How the Community of Gagen Got Its Name

Mar 6, 2019

Throughout the last year, our local historian Gary Entz has uncovered why many towns in the Northwoods are named what they are.

Some previous installments of A Northwoods Moment in History have included how the towns of Phelps, St. Germain, Sayner, and Rhinelander got their names.

In this week’s installment, we hear how the community of Gagen got its name.

Gagen is an unincorporated community located in the town of Piehl roughly 13 miles east of Rhinelander in Oneida County. Although small today, Gagen was once a significant milltown, and it grew right alongside of Rhinelander.

The name Gagen comes from Dan Gagen, who was born in Norfolk, England, in 1834.  In 1851, at the age of 17, Gagen immigrated to the United States.  For the next couple of years he tramped across the north, working in New York, Canada, and the copper mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Gagen soon found trapping and trading a more appealing way of life than mining and ultimately migrated into Wisconsin.  He established a trading post called Gagen Hill on the east side of Yellow Birch Lake near where Eagle River is today.  Gagen traded furs with the Ojibwe and married into the tribe.  He later moved to Hiles where he worked as a farmer and logger.  In 1896 Gagen retired with his wife Mary and two sons to Three Lakes, where he passed away in 1908.  Gagen, the self-styled “King of the North,” never lived in the small community that bears his name, but his name became attached to the land he worked.

The settlement of Gagen actually started as a logging camp.  The Gagen Tract, as it was called, was one of the finest timber belts in the Northwoods.  It stretched roughly 25 miles between Three Lakes and Pelican Lake and had stands of pine, birch, maple, spruce, and cedar.  Logging had been going on the extremities of the tract for some time, but because there was no water transport at the central part of the site it remained largely untouched.  However, when the Brown brothers convinced the Milwaukee, Lake Shore, and Western Railroad to build to Rhinelander, the railroad built into the Gagen Tract as well.  A logging camp was built in 1884 which consisted of a warehouse, cookhouse, blacksmith shop, and housing facilities for 200 men.  The railroad built its own sawmill in 1886, after which the stands of pine became the primary target.

By the turn of the century the pine was nearly exhausted, but by then new owners Frederick Piehl and William Miller had arrived on the scene.  They established the Minneapolis Cedar and Lumber Company and utilized hardwoods for boxes, cedars for posts, tamarack for mine timber, and spruce and balsam for the newly-built Rhinelander Paper Mill.  The Gagen Lumber and Cedar Company continued operations through 1920.  But, like the rest of the Northwoods, the Gagen tract was cutover, and milling stopped in the community in 1940.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant 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.