Our History

–Contributed by: Doug Cahow

Our History

Clear Lake, WI: One of Polk County’s Oldest Settlements

Visitors from nearly every state in the union and many foreign nations come to Clear Lake each year to share in the rich cultural heritage of one of Polk County’s oldest settlements. Because of the work ethic and community obligations those early pioneers left as their contribution to the development of Western Wisconsin, succeeding generations profited from their efforts and established the fabric of patriotism which exists today in and around Clear Lake. It was those early pioneers that acted as the vanguard of community, state and national pride. Those early pioneers were the chief inspiration for building an All Veterans’ Memorial!

However, an historic background will help the reader to understand why a small community of 1000 citizens were prompted to make a community sacrifice to honor veterans. With that thought in mind, let us look at some historic dates and how they fit into the story about the Clear lake Veterans’ Memorial.

Indian relics and other prehistoric evidence suggest there are numerous opportunities for any person willing to dig and look for cultural finds of the past. Some of the most prominent artifacts are arrow heads, spear points and peace pipe (s) which were found in Black Brook Township by Clarence Mara and a number of other early settlers. These Indian artifacts are today in the possession of Mr Mara’s daughter, Margaret, and are regarded by her as being priceless. But today most of the forests are gone being replaced with rich farmland and small, thriving villages and cities.

As time marched on into the early 15th century, European explorers penetrated the rich wilderness of the Mississippi Valley looking for gold and other treasures. But instead of gold and silver, French fur trappers found a rich bonanza of animal skins and furs and with them came Christian Missionaries who were looking for ways to convert Indian Natives to their Christian belief!

Early 1600’s

Settlements sprang up along the great lakes and major rivers.. As early as the 1600s adventurous explorers and entrepreneurs were developing animal fur trade enterprises through this part of Wisconsin. But their (trappers) need for uninhabited forests was negated as other adventurous entrepreneurs seeking lumber and fertile farmland forced the trappers further west and north into Canada.

Early 1800’s

By the early 1800s, our nation was expanding westward and with that growth came a need for building supplies to build the prospering cities of the Middle West. In the northern states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were huge forests of coniferous trees and the abundance of those forests drew the lumber boom to build sawmills along several major rivers in Northern Wisconsin. White pine was abundant in the Polk-Barron-St. Croix-Dunn County region and presented an opportunity of employment for hardy men to harvest those behemoths of the north. Pine was noted for quality and strength which made it suited for building homes, factories, schools, etc.

But at that time there were few roads and no railroads to get lumber from the sawmills which had to be built where there was adequate water power for sawing logs into lumber!. However, fast rushing streams and rivers were abundant because of the humid continental climate which prevailed in Northern Wisconsin. To increase the flow of these rivers and streams, hundreds if not thousands of log and earthen dams were built all over the northern forested region. Millions of logs were hauled and dumped onto the frozen ponds each fall and winter above the dams. When spring floods came, the dams were opened wide and logs flowed freely to awaiting saw mills down stream from the dams.

Even to this day, earthen works and log artifacts still manifest themselves along nearly all Wisconsin streams and rivers. Near Reeve, Wisconsin, the McDougall Dam has remnants of an earthen dam reinforced with white pine logs with steel spikes driven into them which helped hold the logs in place. These pine logs are as sound inside today as they were a hundred and fifty years ago and still act as a deterrent for rushing Hay River floods. According to historic records, the McDougall Dam stood over 20 feet in height and had a width of of some 200 feet.

21st Century

Even in the 21st century evidence of other earthen dams are found along the Willow River as it flowed southward to New Richmond and later into the St. Croix-Mississippi River system. The Willowville, Harmon and Highlanding Dams are examples of those early lumbering landmarks. However, not all of the pine and hardwood forests were on or near rivers and consequently another method of hauling the logs to the mills was needed. One of the fastest anc cheapest methods was the railroad.

Above the McDougall’s Dam at Reeve was a spur line which came from Pineville located 3 miles north of Clear Lake. The railroad’s length was about 8 miles and it connected with the main Omaha-Northwestern line which ran between St. Paul and Ashland, Wisconsin. . Evidence of the abandoned railroad may be seen (21st century) in many places by observing road cuts and other railroad artifacts such as spikes and ties near Reeve.. The rail line ended at the McDougall’s Dam and one historic document states there was a wye built on the west side of the dam to allow engines to “turn around”. Many stories still exist about the Reeve Railroad…but the one most prominent story was told by pioneer – Dana Yelle.

Apparently the train brakes on the engine were not too good! Sometimes, in order to help stop a train, brakemen were needed on each car to assist the engine in stopping the moving train. According to Dana Yelle, a steep rail road grade went right by their Vance Creek Township home about 1 1/2 miles northwest of Reeve and as the engine was leading the train down the grade, it derailed and turned om its side because of too much speed. One or both crew men were badly burned by steam and had to be hauled by horse drawn wagon to nearby Clear Lake for medical care. To this writers knowledge the rail road had no other derailments in its short history of about 15 years.

Since Clear Lake was at the headwaters of the Willow River, which eventually flows into the St Croix River, numerous sawmills were built along it to take advantage of cheap water transportation. By building numerous dams on these rivers, several hundred million board feet of white pine and hardwood lumber was harvested in the Clear Lake and surrounding areas.Eventually those sawed trees made their way down the Mississippi River to build cities such as Chicago, St. Louis and a million other homes and factories to meet the needs of a growing nation..

