A fire tower site in northern Wisconsin could soon be available to rent for overnight stays
like many good Wisconsin stories, this one starts at a bar.
Brian Finstad was at the Buckhorn Bar in Gordon when he started talking to a local Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employee who said the town’s fire tower might not be standing for much longer.
Finstad, who now lives in Superior, was part of the fifth generation of his family to grow up in Gordon, a town of under 700 in Douglas County. His childhood home was next to the tower and for him and others in Gordon, it was a landmark.
“When I was a kid, the tower was our next-door neighbor,” he said. “I couldn’t even imagine the tower not being there.”
He said that unlike other fire towers that are situated far outside town, Gordon’s 100-foot tower is on a hill just on the edge of town, visible from its main street. Views from the tower’s cab include the St. Croix River and surrounding Douglas County forest.
After thinking about it for a few months, Finstad began searching the internet for more information about the tower and its fate. That led him to Kristine Buchholtz, a forestry specialist with the DNR.
In 2015, the DNR announced it was decommissioning its 93 remaining fire towers (in the 1930s, the department had 119 towers). They were too expensive to maintain and weren’t needed anymore, as airplanes and technology replaced the fire spotters that once used them.
Many towers were on land not owned by the state (the DNR accessed and operated them via easements), so the DNR first offered the towers to the landowners. Buchholtz, who is in charge of the decommissioning project, said 37 of those owners took the offer, leaving 56 to be dismantled. Ten have been so far, with four more scheduled to be taken down by this fall.
Finstad reached out to Buchholtz about the Gordon tower on a Tuesday, and she told him it was going to be auctioned for dismantling two days later.
“It was just a fluke chance that I was able to catch it,” he said.
He asked Buchholtz to put the auction on hold so he could come up with a plan to save the tower. She gave him a year, and the effort to save the fire tower was on. The ultimate plan was to open it as a camping destination so it could be self-sustaining.
If the plan succeeds, it will be only the second fire tower in the state that is open to the public in some way, and the only tower Finstad knows of east of the Rockies that is available to rent for overnight stays.
The state’s other tower that is open for climbing, Mountain Fire Lookout, is in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest north of Mountain and is open from 8 a.m. to sunset daily, May 1 to Nov. 1.
In order to save the Gordon tower, first Finstad gathered many of the area’s nonprofits back at the Buckhorn to see who could take the lead on the project. That included the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary, which Finstad was a board member of. The group helps protect the 4,000-acre Douglas County Wildlife Management Area, a unique pine barrens landscape.
The tower is about two miles from the sanctuary, but Finstad said the group’s board was the best equipped to take on the project. Plus, the sanctuary is managed by fire, and the tower could be a birdwatching destination, so the project fit within the group’s mission, he said.
The initial plan was to acquire the tower, the land around it that was owned by Douglas County, and pay for it all, including ongoing liability insurance, by renting it out as a camping spot — another idea Finstad got from the internet, after seeing fire towers out West repurposed as camping destinations.
The Gordon Fire Tower’s cab is only about 7 feet by 7 feet, Finstad said, so it isn’t big enough for people to spend the night in, like those out West. But they could camp at its base and have access to climbing the 100-foot tower.
Finstad was worried it might not be insurable, but he got quotes from Holden Insurance in Superior: $5,000 per year for when it’s in use, and $2,500 annually for when it’s not.
The tower was built in 1935, but its wooden stairs were replaced with steel ones and “thankfully, (it’s) in good shape,” Finstad said, so the group didn’t have to worry about paying for repair work.
The group began raising money by selling sponsorships ($100 gets your name on a step up the tower, $500 gets you a named landing), art prints, T-shirts (made by a nonprofit that provides job training for homeless youth), and a dunk tank at the town’s Fourth of July celebration.
Finstad said they eventually want the tower to be self-sustaining, without having to rely on fundraising or grants.
So far, they’ve raised about $16,500 — without any grants or government funding. They need to raise another $15,500.
“Honestly, it can be a bit scary to think about, but we just keep putting one foot in front of the other and somehow we are getting somewhere,” Finstad said. “People just really seem to want to support this.”
In December 2018, the group closed on the sale of the land the tower stands on.
In order to take ownership of the tower, they have to insure it. And to insure it, they have to build a fence around it. Inmates from the Gordon Correctional Facility are currently building the fence, and once it’s complete, Finstad said the DNR will turn over the tower to the group.
Still, the insurance is expensive, and “we can’t dunk people and sell T-shirts forever,” he said.
The group got some help on that front this August when Mike and Dorothy O’Brien donated a small cabin they had on Whitefish Lake to the cause. The group moved it to the base of the tower on Aug. 8.
