contributed photographs

In June of 1921, railroad engineer William Jansen, bought 37 acres on the shores of the Squirrel Lake, and built Jansen’s Squirrel Lake Lodge.
contributed photographs

In June of 1921, railroad engineer William Jansen, bought 37 acres on the shores of the Squirrel Lake, and built Jansen’s Squirrel Lake Lodge.
Scratch the sparkling surface and just about any lake in the Northwoods can serve as a microcosm of the area’s history. It’s a history which comes in daydreams when lounging on a boat in the summer sun, gazing at the shoreline and wondering what it looked like back then. Back when American Plan resorts churned out flapjack breakfasts and fish fry dinners. Or further back, when the loggers had shaved the forests down to their stumps and the taverns were filled with the smell of smoke and sweaty socks. Or even further, before the resorts, the loggers, the fur trappers, even, when the Chippewa were the only people to fish the waters, to gather food from the forests, to look out onto the water and daydream themselves. 

Squirrel Lake’s history begins here, with the Chippewa, who, according to an 1826 article published in the Natchez Newspaper, were described as “pacific,” meaning peacemaking. Still today a sandy footpath left from these earliest inhabitants runs through many Squirrel Lake residents’ yards, circling the lake. There was also thought to be a Chippewa sugar camp on the southwest end of the lake and burial mounds on the island. 

A ‘very wild’ area

In 1887 a dam was authorized to aid the driving of logs along Squirrel River. Mark Richardson, whose father bought the large estate on the south side of the island in 1966, theorizes this probably raised the level of the lake seven to 10 feet, meaning much of what is now underwater would’ve been exposed back then. Perhaps there are many more mysteries lurking just beneath the surface. 

Despite the building of the dam, the shoreline around Squirrel Lake wasn’t logged until quite a bit later than much of Minocqua, making the wild landscape a prime candidate for some of the earliest resorts and fishing camps. The very first on the lake was the fishing camp of John Hebden. A.O. Dorwin, one of Minocqua’s earliest pioneers, recalled in a 1931 story in the Minocqua Times there being only two “resorts” in the area when he first arrived in 1891, John Mann’s on Trout Lake and Hebden’s on Squirrel. Recalling Hebden’s resort in the same article, T.G. Torpy, another pioneer and one of Minocqua’s earliest doctors, described the rustic operation.

“Hebden’s so-called resort consisted of three dug-outs in the bank by the lake, with the fronts logged up and covered with cedar or birch bark and the roofs sodded over or thatched … There was also a sort of main building, really a shack, which served as dining room. But Hebden was a wonderful cook, and his Indian wife was a capable woman.” 

Perhaps here is a clue as to why Hebden, a white man, was given “the exclusive right to fish in the reservation waters,” according to an 1894 entry in the Minocqua Times. In following entries his wife is referred to as Napusa, or her Indian name, Jinggabownogna. The Minocqua Times contended that, in the short time it had been running, Hebden’s resort had “secured a worldwide reputation, both for its excellent table service and fine fishing grounds. In a word,” they continued, “it’s the sportsman’s paradise.”

Indeed, Hebden’s resort pops up in several newspapers detailing wealthy sportsmen’s trips up north. After taking a 15 hour overnight train from Chicago, these men would hire a wagon for the bumpy ride along what is now 70 West, beneath a canopy of giant red and white pine trees, and arrive at Hebden’s place sometime around supper. In 1895, Hebden had added a large addition and attempted to rebrand as the Squirrel Lake Hotel. 

“The hotel was not built for style,” the Rochester Daily Republican described. “Neither is it run on that principle, but for solid comfort and old-fashioned enjoyment it fills the bill.”

The following year, two different articles appear in Chicago’s The Inter-Ocean, describing the preserved remoteness of the lake. 

“The region is a very wild one, as it is on the edge of the Flambeau Indian Reservation. No human beings inhabit the country, save Indians and a few wood cutters.” 

Another writer, in a language indicative of the day, states that the woods of Squirrel Lake “are overrun with Indians,” before testifying that “Squirrel Lake is one of the best lakes in Wisconsin I have ever seen for the long continued preservation of fish.” As if to illustrate this point, an article in 1897 recounts 50 musky caught in 10 days on the lake, another boasts “that any expert can get 100 bass in three hours.”

In 1897 there were more stories in Chicago newspapers telling of the “wild and romantic” scenery of the lake where “no timber has been cut.” That same year, Hebden took on a partner and built a second story on his resort. The following year, a “grand ball” was thrown to celebrate the opening. The Minocqua Times described the resort as “a fine two-story house, with a large veranda running around the entire building, which commands a fine view of the lake for several miles.” By 1898, telephone wires had been strung, connecting the lake with the outside world, and the wildness of Squirrel Lake would not be for long. 

Names to remember

The 52-acre island on Squirrel Lake, originally bought from the U.S. Government by Morgan C. Daniels in 1881, eventually was leased to a Mr. Dunn of Chicago, who, by 1902, had also built a hotel there. Not much can be found about Dunn, but his daughter might be one of Squirrel Lake’s most famous residents.

In a priceless story picked up by newspapers as far as British Columbia, Winifred Dunn is described as “the youngest scenario editor in the (film) business.” The profile, accompanied by a photo of Dunn, describes her upbringing by her father in an isolated cabin on an island in Squirrel Lake, Wisconsin. 

“Dogs and creatures of the wild were virtually her only other companions during youth,” the writer reports. “This, (Dunn) holds, gave her the love of solitude, making social contracts seem unnecessary.”

By the end of her career Dunn was credited with over 40 film productions, spanning both the silent and sound eras. 

Year 1904 was a changing of the guards on Squirrel Lake. After leasing his resort to Henry Hanson, a fishing guide and teamster in the lumber camps, Hebden sold his resort “to a Milwaukee club.” Hanson, who would go on to become a major figure in the resort world, bought 37 acres on the east side of the lake (where Musky Shores stands now) and began building what would be called Forest Home Resort.

In 1913, the Chicago Tribune advertised land for sale on Squirrel Lake with the headline, “Pay as You Please,” proclaiming “lots containing not less than one acre of fronting on the lake selling for less than the cost of an outing.” Three years later, “many beautiful homes,” had been “built by summer residents on the banks of Squirrel Lake.” That same year, H.J. Miner added another with his family’s cabin, Pine Crest. The Minocqua Times described “10 acres of virgin timber in the cooling shades of which cozy cottages of artistic construction are nestled.”

In June of 1921, a railroad engineer, William Jansen, bought 37 acres of stump and underbrush on the shores of the lake, which would (literally) grow into the well-known Jansen’s Squirrel Lake Lodge. Scott Jansen, William’s great-grandson, explains that thanks to much of the lake being logged by that time, property was cheap, allowing resorts to flourish. Mrs. Jansen was a noted cook, using milk from the property’s cows, eggs from the chickens and vegetables from the gardens to craft culinary delights. 

Another resort soon followed, The Shorewood Lodge, in 1923. The following year the forests around Squirrel Lake were said to be “alive with wolves” and, apparently, bears. Three bears were killed in that season, one after attacking a horse at Shorewood; another weighed 380 pounds. The deer and fish, however, were suspiciously absent. A Milwaukee Journal article published in 1925 reported resort owners in favor of a wholly closed deer season that fall, with Henry Hanson, of Squirrel Lake Resort, leading the call. 

“Wisconsin ought to close the deer hunting season forever. A live deer in the woods, on the trails at the water’s edge, is worth more to the state as a specimen to be snapped with a camera than as a carcass to be shipped to a big city as meat for carousals. Let’s close the season for hunting deer for several years, if not forever.”

Referencing the declining fish population, Hanson demanded bag and size limits immediately. 

Bootlegging, muskies and gangsters

In 1924 O.E. Carter and A.M. Triska bought the island and built Muskellunge Lodge. Their intent for the rest of the island was to “sell lots to St. Louis people,” which they did, the first being to Herbert L. Spreckelmeyer, for $1. 

It’s sometime around this the bootlegging operation began, and though just about everyone on Squirrel Lake has heard stories of it’s existence, there are no newspaper articles substantiating the claims. The proof lies, according to Mark Richardson, at the bottom of the lake, where the bootleggers dumped the distillation tower after being tipped off that authorities were on to the operation. Or, upon being raided, did they pay off the authorities to keep names out of the newspapers? Terry Eggebrecht, whose father showed him where the distillation’s cement vats were on the island when Eggebrecht was a child, remembers seeing barrels filled with bullet holes. Richardson, an avid scuba diver, eventually recovered the kettle. 

