Every Friday, we turn back the clock on Morning Edition with local historian Gary Entz to find out what life in the Northwoods used to be like. This is part of a new initiative by WXPR to tell the history and culture of northern Wisconsin.
The place names given to towns and geographic regions are important to know because they inform us about our past, where we come from, and the foundations of our communities. While many older residents likely know a lot about the origins of local names, many younger residents may not.
Let’s take the town of Phelps, for example. Situated at the headwaters of the Wisconsin River, geographically Phelps encompasses more than 90 square miles of land, which makes it only slightly smaller in area than Milwaukee to the south. However, population-wise Phelps had only 1200 residents as of the 2010 census, which is not far from its historical average. The only time Phelps was significantly larger in population was during the Great Depression of the 1930s when it reached just over 1600 residents. The town’s low point came in 1970 when the population fell to 876 residents, which was just 12 more people than resided there in 1910.
Although Draper’s Trading Post was the first settlement and had supplied travelers on the Military Road connecting Green Bay to the UP for several decades, Phelps, like many Northwoods settlements, began as a lumbering town. The Thompson and Bonnell Lumber Company incorporated in 1896 in order to take advantage of one of the last unlogged portions of Wisconsin, and in 1901 this became the Wisconsin Lumber and Bark Company. A post office arrived two years later, and in 1905 the settlement known as Hackley was chartered. It was named after company investor Charles Hackley of Steven’s Point. Apparently people found the name too similar to the town of Hatley in Marathon County, so between 1912 and 1915 people began to refer to the town as Phelps, after investor Charles Phelps. Phelps happened to be the resident superintendent of the company store and on-site general manager, so the name seemed appropriate. The company built a sawmill, and in 1905 the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad completed a spur from Conover to Phelps, and hundreds of people moved to the region for lumbering jobs.
The local sawmill in Phelps closed in 1957, and the population subsequently declined to its 1970s low. It has since recovered thanks to tourism and the appeal of Phelps as an attractive retirement destination for those who love the Northwoods lifestyle.
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.