“Now that we have the cabin, that changes it a little,” Finstad said. He noted that with the cabin, they can attract more people and charge higher rental fees than they would have for just a campsite. He thinks everyone from birdwatchers to writers looking for a retreat might be interested in renting the cabin.
In August, the group bought the land for the cabin from Finstad’s mother.
The plan is for the cabin to be available for rent next spring. At first it will be rustic, with electricity but no running water, just a composting toilet. But it is plumbed, and Finstad said they hope to eventually have a well and septic system.
When renters are staying at the cabin, they will have access to the tower. Otherwise, it will not be open to the public.
Finstad said they do hope to open it to the general public for climbing during special events, since he knows how important the tower is to not just members of the community who used to climb it, but also others who pass through Gordon.
Gordon Fire Department Fire
By: Larse Ausing
In the early afternoon hours of September 19, 2013, a fire broke out in the Gordon Fire Department in Gordon, Wisconsin. Several small explosions were heard coming from the building. The explosions were thought to have come from oxygen tanks and other equipment in the building. The fire was originally thought to be started by a lightning strike, but the storm the lightning came with was proven to have started after the fire. The cause of the fire remains unknown.
Many important pieces of machinery were lost including six trucks; two engines, two tenders, and two brush trucks. A snowmobile was also lost in the blaze. The two engines were pulled from the building and had to be extinguished outside. One of the trucks had to have sand dumped on it to extinguish the flames. Although the building was up to date with safety and technology, a sprinkler system was not added to the building. Gordon Fire Chief Mike Chmielecki said, “By the time firefighters arrived, flames were already coming from the building.” No one was hurt in the fire.
*Information for this article came from the Sawyer County Record and the Duluth News Tribune
Gordon Historical Society
By Thomas Gouge
The Gordon Historical Society includes two buildings and they are located in Gordon, Wisconsin. There is the historical museum and the old depot. Together, the two buildings are actually the Gordon and Wascott Historical Museum. The reason is because Wascott was never a town at first, and it was just Gordon. They later added Wascott as its own town in 1910. The historical museum has historical artifacts in it from Wascott. It’s weird, because some call it the Gordon Historical Society, and some call it the Gordon/ Wascott Historical Society.
The depot building is a traveler, since it has moved four times. It’s first move was in 1990. The current location was where it was last moved to. It’s third location was down Antoine Circle about an eighth of a mile and up on the hill where the train tracks are now. The depot was moved, because of the building of the train tracks. It was moved on to the original Nelson property, and the last owner of the Nelson property was a man named Art Nelson.
The depot was a house for a young lady named Aggy Whalen. Before Aggy lived there, it was a potato storage building and a trading post. Over the years, these were owned by Antoine Gordon. It was the general store around the Gordon area. The Gordon Historical Society currently sits on the St. Croix Trail which runs from Gordon to Fort Snelling. Just south of the depot, there was a cow tunnel that ran underneath the road, because the road was used for early cars. They didn’t want vehicles to hit the cows as they were passing from one field to another. What we know now as County Road Y in the late nineteen hundreds, was known as Moccasin Avenue.
Joseph Blackburn: Crossroads Trader
By: Loren Sloan
It was in 1937, during the height of the Depression, when our Gordon intermediate school teacher, Miss Montello Lilkok brought her uncle Frank Berquist to school and he told us the saga of Joe R. Blackburn.
Berquist was a pioneer government surveyor and settler in the Gordon area. His wife was the daughter of William Young who homesteaded on what is now called German Lake, near the headwaters of Ox Creek, calling his home “Monte Cristo” from the Alexander Dumas novel. The Berquists lived on the Young property for a few years before moving into the village of Gordon, where they spent a remainder of their lives. Berquist, besides being a prominent surveyor was active in local politics and severed on the school board and in a variety of town and county positions.
Berquist was a close personal friend of Joseph R. Blackburn, the first white settler in the Totogatic area of Northwest Wisconsin. Blackburn had established a stopping place, farm, and trading post near the junction of the Totogatic River and the Ounce Creek before the Civil War. But, on October 1, 1897, he was found, foully struck down on his doorstep.
According to Berquist: Blackburn was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and came to Stillwater, Minnesota in 1847 with his brother John. The brothers were interested in lumbering and in trading with the Indians.
In 1869, Joe Blackburn located 200 acres about 10 miles southeast of Gordon (part of Section 36, T43, Range 11). Near the Blackburn place was a running copper range, flowing into the Totogatic at The Blackburn property. The Totogatic River crosses this range from Nelson Lake and forms the eastern and the northern lines of Washburn County and the southern line of Douglas County, Its name is derived from the Ojibwa words: “totagan” for a trembling marsh or quaking bog, and “totosh” for a woman’s breast. The derivation of “ounce” is obscure. It has been variously spelled “Ounce,” “Oonce,” and “Unse.” One guess is that it may come from the French word one or first, as one comes up-stream from the Totogatic, it is the first stream entering.