Clear Lake prospered and grew while the forests were harvested. Evidence of early logging is prevalent in and around Clear Lake today including several abandoned railroad beds, numerous saw mill sites, old logging tote roads, railroad ties, spikes, dams and hundreds of other artifacts just waiting for any visitor to discover. But as the forests disappeared, other uses were being made of the fertile land.

First Farm Settlers

The first farm settlers appeared in the Clear Lake area in the late 1840s. Population growth was slow until the railroad came into Clear Lake from Deer Park in 1875. In that year Clear lake became a town and in 1975 celebrated its Centennial Anniversary. From that date on, Clear Lake has enjoyed a slow but steady growth. Today evidence of two (2) saw mills may be seen at the end of Main Street in Clear Lake. Other large mills in the area were at Pineville, 3 miles north on US 63 and at Graytown which is 4 miles south of Reeve on Highway K. There were many other mills too in neighboring towns…but except for an occasional portable mill, that era of logging has passed in the Polk county area.

Now most of the mills are gone…but a lumbering lore lingers yet. Frequently members of the older generation tell stories of their fathers, grandfathers and themselves about life in the logging camps and show some of the artifacts that earlier generations used to harvest those giant sentinels of the Primeval Forest. And when the final groves of hardwoods and softwoods were cut off, large sections of land was opened to agriculture. Consequently another wave of settlers came to plant and harvest crops on this rich and fertile soil. Suitable climate and soils conducive to hay and grains encouraged the dairy industry to thrive in all of Western Wisconsin.

In the late 1800s a small band of farmers formed a dairy cooperative in Clear Lake and by 1950, Clear Lake became site of one of Wisconsin’s largest Cooperative Creameries. Butter and milk products were shipped all over the nation. Clear Lake sweet cream butter won many state and national prizes and was always the first choice of butter users.

Schools, Churches and other Civic Groups

Schools, churches and other civic groups flourished too. Those early pioneers gave stability and roots to succeeding generations of hardy, patriotic people. These were folks who understood hardship and dedication…and their efforts were rewarded by raising children who loved their family, community, state and nation. Such were the folks who gave our nation men and women who fought in every war from 1848 to the present.
With that thought in mind a few dedicated people decided to honor the more than 3000 to 4000 men and women from the Clear Lake Area who have served in our Armed Forces during peace and war time.

Clear Lake Veterans’ Memorial Was Founded

Standards such as thrift, hard work, love of family and country are criteria on which the Clear Lake Veterans’ Memorial was founded in 1997. Frugality, loyalty and principled people were and are the stuff that make folks of all nationalities with ties to Clear Lake, so proud of their Veterans’ Memorial which includes the young people of our schools.

Each spring, hundreds of students from neighboring schools visit the Memorial. May 19th, 2006 will mark the sixth visit by Clear Lake Schools. Other schools that appeared in the past were Turtle Lake, Clayton, Prairie Farm, Amery and Glenwood City.

A visit to the Memorial is always a wonderful experience for our young people. The teachers from each and every visiting school always prepare their students by teaching units on American patriotism and why we should honor our Veterans. It goes without fail that when students from those schools talk about their experiences of visiting our Memorial, the subject of sacrifice and honor by our Veterans is most often mentioned. Our students recognize that without the willing sacrifice of our brave men and women, our freedom wouldn’t last long. They know that American troops have selflessly served to defend the freedom we so often take for granted.

It is never too early for our young people to learn more about their heritage. In 2006 the Memorial Committee will focus on the words of “honor, trust and integrity.” Visiting students will be reminded our Memorial is not a church…but it is not a playground either. For that reason the students will treat all parts of the Memorial with reverence and respect.

The program for each visit is simple. After saying our Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem, a study guide will be given to each student and an historic background is prepared for them to read. On the other side of the guide are some simple questions about the Memorial. By answering those questions, most students will begin to see some of the hidden aspects about the Memorial. For example, students will want to know why there are 15 benches built around the Memorial; or why are there 5 gray stones and only one black stone?

If time permits, a brief visit is made to the adjacent historic graves of two W.W.II soldiers. One of the graves is for one of the first men killed at Pearl Harbor in 1941. One government source indicates only 32(?) American soldiers and sailors are buried in Continental United States; the rest are still in the USS Arizona or in nearby cemeteries in Hawaii. This was an historic fact brought to our attention after the Memorial was built and consequently places the Clear Lake Veterans’ Memorial in a position of national prominence. The second nearby grave is for one of the last MIAs found from W.W.II. After nearly 57 years in 2001 an American soldier was found in a shallow, unmarked grave in Germany. He too now rests next to our beautiful Memorial. Both of these soldiers and the stories about them were not known when our Memorial was dedicated in 1999. If anyone knows of other historic stories such as these two, please contact our Memorial Committee.

As students conclude their visit, time is taken to answer questions and allow our citizens of tomorrow a chance to express their feelings. The most often heard remark is the pride our young people have for a veteran they now know or of a deceased relative. When the comments are over, each student is given a Patriotism Certificate and a souvenir Commemorative Pen as a sign of appreciation by the Veterans’ Memorial. Many students eventually visit our web page and sign the guest book. It is always a delight to see the concern our young people have for their veterans!

As a sign of last respect a selected student is given the honor of placing a wreath at the foot of the Black Cenotaph. On this historic stone are the names of 65 local men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice from previous wars fighting for our freedom! Silently the floral procession moves slowly down the walkway , reverent attention tells how each students feels about our Veterans as the tender sound of the “taps” are played. Day is gone…all is well!

God Bless America! And remember to thank a veteran!


In the past, Clear Lake All Veterans’ Memorial: