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"From the Anvil of Winneboujou...". A Story of a Valley

Taisto Hayrinen

Material from forthcoming history of North Wisconsin "Two Frontiers".

The sun splashed a little color among the clouds before it went away to the west and then the dark night came down and settled on both banks of the river. Except for the rushing river, all seemed quiet and lifeless. Yet the western bank of the river was bristling with dark forms. The mighty warriors of the Sioux were gathered to defend their hunting grounds against the invading Chippewas. According to word, Chief Old Crow had from his scouts, the Chippewas could be expected to arrive at any time, and the swampy water front hid a large force of vigilant tribesmen. Suddenly, a flame sprang up on the higher western bank, then another, and another, until there were a score of huge bonfires lit along the opposite bank of the river. Old Crow was surprised to see the signs of an evidently large force, much greater than he had expected. But still he felt his own force was equal to the invaders', and he thought the Chippewas were foolishly playing into a trap by giving away their position.

As the first fingers of dawn crept across the sky, the Sioux broke camp and made contact with the enemy at the points where the fires had been. Soon the Chippewas fell back before the superior numbers of Sioux, in panic stricken flight across the river. But as the two parties milled around in the ice-cold river, the Chippewas suddenly stopped retreating, and held their ground. At the same time, the bushes suddenly came to life and there seemed to be Chippewas everywhere. They came in from both sides and from the rear of the Sioux, completely encircling them. Escape was cut off, and the now panic stricken Sioux fell easy prey to the Chippewas on the banks of the river. While both sides had heavy losses, the Sioux were decisively dispersed and defeated. Again, and for the last time, Chief Buffalo's Chippewa had won, and this rich country would be theirs forever.

This last battle between the Sioux and the invading Chippewas took place somewhere along the Brule River a hundred years ago. Henceforth, their great spirit, Winneboujou, could work in his blacksmith shop in peace. It was here that he shaped the "Miswabik" or native copper, that was found in the Brule River bed, into various useful articles. Much of his work was done by moonlight, the legend says, and the ringing blows of his hammer were heard by the Indians as far as Superior.

To the Era of White Invaders

The first scouts of the great Hudson Bay Company came to this territory in the early 1660's to exploit the hundreds of beaver dams along the mouth of the Brule River. Shortly after, missionaries, first of whom was Father Claude Allouez, came to teach Christianity to the Indians. But it was a long time before the permanent settlers came. In the meanwhile the fur trade flourished. As late as 1845, we had verbal evidence of what life was like three quarters of a century ago. Just three miles out of Brule lived a son of a Hudson Bay Company fur trader, the late Antoine Dennis. At 92, he still recalled vividly the days when he and his two brothers carried mail on foot from Superior to Ashland and back, thru sun, wind, rain and snow. His mother was a Chippewa, and the stalwart, sharp-tongued Antoine still rankled over the unfairness of the white man to the Indians. He showed anyone interested copies of the old treaty that gave all the Norway and White pine to the white man, the Indians retaining the birch, cedar and basswood, and full fishing and hunting privileges. The birch was for bark for canoes and tepees; the cedar for the framework, and the basswood for its bark, used for sewing the canoes. The treaty is still in force, since it was never repealed, but it has been broken; and while in the early days councilors were sent to Washington, their missions failed. The remnants of the tribes have been shoved to the northernmost tip of the Chequamegon peninsula.

The first rural settlement in the Brule valley was established in 1880 near the mouth of the Brule River. Samuel Budgett of Bristol, England, was a prominent manufacturer who thought he was doing his trusted employes a good turn by giving them a chance to settle in the New World. They settled at the mouth of the Brule, called the little colony "Clevedon" and proceeded to improve the harbor and start a fishing industry. A sawmill was established and farms opened up. Tho they were a sturdy lot, the settlers did not thrive and in a few years they scattered. Hardly a trace of the settlement remains.

To Permanent Homes

The chapter in the history of the valley that we see pulsing with life today, began 50-60 years ago, when the lumbering town of Brule boasted nine saloons, and sounded "like twice that many." Roscoe Wann, who came there 56 years ago, can tell endless tales of the log drives. He was a teamster, hauling 15,000 feet of logs on a sled with bunks 16 feet wide. The rural settlement began in 1888, is typified by such stories as those in the rich store of memoirs of Oscar Ekstrom.

Oscar was a lad of 15 when he and his mother walked 40 miles from Superior, with two cows to be kept to the tortuous Indian trails. A night in the woods, wading across brooks and rivers brought them finally to the last hurdle, the mighty Brule-too deep to ford. There was nothing to do except to let the cows swim across and Oscar followed suit, hanging on to the ropes. His mother crawled over along a tree trunk lying across the stream.