When Blackburn settled in the Totogatic-Ounce country, it was not so isolated as it is today. One of the reasons Blackburn chose his particular location was that it was at the crossing of two or three main Indian trails, also used as well by loggers and miners. One path came from Drummond, past Pigeon and the Eau Claire Lakes and along the Ounce Creek. Another trail went by the way of Chittamo (“Ajidamo” or Grey Squirrel), Frog, and Chippanazie (“Binessi” or Big Bird) Creeks.
Blackburn built a respectable place to live and for the many travelers to stop overnight. His buildings and farmland were located on a knoll –a 60-acre “island”—almost surrounded by swamp and running streams, between the Totogatic River and the Ounce and Snake Creeks. His panoramic view of meadowland, stream, and cropland was as beautiful as any the North Country can provide.
Eventually, the main log dwelling had ten, with accommodations for 40 or more men. Other building included: a one-room log store, a blacksmith’s shop, a small oil storage house, an outdoor privy, a large barn, a buggy shed, a cow barn, a horse barn, a hay barn, a hog barn, a small log building with an adjoin lean-to, and a small white chapel. Lumberjacks and prospectors used to stop and stay overnight when they were passing through, and conducted some business with Blackburn out of his trading post.
Much of what we know about Blackburn’s endeavors come from journals of Albert C. Stunts, a surveyor and “landlooker” hired to look for timber, who seems to have made Blackburn’s place his headquarters when working in the area. Stunts did much government surveying in the area and leaves us with much too definite information on logging around Gordon between 1864 and 1868, immediately after the Civil War. He mentions moving with ease along certain routes and must have been following paths which had been well-marked and cleared by Blackburn. (The trail from Gordon to Blackburns’ begins near the present site of Dahlberg power dam and the present pipeline and power lines follow the original Blackburn road out of Gordon for always to the Southeast.)
According to Berquist, sometime before 1880, Joe Blackburn married Mary Lightfoot, an Indian woman. She passed away at the age of 53, a few years before her husband was murdered. When she died, Blackburn missed his wife so dearly that he buried her in front of his home and built a chapel over the grave. In this chapel, Blackburn would sit in a rocking chair, meditating and grieving over his deceased wife. There was a visible worn spot on the wall behind the chair from where Blackburn’s head made contact with the wall.
At the time of Blackburn’s death in 1897 at the age of 63, the Superior Evening Telegram newspaper accounts of Blackburn’s murder list him as not having no surviving children. However, the annual school census for 1891 lists four Blackburn-related children as being enrolled in the Gordon School system, which, at the time, included several rural one-room schools. These children were: Joseph Blackburn, age 18, and Atina, Nettie, and Percy Lightbody, ages 12, 8, and 6, respectively. According to Berquist, Blackburn had taken in a boy, Joseph, and raised him as his own and was very fond of him. The other three children were related to Mary Lightbody.
Bill and Fred Newsome, Wascott natives and loggers, often spoke of the Blackburn road near their homes. And, as a small boy, I remember the old Indian “Sontag,” who sometimes lived with my neighbors Albert and Kate Thayer. He would take the Blackburn road out of Gordon on Periodic treks by foot to visit relatives at “Post” (Pa-Kwa-Wong) east of Hayward.
The first owners of the property after Blackburn’s death were the Ervings. The Ervings were in the timber business in a big way and wanted to relocate to Bemidji, where Erving had timber stumpage and there were Indian lands to log. Berquist looked after the property for five years until E.P. Mackey purchased it and, in turn, sold it to Fred Graham. According to Berquist, all the owners claimed the place was haunted. At some point, the bodies of both of the Blackburns were exhumed and reburied in the Gordon Cemetery, where a large headstone now Marks the location. And, Blackburn’s chapel was later moved into the Village of Wascott, where it is now part of a home.
So why was Joseph Blackburn killed? According to Berquist, one supposition is that Blackburn was killed as a result of a running fight. Evidently, he had just returned from his cranberry marsh, located east of his home, as cranberries were still in his wagon. The horses were unhitched, but loose in the barn with their harnesses still on, when Blackburn’s body was found. He had been hit on the head with a blunt instrument, and an ax he used about the wagon was found lying near his body.
Blackburn’s reputed hidden wealth also provided motive for the slaying. In a newspaper story, in January, 1932, Father Gordon, the famous first American Indian priest and native of the Gordon area, said that, on one occasion, his father, William, was a witness to a timber trespass case in which Joe Blackburn was implicated. The case was tried in Madison and a fine was imposed on Blackburn, who then wrote a check against his account at the First National Bank in Stillwater, Minnesota. A wire was sent to Stillwater and the answer came back: Blackburn’s check was to be honored up to $50,000.
