What a Delightful Drive!

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | oct. 2019

This dilapidated gas station near the village of Kennan caught this writer's eye and imagination. Located at the junction of Price County J and U.S. Highway 8, this clapboard structure was built by Rudy Kuchlenz in 1927. A grey day conjured ghosts of human activity past at this former service station and general store. Denis Gullickson photo.Considering a hectic day-job, a horse farm, a writing avocation, a cottage up north, a theater company and Green Bay's “Premier" to tend to, someone recently asked this writer, “When do you relax?"

The answer was simple: “When I'm driving."

Even over short distances, driving is a cathartic way to compartmentalize the challenges and regather a global perspective on the trouble spots. Be it bumper-to-bumper traffic in downtown Chicago, hours over an open interstate or meandering old logging roads … time behind the wheel is nearly always good for this man's soul.

And so it was that a jaunt along Highway 8 across north-central Wisconsin on Saturday, September 21 gave this writer a great deal of relaxation and a lot of time for reflection. In fact — after a hectic summer and the start to yet another school year — a little drive was probably just what the doctor or psychiatrist ordered.

My route along U.S. Highway 8 would take me from Crandon north of our family cottage in Lakewood to Cameron where I would join my buddy, filmmaker John Mitchell, for a celebration of Packers history and John's movie, “Cheeseheads: The Documentary." Cameron just so happens to be John's hometown — so the endpoint was especially poignant.

Like most of our country's highways, “U.S. Route 8" has a fascinating history. While its entire length runs east-west from Norway, Mich., to Forest Lake, Minn., — the stretch across central Wisconsin represents some of its oldest sections.

Likely bits and pieces of old Indian paths and logging lanes, parts of the road near Rhinelander already existed by 1920 and had even been rerouted by 1926 — the year the U.S. Highway System was established.

The 20s were a time when the horseless carriage married improved working conditions and gave us the early stirrings of the family vacation. Denuded of its virgin forests by then — Northern Wisconsin nonetheless became a desirable destination for its hunting, fishing, boating, swimming and other outdoor recreation. Trains were a good start for the well-heeled, but the explosion of Ford Model Ts prior to 1927 and Model As thereafter meant passable roads were in growing demand.

A Wisconsin Mix

Leaving Lakewood, heavy fog suggested a day of some mystery. First off, just how long would this sopping, cotton-like mix hang on? Adding to the ambiance, the leaves showed a scintilla of fading from their summer green to their autumn hues.

On the road for a half-hour or so, the weather began to shift with the twists in the highway. Fog gave way to sunshine and then won out again. Visibility could be limited to a few hundred feet or a mile and then clear for miles around the next bend. Short bursts of light rain would pop up here and there — adding a pensive touch to the excursion.

I'd been on Highway 8 to Rhinelander before, but never farther west than that — a run that would take me through Price and Rusk Counties before hitting my objective of Barron County. I was anxious to see just what the miles ahead held for this observer.

Northern Wisconsin is such a fascinating mix. Great stretches of forest give way to bursts of human endeavor. Small towns appear and disappear suddenly — sometimes giving way to more forest, sometimes surrounded by acres of open farmland before the forest once again claims its predominance.

The names on crossroad signs are eye-catching and thought-provoking — testaments to the indigenous people who lived here first, camp foremen who commanded legions of lumberjacks after that and early white families who eventually established tiny towns and farms. The significance of nearly every one of them is now lost to the turn of time.

Other roads — Swamp, Spur, Townhall and Cemetery — spoke for themselves; not much lore or legend in perfunctory names like these.

From time to time the signs would read “Old 8 Road" as threads of road drifted off to the left or right. These were ancient pieces of the highway demoted as the road was straightened or steered around some obstacle or another. A couple of short detours on these decaying paths unveiled crumbling homesteads, old school foundations and other human remnants — all destined to disappear altogether sooner rather than later.

