Northwoods Notebook: A city’s past is something to celebrate

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I grew up in a Michigan town settled in the 1800s, when lumber companies moved in to strip the land of trees that were milled for building homes. Meanwhile, the railroad was built through Bay City to carry people and products into the northern frontier, and farmers planted the fields with potatoes that are commemorated in an annual summer festival.
Our main street, Center Avenue, is lined with beautiful wooden Victorian homes built for what my dad told us were the “lumber barons” who, once they brought “light to the forest,” moved west to Illinois and Wisconsin.
Sound familiar? Lumber mills. Building a railroad to the north. Substitute rutabagas for potatoes, and you’ve got the historical roots of Cumberland, the town I discovered a few years back and have grown to love for what it is – and what it was.
The Island City, nicknamed for its location in the middle of a lake called Beaver Dam, where lumber was harvested in the 1800s and sent to the mills that were among our town’s first businesses, reminds me of the place where I was born and raised. The river that flowed through my town carried trees cut by lumberjacks who worked hard by day and drank hard at night in taverns – like those in Cumberland.
I’ve learned that Scandinavian farmers and Italian railroad workers also settled here, built beautiful wooden homes on our main street known as Second Avenue, on the lake and on Mill Hill near where the Miller family operated the mill.
Cumberland’s past has been memorialized in a few books, including a photo history compiled by my neighbor Nancy Bentz and a video produced by my friend Tom St. Angelo, whose grandfather was one of the town’s early settlers and for whom our Library is named.
By Larry Werner

In recent weeks, a Minnesota historian named Brent Peterson has been spending many hours at the Thomas St. Angelo Public Library doing research for a book he is writing about our town’s history. It’s titled “Cumberland: The Island City.” Peterson suggested a Cumberland book to his publisher after writing a book about Stillwater, Minn., his hometown and the city that bills itself as the place Minnesota began.
His publisher wanted him to write a history of a Wisconsin town, and he suggested Cumberland because it’s where he spent summer days at his family’s cabin on Big Dummy Lake. He and his siblings and cousins would swim and water ski and cram up to 20 people into the two-bedroom cabin that his family still owns. And he remembers coming into town on rainy days to watch movies at the Isle Theater or hang out at the library and stop at Dairy Queen before going back to the cabin.
He also chose to write about Cumberland because its history makes a great story.
“Cumberland has history about everything,” Peterson said one day last week at the library. “Louie’s Meats. Ardisam. You’ve got the core of businesses. You’ve got the unique story about the drowning elephant. There’s sports figures. The early people that came here were people looking for lumber. Timber cruisers looking for land, and the railroads were following them. Beaver Dam Lake was at the center, get the logs into the lake, have them milled out.”
Peterson gets animated when he talks about our town’s past, including the unfortunate 1911 drowning of Tom Tom the circus elephant. His first draft is due Nov. 20, and his publisherwants the book out by the next year’s Rutabaga Festival.  
He’s been talking to lots of locals who are more than willing to share their stories about Cumberland. And he, like I, can’t say enough about how nice people are.
“Over 40 years, I’ve never met somebody who is sarcastic or mean,” he said. ”Even if you’re a Viking fan, they treat you pretty well.”
His book about Stillwater is available at the three history museums in Washington County, Minn. After listening to him talk about the rich history of Cumberland, I couldn’t help but wonder why there’s no museum here, or even a historical society.
In Cameron, we have the Barron County Historical Society and the Pioneer Village Museum, said Connie Bussewitz, a Cumberland native and treasure trove of local history. Yes, but Cameron isn’t Cumberland.
Wouldn’t it be nice if one of our vacant downtown buildings became a place where locals and visitors could learn the story of the Italians, the Scandinavians and Germans who settled this place – and the elephant who came here and never left?
Larry Werner’s email is lhwerner47@gmail.com.

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Cumberland Advocate

375 2nd Ave, PO Box 637
Cumberland, WI 54829
Phone: (715) 822-4469
Hours:  8:30 AM–4:30 PM M-F

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