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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

Kentuck Heritage Day Camp Aims to Connect Kids to Forest County Early

Mackenzie Martin
WXPR Public Radio
Participants of the Kentuck Heritage Day Camp outside the the Forest County Historical Society Museum.

Last weekend was the Kentuck Day Festival, a festival held in Crandon each year that celebrates Forest County's early settlers from Kentucky. It’s been held every July for the past 48 years.

In the week leading up to the festival, there was something new added this year, though: a Kentuck Heritage Day Camp. Mackenzie Martin has the story.

The focus of the Kentuck Heritage Day Camp is to share the history of Forest County with the younger generation. Nine kids participated in the camp, ages 9-12.

Michelle Gobert is the Positive Youth Development Educator for UW-Extension Forest County. She held the camp along with volunteers from the Forest County Historical Society.


Credit Mackenzie Martin / WXPR Public Radio
WXPR Public Radio
The Forest County Historical Society Museum.

"We for sure would say that the Kentuck culture is unique to us," Gobert says. "In 1900, there were two Kentuck families in Forest County. In 1910, there were 110. So from 1900 - 1910, there was this huge influx."


At the time, lumber companies in Wisconsin and Michigan were advertising good jobs and cheap land for farming, but Gobert says there were other reasons for the migration, too.


"They weren't just looking for jobs," she says. "They were moving out of Kentucky because it was a really violent place back then. You may have heard of the Hatfield–McCoy feud. A lot of our ancestors here in Crandon probably weren't involved in that feud, but they were involved in feuds in the Breathitt County area."


As to why these families traveled specifically to Forest County, Gobert says that's kind of just what happened. Kentucks also arrived in Oneida and Langlade Counties, but the difference is that they stayed in Forest County.


Gobert says it’s important to dig a little deeper into Forest County’s Kentuck heritage because there are a lot of myths surrounding the migration, like that they were escaping from prisons in Kentucky. She says there were a few, but overall, the image people have of the typical Kentuck that migrated to Forest County isn’t accurate.


"The picture of a lazy man laying back with straw hanging out of his mouth is not the typical Kentuck that we know," she says. "The typical Kentuck man came here to get a good job and to work hard for his family."


At last week’s Kentuck Heritage Day Camp, the kids learned about both their family and their community through genealogy research, museum tours, Forest county courthouse records, an archeology dig, and a trip to the local cemetery to look up their ancestors.


Credit Mackenzie Martin / WXPR Public Radio
WXPR Public Radio
Lakeside Cemetery in Crandon.

Gobert says there are a lot of people that have done their Kentucky ancestry and have gone back to Kentucky. They say walking through the cemeteries in Kentucky is a very similar experience to walking through the cemeteries in Forest County. All of the headstones have the same last names.


Gobert also says the kids at the camp are learning about a lot more than just local history, though. She says local history can help build resiliency.


"The kids are actually learning stories about maybe their grandpa, who went away to war at 18," says Gobert. "Maybe Grandpa had some issues in the war and Grandpa made it through. And kids can then think 'Oh, I can do this, because Grandpa did it, too.' So it's building resilience, and it's also building connectedness. Kids that feel connected to their community are more likely to stay in school and be successful and have a good mental health wellbeing. So, local history can be that tie to positive youth development."


Gobert now works at UW-Extension Forest County but she used to work at the Crandon Public Library.


Credit Mackenzie Martin / WXPR Public Radio
WXPR Public Radio
Participants of the Kentuck Heritage Day Camp at Lakeside Cemetery in Crandon.

"I could've done this at the library," she says. "But it would have been 'yeah, that sounds like fun.' With UW-Extension, it's 'okay, why are we doing this?' And we are doing it because we want our kids to succeed. This is a way in which we can connect them to their community in hopes that they will succeed and come back to their community."

This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. Some music for this story came from Podington Bear


The Kentuck Heritage Day Camp as well as features like this on WXPR are supported in part by grants from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin.


Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

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