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A Brief History Of A Very Small Wisconsin Island

By Peter Lytle

Sometime around 1904, James Hool of Chicago moved his private fishing camp from Big Island on Lake Little Sissabagama to a smaller, seven-acre, island just a quarter-mile southeast.  He was looking for a protected bay with a level elevation to easily access the camp, deeper water, sandy shores, better fishing, a long-term lease, and some old stands of pine.  Stout Lumber, Rice Lake Lumber, Weyerhaeuser, and numerous other logging companies had, by this time, clear cut nearly every square foot of land for over 500 miles, they had however passed by a few “economically insignificant” islands like this one.  Between 1915 and 1918, James instructed a crew of former lumberjacks, a stonemason (Charlie Meyenburg), and his stepbrother, the island caretaker, Walter Crandell to construct a in-water boathouse, several cabins, a storage building and to expand the Adirondack-style lodge (a lodge without bedrooms) which had been started earlier.

Over the next several years the camp grew and matured. In 1923 Mr. Hool moved to California for business reasons and according to Mary Crandell “the furniture was sold and the camp stood empty for a time”.  In 1926, Theodore Gerlach, a publishing baron also from Chicago, purchased the lease on the island and expanded the camp to create his own personal sanctuary. He then brought the telegraph and a collection of personal assistants into Stone Lake in order to stay in contact with his office during his many visits.  The lodge was among the several buildings that were transformed during this period; updated was the main hall with the addition of a new massive red-gray glacial split-stone fireplace.  The lodge was further altered with long rows of new windows to provide a cooling breeze, bathe the rooms in natural light during the long days of summer and enhance the views of the pines, gardens and lake from each room. Dark pine flooring, rich oriental carpets, wicker furniture with brightly colored fabrics, stain-glass lamps, hutches for silver and glassware, oil paintings and assorted mounted fish decorated the hall’s eclectic interior.  An oak dining table, that could seat 20, was eventually added; the kitchen was updated with a 1920’s dual-oven, 6-burner & grill, cast-iron Magic Chief Stove. New bins for flour, salt, sugar, food prep tables, a substantial stone outdoor grill, a Westinghouse diesel electric generator and a small warehouse of pots, pans, plates, Fiestaware and embroidered linens eventually followed. All of this was quite remarkable for what, at the time, was still considered a wilderness fishing camp.

With all of the comforts of the lodge’s main hall, its roaring fireplace, nap-perfect rockers, refined dining area and views of a shimmering lake, the kitchen -- where Mary Crandell held high court each day as the island cook -- became the place where guests, staff and owners always migrated.  The many visitors’ letters and locals interviewed talked about her famous breakfasts. Each morning in the kitchen, on a checkerboard tablecloth, across from a wood stove, Mary served a selection of wheat cakes with local blueberries, Walter Crandell’s Big Island maple syrup, steaming hot mugs of coffee, walleye filets, brown sugar baked beans, thick strips of bacon, hash brown potatoes, cranberry-honey muffins, fresh churned butter, peach preserves, eggs, rum-nut breads and oatmeal. What a treat that must have been to wake up at sunrise on one of those crisp fall mornings when crimson maple leaves were falling, the fog drifting over a mirror-still Little Sissabagama and have breakfast with friends, in her cozy kitchen, filled with the aroma of fresh baked bread. Her dinners, served in the warm glow of the main hall, were made up of the day’s catch, venison or beefsteak, baked potatoes (the big Idaho’s like the railroads served), corn, peas, garden tomatoes, fresh hot stone-ground wheat bread, jams, wedges of local cheddar cheese, beer, Canadian whiskey, coffee and butter-crust homemade apple or cinnamon - flavored blueberry pies. No guest ever left dinner with an empty stomach or clear head according to at least one account by Walter.

Guests at the island ranged from businessmen’s wives and children to salesmen, politicians, artist, writers, (Johnny Gruelle wrote Raggedy Ann and the Lucky Penny on the island), Chicago gangsters and boxers like Joe Louis & Jimmy Braddock to the famous lumbermen of the era (Stout and Weyerhaeuser). Visitors had two occasions to dress their best when visiting the island. For many years Saturday nights featured black tie dinners with plenty of drinking, cigars, card playing, watching boxing at the local boxing camp, sharing fish tales and talking politics and business; the other occasion was in the early years at the 4th of July picnics. These picnics were held at the old lodge and on the back beach lawn. They came by rowboat, motorboat and canoe.  Walter would use the big white painted oak barge, with its smoke billowing engine, to deliver the guests who had arrived at the Stone Lake depot on the afternoon train from Chicago and Milwaukee. The cook and the help would often put various tables and furniture from the lodge outside for use by guests, other families and friends would put thick wool picnic blankets down under the pines.  Each party always found the right spot for the day’s events and the evening’s fireworks. Children and adults spent those hot summer holidays enjoying wicker baskets full of fried chicken, watermelon, iced beer, lemonade and homemade wild strawberry ice cream.  There would be dancing, songs, games, children swimming from the great white docks to the rafts, adults would stroll the many pine-covered paths, handfuls of cold ice neatly smuggled out of the icehouse by young pranksters would be dropped into playmates’ pants and shirts. On many lucky evenings, northern lights danced across the sky gracing the crackling beach campfire and plenty of after meal naps, gossip, socializing, play and laughter by the camp visitors abound.

 Around 1927, a new lodge “Big House” with sleeping quarters and rambling red split-stone steps leading up to it was built on the top of the island’s only hill. For the next few decades the old lodge served primarily as the camp dining hall. When the hilltop lodge burned to the ground after a lightning storm in the mid 50’s, the old lodge again regained its importance as the island’s gathering spot. As the island camp passed from the MacKeevers, who eventually were able to purchase the island out of lease from the State of Wisconsin, to the Dows and then the Friendshuhs, activities on the island began to slow. By the early 1990’s, the camp was rarely used and left to deteriorate.  The buildings slanted or collapsed, the roofs leaked, the toilets plugged, the paint had peeled, windows were cracked or broken and the red and white musky fishing boats rotted where they sat. The docks crumpled into the lake, the lawns, terraced gardens and trees became overgrown or died. The old timers passed on and their summer memories were lost. In 1995, the island camp began a new life with an active restoration of all the buildings and grounds.  Children were again swimming from rafts, swinging into the water from ropes hung in trees, meals were again cooked on the outdoor grill, the big brass steam locomotive bell mounted outside the lodge again clanged to alert fisherman “come to lunch”, friends started visiting on the weekends. The docks were rebuilt, classic wooden boats were restored and launched and the new owners found themselves spending their free time and summer vacations working tirelessly and as time permitted playing and relaxing on the island and lake, all along creating new memories.

The final restoration project was completed in the fall of 2004 when the old lodge was lovingly restored to its original state.  In 2005, this camp will host its 100th birthday on the island called Isle of Pines, in the middle of a very quiet, clear, deep, sand-bottom lake, filled with loons, otters, beaver, musky and bass.  The island is surrounded by high deep green wooded hills and winding shores of ice-age boulders, blueberry bushes, pines, birch, maples, oaks, ferns, lady slippers and lightning bugs in the heart of the northern woods of Western Wisconsin. Once again picnics for the family, friends and lake residence are on the 4th of July agenda at the Isle of Pines.