty row is row is no longer bustling and now consists mainly of a few homes along it; many occupied by descendents of some of the earliest fisherman.  No dance halls, hotels or motels, gas stations and restaurants.

The town hall and town fire department is located at Brookside, which still has a meat market and one tavern.  Presently the township of Pensaukee encompasses an area of over 35 square miles, or 22,570 acres. US highway 41 and the Pensaukee River dissect the town that consists of nearly 50 percent woodlands (11,166 acres) and approximately 6,427 acres of wetlands. The town has become an area of farming and residential and secondary homes with the majority of the residents being commuters to the cities of Green Bay, Oconto and surrounding communities.  The population of the township in the year 2000 was 1,214, living in 562 dwelling units, according to Town of Pensaukee Comprehensive Planning Commission documentation.

The township of Pensaukee is now feeling some development pressure.  The pressure is due mainly because of the growth continuing northward from the city of Green Bay and lands being limited for development based on the town¹s many sensitive areas of wet lands and flood plains.

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