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 communities of Gagen, Phelps, St. Germain, Sayner, and Rhinelander got their names.
This week’s story comes from a WXPR listener who submitted a question to our new Curious North series. Keith Kasprzak lives in Sugar Camp and this was his question: What is the history behind how Sugar Camp got its name?
To answer Keith’s question, here’s today’s installment of A Northwoods Moment in History.
Sugar Camp is a small, unincorporated village on State Highway 17 about halfway between Rhinelander and Eagle River. It has a sweet-sounding name that evokes images of maple sugar harvesting. While that image is an accurate one, the community has undergone several name changes before settling on its current designation.
Members of the Flambeau Tribe of the Ojibwe Nation built the original settlement in the area around Sugar Camp Lake and Indian Lake. Members of the tribe hunted, fished, and gathered wild rice around the lakes, but they also harvested sap from the abundant maple trees in the region and made maple sugar and syrup. The sweet product of the maple tree was prized, and the settlement even then was called “Sugar Camp.”
When American settlers arrived, they recognized the potential of the region, and in the late 1880s a settler named Fred Tripp acquired 180 acres of water reserve land along the banks of Sugar Camp Lake. Tripp saw value more in tourism than timber and built the Maple Grove Resort on his land. He also built a general store and post office. However, Tripp wasn’t the first, and in 1897 while clearing the northeast shore of Sugar Camp Lake he cut down a tree that bore surveyor’s marks and the name “J. H. Retallick of Dubuque, Ia, August 23, 1859.”
While Tripp saw tourist potential, men like Frederick Robbins of Rhinelander saw timber potential. Robbins acquired extensive holdings in the region and established Camp 4 near Sugar Camp Lake, Camp 5 east of Indian Lake, and Camp 6 north of Indian Lake. He built a narrow-gauge railroad into the area to haul out the lumber, and the settlement and Maple Grove Post Office that Tripp established in 1899 became part of Robbins Township. The Thunder Lake Logging Railroad lasted from 1893 until the line ceased operations in 1941.
The lumber company brought in Polish immigrants to work the land, so the village and lumber camps had a strong eastern European and Roman Catholic influence which remains evident to this day. Despite the dominance of the lumbering interests in the region, and regardless of the official postal designation of Robbins, most residents continued to refer to the community by the traditional name of Sugar Camp. After the railroad was abandoned in 1941, the name of Robbins was largely discontinued, and the village has since been officially known as Sugar Camp.
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.
Do you have a question about history in the Northwoods? Submit it to our Curious North series below.