It was a rugged life, and Oscar was a busy lad. He was the first pupil on hand when a school was opened, and he had hauled the logs to build it. His adventures were many, as he ran errands for everyone, but with characteristic Finnish humor he calmly told the following story as one of his favorites: "One day I was hauling hay for a neighbor with an ox, when I came face to face with several timber wolves. I kept a tight grip on my pitchfork, the ox stared sullenly, and when the wolves finally slunk away, my cap settled down on my head as my hair returned to normal from an upright position."

During the first years, the men had to leave their wives and even families alone in the forest cabins while they went out to earn some cash. The women were brave, however, and devised many ingenious ways for getting along. They even got their venison by digging pitfalls. They couldn't lift the entire carcass out at once, so it had to be cut up, and every trace of blood cleared out before it was used to trap the next victim. The memoirs of Mrs. Isaac Adams and Mrs. Charles Johnson tell in detail of those years and adventures.

Isaac Adams was a colorful character who spoke Swedish, Finnish and English fluently, and got along tolerably in French, German and Chippewa. His travels had led him from Sweden to Calumet, Mich., USA, in 1873; thence to British Columbia on the Pacific; back to Duluth to work on the construction of its main street, building of a railroad to Two Harbors, a bridge connecting Duluth and Superior; finally to Brule.

August Wentela used to recall one time when the men worked for the county building roads, were told to report to Superior for the pay-off. The men scraped together last pennies for rail fare and appeared at the court house bright and early. Oblivious of what effort these men may have gone thru to get there, the officials calmly announced it was the wrong day. Some of the men had to walk home. It took two days to cover the 40 miles. The first days of December were at hand, and the cool autumn breeze turned wintry, biting thru their summer garments, and their dry shoepacks chafed thru thin socks. The last miles were punched thru ankledeep snow, but it was soon forgiven when the checks came by Christmas.

On to Economic Democracy

The mighty pine and hemlock were sold to jobbers by some, logged by themselves in a few cases. The sunlight began to get into the valley, and settlement began in earnest. By 1913, the houswives were chatting with each other over the telephone, and there were a church, a socialist hall, and talk of doing something about the prices the private stores were charging, and the poor service they were able to give. By 1920, tho at first under misjudged prospects, the co-op store was actually born. Its authorized capital was $1,000,000. After many trials and tribulations, the venture found solid footing, and its door has been opened many a time since that incorporation day on Sept. 23, 1920. It was independent effort for many years, the first vote to join the Central Cooperative Wholesale, or Cooperative Central Exchange as it was known then, in 1924 being 35 against and 14 for. But in 1926 the board used proceeds of a picnic and $25 of store cash to subscribe to the Co-op Pyramid Builder for all members. That year the auditing was done by trained auditors from the co-op wholesale. By annual meeting time in 1927, sentiment had turned somewhat and the association voted to join the CCW-49 favoring and 41 against.

In 1928, a subscription of $600 was invested in a joint venture into the oil and gas business with other nearby localities-now called Co-op Services, Inc. In 1929 the evident prosperity of the country prompted setting of a goal of $90,000 sales for the year, and an educational fieldman was hired for house-to-house canvassing to promote the campaign.

A branch store was opened at Lake Nebagamon in 1930, but was closed up after two years. The Co-op Park on the Brule was established around 1930, and the store took out some shares in it. The association waded thru the depression and thru some rifts in the membership caused by dissension on political views with evidence that it would be a lasting institution. In fact, the members celebrated in the middle of the depression when they opened for business in new quarters on Sept. 1, 1934. In this, its 25th year, the store is adding another new service for its patrons in the form of a freezer locker plant, and endorsing 100% the rights of its employes to security, when they retire, by subscribing to an employes' pension plan.

From first manager A. E. Koivisto, the tiller has been held in turn by Oscar Corgan, Arvid Wentela, George Wentela, Adolph Aho and presently by Wayne Lundeen. The Wentela brothers and Aho are local boys born and grown up in the valley.

In 1944, the Brule Co-op Ass'n served its owner-patrons with goods and services valued at $116,474, at a saving of $11,552. Administering the affairs of the association for its 385 members is a board of directors presently composed of the following people: S. E. Thoreen, pres., Wm. C. Follis, vice-pres., Arvid Wentela, sec'y-treas., Frank J. Koski, Lydia Tuura, Leonard Tuura, and Edwin Alexson.

Predictions of Things to Come

The strawberries of the valley are known far away, will perhaps be better known as the locker plant makes fresh strawberries available from Brule the year around. The milk from the herds that tinkle their bells in the pastures of a midsummer night is known in the cities of the Lakehead under the brand of the huge Twin Ports Co-op Creamery Association.

Tho the Brule River is called famous after the late President Calvin Coolidge fished in it once, the layman may appreciate a more substantial fame by visiting the annual Midsummer Night Festival at the Co-op Park, where he is challenged to eat as much strawberries and cream as he can hold. And the sparkle of lights along the valley of an evening traces a permanent slice of Americana.

Published by Brule Cooperative Ass'n, 1945.

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