How the Town of Sayner Got Its Name

Oct 24, 2018

Did you know that the town of Sayner was named for its founder, Orrin W. Sayner?

This week on a Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tell us his story.

Although a small town with a year-round population of around 200 people, Sayner can boast of a number of “firsts” in Wisconsin history.  Sayner can lay claim to having one of the nation’s oldest summer camps in Camp Highlands; it can lay claim to being the town where the snowmobile was invented; and the Plum Lake Golf Course is the oldest nine-hole golf course in Wisconsin.  Such accomplishments are only to be expected from a place that had such a robust origin.

The town of Sayner was named in honor of its founder, Orrin W. Sayner.  Better known to those who knew him as O.W., Sayner’s life exemplifies the rugged individualism of early Northwoods pioneers.  Sayner was born in Indiana in 1861 and came to the Northwoods with his wife to serve as a caretaker for a wealthy Chicagoan who owned a small resort on Lake Content.  His daughter Mable was born there in 1889.  In the winter, when tourists no longer came to fish the lake, Sayner found work in the surrounding logging camps.  His dream, however, was to own a resort of his own.  Sayner scrimped and saved every dime he earned, and in 1892 he purchased 25 acres of land on the wooded lakeshore of Plum Lake.

Sayner could not afford to hire workers to help him, so he set about on his own.  Armed with only a double-bladed axe, a square, and a one-man saw, Sayner set about clearing the thick timber for his resort.  It took him a full week just to clear space enough for one tent.  He worked year-round to fulfill his dream, and in the winter when his family needed food Sayner would strap on snowshoes and make a fifteen-hour round-trip hike to Eagle River and back for supplies.  He was also an environmentalist in his own way and carefully preserved much of the surrounding timber in order to save the natural beauty of the region.  Sayner owned no horses in those days, and to bring tourists to his resort he used a dog team and wagon to transport them from the nearest railhead.

When the railroad reached Plum Lake in 1894, its new station was located near the Sayner homestead.  This was just what the tenacious Sayner needed.  In 1897 the state attorney-general spent some time at Sayner’s Resort and decided that the region needed a post office.  The post office was established in 1898, and Sayner, who was made postmaster, suggested the name of Plum Lake.  The post office department rejected that name.  Everyone called it Sayner, and the name stuck.

O.W. Sayner continued as postmaster until 1923.  He died in 1938.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. Some sound effects for this commentary came from Freesound. 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.