PembineNinety years ago on April
14, 1914 the Town of Pembine held its first official election as a newly created political
entity. The village of Pembine actually predated that event by more than 30 years.
Forty-five people lived there at the Wisconsin census of 1885, including 27 men, 7 women,
and 11 children. Warren L. Buckman had opened an Indian trading post there a few
years earlier near the Peme Bon Won River that skirts the town. Indians traveled
through the area frequently. Lumberjacks came next to cut the virgin white pine
forests. Then the Milwaukee Road built a rail line northward to Michigan's Upper
Peninsula, reaching Pembine in 1886. The following year the Soo Line Railroad came
through from Minneapolis en route to Sault Saint Marie, Mich. The rail junction at Pembine
created business, opened up the farmland, and brought more townsfolk.
Pembine grew rapidly, filling up a space in the north country and
helping end the American frontier. The federal census of 1890 showed that even the most
remote parts of the country had at least two persons per square mile. The state census of
1895 recorded a population of 363 in Pembine. Forty-five percent were immigrants, many
from Scandinavia and Ireland. Typically more men left the old country. That year the
town had 167 single men and no single women.
In the 1880's Pembine lay within the Town of Pike, present Amberg
township. In 1910 the Township of Niagara broke away from Amberg taking the village
of Pembine with it. When the villagers at Pembine sought an independent township in
1913, a struggle ensued. Niagara vigorously opposed a separation. It was the
first time that any of the new towns in the county had faced opposition. Newspaper
accounts from 1913 tell the story. George Willis, George W. Robinson, James S. Robinson
and John Timm from Pembine engaged the Marinette law firm of Miller & Miller to
represent them before the Marinette County Circuit Court on February 18, 1913. They
carried a petition signed by residents of Pembine.
The Pembine team argued that the Kimberly Clark Company, which owned a
paper mill in Niagara dominated the town's politics. They also noted that Pembine
residents had to travel at some expense over ten miles of unpaved roads in order to vote
in the village of Niagara. They said that deprived them of their voting rights. John
Stoveken of Pembine, who was Town Chairman of Niagara, and attorney H. R. Goldman,
representing Kimberly Clark, opposed the petition. They argued that it could not be proved
that Kimberly Clark dominated the political system in Niagara. A month later the
court ruled in favor of Niagara and rejected Pembine's petition.
Not to be denied, the Pembine group traveled 250 miles to the state
capital in Madison to make their case before the Senate Committee on Corporations. There,
on April 30, 1913 George Willis, the two Robinsons, and Timm, represented Pembine.
Attorneys John and Edward Miller of Marinette, and Assemblyman James Larsen of Marinette
supported them. Chairman John Stoveken led the Niagara team consisting of A. J. Barlow and
John H. Ryan, manager of Kimberly Clark. Pembine residents Ernest G. Sauld and A. J.
Chapman supported them. Attorney Goldman counseled Niagara.
The Senate Committee heard the arguments and adjourned. The next day they met in executive
session and voted five to one for passage of the enabling bill. Bill 434S established the
new Township of Pembine on June 5, 1913. The action transferred sections of land from both
Niagara and Amberg to Pembine and apportioned their debt accordingly. It further
ordered that Pembine must hold its first town meeting at the Pembine jail in April, 1914.
At that meeting voters elected a slate of town officers, among them George Willis,
A look at a typical immigrant family reveals much about town growth and
institutional development. The Willis family had settled in Pembine by 1890. George
Willis (1857-1939) arrived first, Born near Clonakilty, Ireland, as a young man he worked
with his father in a flour mill. With limited prospects for the future in 1888 he
joined the flow of emigrants leaving Ireland. He bought passage aboard RMS Aurania and
embarked at Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland. Arriving in New York eight days later,
he traveled on to Minneapolis where two brothers had preceded him. From a cousin he
learned of a job in Pembine as freight handler for the two railroads, and arrived there in
June, 1888. After fourteen years with the railroad he took a position in 1902 as
agent for Wells Fargo Express and continued working at the railroad depot until he
Since there were so few women in Pembine, George asked his mother in
Ireland to contact a potential bride. She arranged with Jane Daunt to emigrate to
the U.S. and marry George. Jane brought her sister Mary with her. As they left
Ireland two of George's brothers, Richard and Joseph and sister Frances joined the wedding
party. The five of them sailed aboard the SS Ohio from Queenstown to Philadelphia,
arriving in May, 1890. From there they traveled by rail to Pembine. The rail trip cost
$21.00 each and took five days.
George married Jane in June, 1890 and their son, who arrived in 1891,
was the first male born in the village. Thereafter, George built a house and the family
grew to nine children. He acquired 80 acres of woodland and farmed some of it. From his
arrival in Pembine he took an active interest in the growth of the village, and helped
organize a school district in 1890. He served on the school board for the next 30 years.
The children attended a one-room school until 1904 when the board erected a four-room
building that stood until 1934. A visiting Presbyterian minister arrived about 1902
and attracted a congregation. George and Jane attended church services in the one-room
schoolhouse that Presbyterians shared with the Catholic congregation. In 1908 George
helped organize the church formally and Presbyterians erected their own building in 1913.
He then served as an elder of the church for 20 years. Following the movement
to win township status, he served four years as town treasurer, 1914-1918.
George's younger brother Joseph (1868-1934), married Jane's sister Mary
in 1892 and they raised a family of six. Joseph initially operated a butcher shop in
Pembine, then took over freight handling at the depot when George became express agent.
When Lutherans organized a church in the 1920's Joseph and Mary joined the
congregation. Joseph served as church custodian until his death. He also took
a turn as town treasurer in 1934, just before he died. The third brother Richard, who had
served in the British army, worked in railroad track maintenance until he enlisted in 1898
at Iron Mountain in the Michigan Volunteer infantry for the Spanish American War.
After the war he worked for the railroads at Pembine, and then moved to Milwaukee. Their
sister Frances married Alvin (Jim) French, son of a hotel manager in Pembine, and they
moved to the Detroit area. The next generation of Willis children, all born in Pembine,
took their turn in building the new country. Two of Joseph's sons, William and Irwin
worked for the Soo Line as conductor and fireman on passenger trains through
Pembine. Joseph, Jr. worked for many years at the former Staso Milling Company
(manufacturer of roofing granules) in Pembine. Daughters Olivia Willis Gravell and
Margaret Willis Stevens raised families in town. Orva Willis Gordon moved with her husband
George's eldest son, named for his father, for a time built bridges for
the Soo Line then worked in maintenance at Staso Milling. The next son Philip took his
father's place in Pembine as agent for the Railway Express Agency. He also served as an
elder in the Presbyterian Church. Son Henry (Harry) for many years operated an auto
service station. At various times he held office as Justice of the Peace and town
treasurer, and was appointed postmaster. Another son Herbert worked at Staso
Milling, and the youngest son Varian worked for the railroads and on Great Lakes ore
boats. The daughters Eva, Mary and Jane married and moved to Bergland, Michigan where they
Since those early days the Willis descendants have scattered across the
country and now live from Massachusetts to California. They served in all the armed
forces, established businesses, raised families, attended colleges and worked in law,
medicine, academia, government, and industry. The story of this family's contribution
provides one chapter in the building of a community and a part of the great American