After the Civil War, railroads, towns and cities were in a boom, and men that had once been fighting for the army were looking for work. Many headed West but many also headed North to the Big Woods and the lumberjack camps. Some were farm boys who worked the winter months in the pinery, cutting the enormous white pines that towered overhead.
Moose Lake, which is very near our farm, is a prime example of this activity. Three joining riverbeds were trenched out and a dam added. Logs would be piled into the trench all winter, and with the spring melt, the new lake would fill to bursting. Then the pinery boys would dynamite the dam and float the logs on the rush of water down to the mills to be made into boards and shipped out on the rails.
It was believed that the Big Woods was endless, and the pines would last forever. But, of course, that was not true. The white pines were floated away, and the hardwoods were taken out on the railroads that connected Hayward, Seeley, Cable, Drummond and Grand View. Many of the towns north of Hayward were wintering camps along the railroad’s progress. What was left behind were massive stumps, serious erosion and changes in the weather patterns. Timber barons no longer wanted this land, and much of it was granted or sold to immigration agencies.
When volunteering one summer for the Sawyer County Historical Society, I learned how these agencies tried to sell the cutover land. Their target audience was farmers. In the days before Photo Shop, the immigration agencies doctored black-and-white photographs of wheelbarrows stacked with monstrous potatoes or hay wagons loaded with gargantuan cabbages. “Prime Farmland,” they touted, “Seven Easy Steps for Pulling Out Stumps!”
But as new immigrant farmers soon discovered, there was nothing easy about pulling out those stumps. The old farm saying, “Sometimes it’s easier to plow around the stumps” exists for a reason. But most of those stumps came out — blasted by dynamite, dug with grubbing hoes and ripped from the earth with teams of draft horses. We still have some of the old boxes that held the dynamite used by the Fullingtons to clear the farm’s fields.
When winter strips the trees and shrubs of their leaves, you can still see the old torn-out stumps along the edge of the fields — over 100 years after they were pulled. Most sprout healthy stands of silver birches. Others stretch with gnarled, gray ridges alongside piles of stone that were cleared to ease the burden of farm machinery in the sandy soil.
Those first pioneering farmers came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. E. P. Fullington, an elderly Civil War veteran originally from Vermont, came with his 20-year-old son Lloyd in 1915 to claim a piece of land along a tributary to Hay Creek. Together, they pulled stumps, built the barn and log cabin and gradually added more acreage to the homestead. Moose Lake Road was once lined with small farms like the Fullington’s, but most of the land has returned to trees. It’s not easy making a farm work this far north with such fragile soils.
But difficult soils are not impossible, and some of the old cutover farms, like ours, are still here. Rigorous composting and low-tillage methods work best to regenerate soil, as do rotational grazing practices for livestock. Farming in the Northland might not have been extremely successful, but it is still an important part of the region’s heritage to preserve and celebrate, just as we are celebrating the 100th birthday of our gambrel barn this year.
Looking back on the old photographs, there are very few if any trees in the background — just rugged stubble and brush. This morning, while doing chores amidst the early morning fog, I admire the dense woods surrounding the barnyard and pastures, the wild birds and animals that live there and the lush ecosystem of high summer.
Nature’s ability to regenerate, even when humans have stripped the land bare, is a testament to her endurance and ability to heal. As the current generation of stewards of the land, it is imperative for us to learn this trait from nature and employ biodynamic and permaculture techniques that improve soil health and fertility naturally, as well as the health and vibrancy of the animals in our care.
Even if it takes more than 100 years to transform decimation into an oasis ecosystem that feeds nature and the people of the community, then that is the work on the land that is worth the lifetimes of dedication. As a reader of this series, you get to have a taste of that legacy, as we continue to actualize our vision for a healthy planet and all its inhabitants. I encourage you to be a part of that actualization.
See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715.462.3453 www.northstarhomestead.com