Phelps, Vilas County, Wisconsin

  • Article

    The formation of what was to become Phelps started before the turn of the century. Two men, B. R. Thompson and J. A. Bonnell, saw the vast natural forests in the area and, on Feb. 9, 1896, they incorporated the Thompson and Bonnell Lumber Co.

    Following that start, the Wisconsin Lumber and Bark Co. was incorporated Dec. 28, 1901. The incorporators were John Bonnell, William A. Phelps, Charles A. Phelps, Charles H. Hackley, Otis A. Felger, Dustin Oakes and George C. Covell.

    As the lumbering operation began, it was aided by the fact that, by the turn of the century, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad laid tracks into the area that was to become known as The Great North Woods. In 1905, a final railroad spur from Conover to Phelps was completed, thus helping the shipment of lumber.

    The town was initially named Hackley, but because of the confusion created by another Wisconsin town named Hatley, the Hackley name was changed to Phelps in 1912. In 1928, the Hackley-Phelps-Bonnell Co. was dissolved and the assets were purchased by C. M. Christiansen and his wife, Leta. Under Christiansen, the lumber mill prospered and eventually was the main root of providing nearly 400 jobs for families, including mill workers, staff, loggers, truckers and numerous craftsmen--ranking the operation as one of the largest in the entire nation.

    "Were in not for C. M. Christiansen, there would be no town of Phelps..." said [Pauleyn] Nystrom, [member of the Board of the new Phelps Historical Museum, 2010].

    Quoted from "Phelps Opens Historical Museum," Vilas County News-Review, Sept. 29, 2010, p. 3B.

    From the 2012 Phelps Chamber of Commerce Brochure:

    The history of Phelps is inextricably intertwined with the fur trading and logging days of 18th and 19th centuries, and later, with the tourism trade. The first Europeans in the area were the French fur traders. Inhabited by Chippewa Indians, Lac Vieux Desert was a crossroads for the fur trade.

    The town's heritage is strongly Finnish and reflects the logging industry. Renamed Phelps in 1912, the town was originally known as Hackley.

    In 1863, congress authorized the building of Military Road from Fort Howard (Green Bay) to Fort Wilkins at the top of Keweenaw County, Michigan. The first settler, in 1852, was G. L. Draper. Military Road ran next to Draper's trading post along the shores of Lac Vieux Desert. In 1905, the village of Phelps was developed on North Twin Lake. The town's biggest growth spurt came in 1906-12 when people of the Finnish heritage moved to the area to farm and work in the lumbering mills and forests. Phelps, one of the last areas to be logged in northern Wisconsin, boasted a lumber camp on the east shore of Big Twin Lake. In 1928, the town's lumber mill operation was one of the largest in the nation.

    The town of Phelps is located in the northeast corner of Vilas County along the border with Michigan. The present day population is 1,394 (2010 census). The township's total area of 108.9 square miles comprises 94.9 square miles of land and 14.0 square miles is water. The town lies nestled within the 650,000-acre Nicolet National Forest.

    The headwaters of the mighty Wisconsin River as well as the Deerskin River start right here in Phelps, and other waters flow to Lake Michigan. Just two miles to the north, in Upper Michigan, is the Ottawa National Forest.

    Today, Phelps is a growing, forward-looking community blessed with an abundance of natural resources and beauty. Despite its small size, the School District of Phelps has a tradition of providing quality education. Our students score at or above the state and national academic testing levels. Our town offers a lot of visiotrs and to people seeking a relaxing lifestyle with a home in the Northwoods.

    Charles P. Forbes
    December 2, 2010
  • Bibliography

    Major References

    ****. Eagle River and Eastern Vilas County. [Wisconsin Land of Lakes Magazine, Nov/Dec 1926.] Rhinelander, 1926. View Full Entry
    ****. Lac Vieux Desert [Highway Historical Marker]. [Wisconsin Conservation Bulletin, 28:5, Sept-Oct 1963, Cover] Madison, 1963. View Full Entry
    Albrecht, Joseph. History of Phelps. [Second Printing, With Update -- 1985] Phelps, 1985. View Full Entry
    Connolly and Wasserman. Wisconsin's Own: Twenty Remarkable Homes. Madison, 2010. View Full Entry
    Draeger, Jim. Extra Tip: Timber Taverns. [Wisconsin Trails, 44:5, October 2003, pp. 64-67] Black Earth, WI, 2003. View Full Entry
    Drew, Michelle. A salvage crew..... [Vilas County News Review, Aug. 21, 2019, p. 5B [Backward Glances]] Eagle River, 2019. View Full Entry (Full text available)
    Huhti, Thomas. Wisconsin. [Fourth Edition] Berkeley, CA, 2008. View Full Entry
    Huhti, Thomas. Wisconsin Handbook, Including Door County. [First Edition] Chico, CA, 1997. View Full Entry
    Kaysen, James. Railroads of Wisconsin, 1827-1937.. Boston, MA, 1937. View Full Entry
    Parker, Ginny. Phelps. [Vilas County Chamer of Commerce: Vilas County Headwaters to Wisconsin, 1998, p. 23] Eagle River, 1998. View Full Entry
    Phelps, Wisconsin, Chamber of Commerce. Phelps, Wisconsin, Visitor's Guide. [2012 edition] Phelps, 2012. View Full Entry
    Ruck, Don. Phelps Opens Historical Museum. [Vilas County News-Review, Sept. 28, 2010, p. 3B.] Eagle River, 2010. View Full Entry
    Schmidt, Floyd. Switch Lamps in the Pines. Eagle River, 2009. View Full Entry
    Stearns, Lutie. Traveling Libraries in Wisconsin. Madison, 1910. View Full Entry (Full text available)
    Stotts, Stuart. Thousand Little Libraries. [Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 90, #2, Winter, 2006-2007, Spring, 1980, Pp. 38-49] Madison, 2006. View Full Entry (Full text available)
    US, Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration, Workers of the Writers' Program in the State of Wisconsin. Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State. [American Guide Series] New York, 1941. View Full Entry
    Vilas County News-Review. Vilas County News-Review's 2009 Headwaters Area Guide. [Published Annually] Eagle River, 2009. View Full Entry
    Wickman, Sandy. CLMN Superstar [Rollie Alger]. [Lake Tides, The Newsletter for People Interested in Wisconsin Lakes, Vol 40, #1, Winter/Spring 2015, p. 4] Stevens Point, 2015. View Full Entry (Full text available)

    Minor References

    ****. America's North Woods. [Special Feature, Country Living, V.6 #6 June 1983 p.39 ff] New York, 1983. View Full Entry
    Adventure Cycling Association. North Lakes Bicycle Route [Map]. [Northern Tier + North Lakes Route, North Lakes Section 1, Osceola to Escanaba] Missoula, MT, 2015. View Full Entry
    Emerson, Charles. Wisconsin Scenic and Historic Trails. Madison, 1933. View Full Entry
    Sasse, Timothy. Vilas County Logging Companies’ Railroad Operations. [Edit by Charles P. Forbes of webpage material (2000) and additional material from Mr. Sasse (2014).] Star Lake, 2020. View Full Entry (Full text available)
    Wisconsin Tourism Development. Wisconsin Auto Tours. [1990 & 1991 editions] Madison, 1991. View Full Entry
    kfkf. kfkf. . View Full Entry
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    A 2015 article in Lake Tides heralded Rollie Ager as a "Superstar" for his work Citizen Lake Monitoring Network, sponsored by the College of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.