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, Sugar Camp, Phelps, St. Germain, Sayner, and Rhinelander got their names.
In this week’s installment, we hear how the town of Gleason got its name.
Gleason is a small, unincorporated town located on Highway 17 in Lincoln County. It is an unremarkable place today, but like many Northwoods communities Gleason had a vibrant past and made a unique contribution to American history.
The town of Gleason is named after Salem Gleason, the first homesteader who settled in the area in 1880. Gleason was born in Westfield, Ohio, in 1844. Gleason’s father died when he was young, after which he moved with his mother and siblings to Calumet County, Wisconsin, where he grew up. In 1863, at the age of 19, young Gleason enlisted in the Union Army and fought with Company B of the Fourth Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War. His older brother Henry was killed during the conflict, and Salem returned home after the war in broken in health. He regained his strength, and in 1867 married Sarah Hunt of Stockbridge, Wisconsin. The couple moved to Redwood, Minnesota and tried their hand at farming; however, the grasshopper plague of 1874 ruined them. They returned to their families in Wisconsin, but within a few years they moved north to Merrill, and by 1880 the couple filed a homestead claim on land that is the current location of Gleason. Others soon followed and a small general store was built there in 1884. However, no real effort was made to turn the settlement into a true village until the Marinette-Tomahawk Western Railroad extended south to connect there in 1901. After that, a bank and post office were established, and Gleason was platted out as a town. Sarah Gleason died in 1911 while Salem lived till 1916.
In the late nineteenth century, political and religious turmoil in the Baltic states forced many people to immigrate to the United States. In particular, Russian “Russification” programs discriminated against people who were not part of the Russian Orthodox faith. Many Estonian and Latvian Lutherans came to Wisconsin for logging and farming jobs, and a number of immigrants found their way to Gleason. In 1907, these immigrants founded the Estonian Evangelical Martin Luther Church in Gleason. This is significant because it was the first Estonian church built in the United States. It remains standing and is today the oldest Estonian church in this country.
Economic pressures during the Great Depression and World War II years led to many people leaving the area, and by the early 1960s the church fell into disuse. The abandoned church was repeatedly vandalized over the next few decades, but in 1992 interest in this historic landmark was revitalized. Descendants of Baltic immigrants in Chicago and other parts of the country have taken interest, and since then the church has undergone intensive restoration efforts. The reinstated church, near the intersection of county roads X and J is once again an active place in the town that Salem Gleason founded.
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 isused 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.