So who was behind the operation that, Richardson says judging by the size of the distillation tower, turned out 500-1,000 gallon batches of moonshine? Was it Carter and Triska? Could it have been Spreckelmeyer, whose cabin, after the last heir passed, was filled with countless antique liquor bottles? Or was it O.E. Burkart, another St. Louis businessman, who built the most notable house on the island and all of the lake, in the winter of 1928/29? 

The house, which boasts eight bedrooms, many with their own private bathroom, also features a sprawling “rec room” which hangs over the water, complete with a fireplace and bowling alley. Richardson says you can tell Burkart stopped working on it when the stock market crashed in ’29 because the upstairs was left unfinished. Many parties were thrown there, with a guest list that included the Carters, the Robertsons (who owned an estate on the east side of the lake that included a mechanized shooting gallery) and the Jansens. Residents on the mainland knew Burkart was in town by the deep rumble of his Chris-Craft. 

Also during this time, another Squirrel Lake resident gained fame and notoriety across the country, only this time, it was a fish. “Mose” was Earl Jansen’s “pet” musky, a fish so tame Jansen could rub its belly, hand feed it, and even pick it up out of the water. For the next decade, Mose I, II and III would appear in newspapers and newsreels across the country.

Whether or not the bootlegging on the island was the work of actual gangsters or just some rich St. Louis boys looking to imbibe might be debatable, but a true gangster entered the history of Squirrel Lake on April 27, 1934. After busting out of Little Bohemia with guns blazing and taking a Lac du Flambeau man and his family hostage for three days, George “Baby Face” Nelson stole a car and was chased down Squirrel Lake Road, disappearing onto an unmarked side road. It was believed he was hiding out on the lake.  

“Armed with deer rifles, shotguns and pistols, every available back woodsmen and village resident … were trodding through brush and forest of the lake area here in a grim hunt for George (Baby Face) Nelson,” reported the Ironwood Daily Globe. 

However, the “five foot gangster with a face like a cupid” made it out of the area undetected. Perhaps he had friends on the lake? 

All the memories

Two more key figures of the early days of Squirrel Lake were not gangsters or wealthy vacation homeowners. Quite the opposite, John and Frieda Schilling were farmers who moved to Squirrel Lake, first to manage Carter’s resort and then serve as caretakers for the old Miner place and the Leeland estate when their barn burned down. Marcy Mattison, a granddaughter of Alfred Leeland, who bought 90 acres on the eastern shore in 1942, remembers Frieda Schilling fondly.

“Frieda said the night their farm caught fire and burned, her hair went from brown to white,” Mattison remembered.

Schilling, who was also Terry Eggebrecht’s grandmother, was in competition with Mrs. Jansen for being the best cook on the lake. A typical farm-to-table, woodstove cooked meal included duck from the lake served with gravy made from foraged mushrooms, potatoes and radishes from the garden, wild rice from the north end and a freshly baked pie for desert. 

In addition to a farm across the road from their property, Mr. Miner, who was known as a bit of a recluse, also had a hermitage, deep in the woods. Mattison, who has kept terrific records of her family’s memories of Squirrel Lake, remembers it being described as a rustic small room with a fireplace and lots of dried herbs hanging from the rafters. 

Alongside the carefree, happy memories on Squirrel Lake are tragic stories, too. As Mattison, whose brother died from a tractor accident at their cabin when he was 21, says, “I’ve noticed when things happen on the lake … I don’t know, when there’s a tragedy, it’s a big tragedy.”

There have been drownings, fires, fatal hunting accidents, fingers lost from dynamite explosions, lumberjacks killed by falling trees. And more light-hearted brushes with danger too, like the time Earl Jansen made the papers when two angry eagles attacked a small plane he was flying in. In addition to the old still at the bottom of the lake is a steam engine from the logging years, a shore station, boats and more, just waiting to be rediscovered by the next generation. 

Through the second half of the 20th century, Squirrel Lake would continue to make memories for people passing through; recollections of the dirt floors and dirty jokes of Doc’s Olde Place and the polka music that emanated from Pine Knob Inn pop up on message boards across the internet. And though almost all of the resorts are gone and only one restaurant remains, the stories survive; giving just a glimpse into what this place must’ve been like, way back then.