Welcome to …

Price County was especially intriguing to this writer. Truly emblematic of the morning's drive, the county's miles of woods were broken by the small burghs of Catawba, Kennan and Hawkins — each an amalgam of current activity and human history slipping away by the day.

Schools, churches, century-old stores now shuttered or repurposed and homes of varying sizes and ages caught the eye. The menagerie said clearly that these small towns were once the primary locus of human aspiration; still fighting the fight against oblivion.

Price County was formed in 1879 and named for W. T. Price, then-President of the Wisconsin Senate and an early logger in the area. The county's boundaries formed a near-perfect rectangle — 31 miles wide and 42 miles long — and made what today remains the 6th largest of the state's 72 counties.

The lands which became Price County were a part of the vast pine-covered area of Northern Wisconsin. Platted — like most of Wisconsin in the late 1840s and early 1850s — deputy surveyors noted the abundance of thick swamps and rich, deep forests.

Those forests attracted enough attention following the Civil War that men like Price gravitated to the area to fell the trees and reap their fortunes. The presence of numerous good-sized rivers aided in getting the wood to sawmills.

A simple truth reflected across the Badger State was that many of its earliest small towns sprung up around such a mill located along a flowing stream of decent size. There, logs were cut into useable planks and boards. Next came a few houses, a general store, a church, a school, a saloon and away that small town went. Merchants and other town folk catered to the lumberjacks — then the farmers and tourists.

A decade after the end of the Civil War most of Wisconsin's pine forests had been cut and shipped downstream to the mills. By 1877, the Wisconsin Central Railway had been built from Milwaukee to Ashland to make logging the interior hardwoods possible.

The railroads and related roadways provided another shot in the arm for these small towns. But once the lumber industry had exhausted the forests, the decline of these small towns commenced. Tourism and farming would replace some of the lost economy, but things would never be quite the same.

An old corner gas station near Kennan caught my eye to the point where I turned around to photograph it. Desolate on a somewhat-dreary day, one could picture the hustle and bustle around such a place in a bygone era. A building like this often meant everything as a locus to those who lived nearby.

End of the Journey

In Rusk County similar scenes were found in the towns of Glen Flora and Tony. Once I hit Ladysmith — a town of more than 3,100 — the reverie was pretty much over.

It had been a relaxing, enjoyable sojourn. I'd found at least a couple of hours of peace and quiet as I'd traversed a part of Highway 8.

A gaggle of soaked cheerleaders standing in the pouring rain near the Kwik Trip held signs reading “Car Wash for the Lady Lumberjacks." But the intersection of Highways 8 and 27 was crazy with traffic. There would be no long stretches of smooth carbon ribbon to settle into from here.

Before I knew it, I hit Cameron. Reality. The public part of the day was on.

Still, the drive had been everything I'd hoped for and the relaxation and learning I'd garnered along the way would last me for a while — at least until the regular routine revved up again.

Thumbnail Update — The Premier

Time-to-time, this column will shine a light on groups located at “The Premier." This issue, we celebrate Strike a Chord. Driven by the efforts of Gary Anderle, Misty Bero and Mark Steuer, this non-profit “gives back to the community through various events, educational opportunities, festival and musical instruments." Strike a Chord's goal is to “spread music far and wide and educate on the importance of music."

To date, the group has held an event at Backstage at the Meyer, put guitars in the hands of youngsters at the Boys and Girls Club and begun assembling the pieces of a Music Hall of Fame to celebrate local music history from Buddy Holly's penultimate Riverside Ballroom concert to the 300+ shows at the Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena.Thanks, Strike a Chord, for your support of music in the Green Bay area and your vital presence at The Premier.

--Banner image 'Foggy Morning' by Jackie is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. Find more of her work at flickr.com and a copy of this license at creativecommons.org.

Educator, author, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson continues to write and celebrate all things Green Bay and Green Bay history. As president of the Green Bay Theatre Company, he continues to lead a board that is passionate about strengthening and growing creative Green Bay.

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