On another occasion, after a winter’s logging, Blackburn came home to Gordon bearing a small oaken chest under his arm. The Reverend Gordon’s father saw therein hundreds of bills – greenbacks of various denominations – and estimated that there were easily several hundred dollars in the box. Blackburn was reputed to have hidden his treasure in the coffin of his decreased wife. In commenting on this tale, Father Gordon said the idea of was improbable, but not impossible.
A Mr. Akerly, an American Indian from Danbury, who claimed to be a cousin of Joe Blackburn’s wife, told District Attorney Claude Cooper that he had been told by the Spirits in a dream, that there was gold in an Indian Woman’s grave at Gordon, Wisconsin. Akerly’s story was connected with Blackburn’s death by courthouse employees. A debate continued over where the Blackburn wealth was hidden and a court order was finally issued to open the grave of Mary Blackburn and to look inside her coffin for the money. But none was found.
Blackburn was reputed to be a wealthy man, but after his death none of his wealth was ever found. So, what happened to the chests of gold coins that Blackburn was reputed to have had? The sheriff, after a thorough search of the buildings and property, found only a few hundred dollars.
According to Berquist, the Blackburn money may not yet have been found. But Burton Fetting, who lived on the property in later years, wasted little time thinking about the possibility of buried gold coins and, instead, enjoyed the pleasures of living and raising a family in this wilderness spot.
In 1982, Ben Kreiner, who, with his mother, had lived on what had been the Blackburn property, said that it was his belief that Blackburn had left very little, if any, buried treasure. Kreiner, a former Wisconsin Dept. of Conservation mobile fire lookout and later a railroad employee, now retired, said his reasoning was that, in Blackburn’s day, gold was not worth more than $240 per pound and is was doubtful that Blackburn could have carried more than 20 pounds (less than $5,000) around with him, and probably spent through most of what he had, as he had to build, improve, and cut roads into his property, living for years off of very little apparent income.
It was Kreiner’s belief that the person or persons who killed Blackburn took whatever money he had on him and whatever was stored around the house or store and, after waiting a reasonable time so as not to draw suspicion, took off and started life all over in some other place away from the Gordon area.
So who murdered Joe Blackburn? There were many suspects.
The only evidence was a set of moccasin tracks crossing the creek. So, rumor, of course, fastened on an Indian, any Indian as the culprit. But many whites in the area also wore moccasins.
Charles Beauregard was arrested and charged with the crime, mainly because he was an Indian and happened to be in the area at the time of the murderer. But, after spending the winter in the Douglas County jail in Superior, he was declared “not guilty” by a jury, after only 15 minutes of deliberation.
Other suspicion fell on one of the many area families who purchased food and supplies from Blackburn’s trading post. Blackburn was reputed to have kept a book listing those who owed him money. Two local Chittamo families were suspects for a time and were investigated because pages with their names and amounts owed had been torn from Blackburn’s journal.
Is it possible that Harry Tracy (b.1875-1902), and later called the “Chittamo Badman,” pulled of the perfect crime? We will never know! According to a story in a magazine “Old West,” places Tracy as being out of prison when the murder was committed.
Tracy was born in, Pittsville, Wisconsin, in 1875. His parents were Orlando and Susanah Washburn Severns. Tracy (known as Harry Severns in the Chittamo area) grew up in Pittsville and Chittamo, then a logging town. Minong and Gordon were going strong and it was Minong that Tracy considered his hometown. When he was still a teenager, his father, Orlando Severns was elected to the Chittamo school board and became that school district’s fist treasurer. Stories are that Orlando absconded with the school funds was never heard from again, until years later when word came of his death of his death in a train accident in Nebraska.
Tracy’s mother then married Ed Goodwin. The Goodwins were known as a hard-working folks and their name is still well-known in the Minong, Wascott, and Gordon areas.
While still a teenager, Tracy worked in logging camps and was well acquainted with Blackburn’s operation. He especially adored his mother and got along well with his stepfather.
About 1885, Tracy went to the Dakotas with a threshing crew to help with the harvest and to make some money. While there, Tracy wanted to go to town and tried to borrow money from a friend who turned him down. So, Tracy stole the money and went to town anyway. The rest of the threshing crew went after Tracy and he fled. That was the beginning of his outlaw career.
He took a train west and appeared at Loon Lake north of Spokane in 1896, where he built a cabin and worked in the timber industry. That lasted about six months and he resurfaced in butte, Montana, and shortly after thereafter, in June 1897, he was arrested in Provo, Utah, for robbing a store. He was sentenced to one year in the Utah State Penitentiary, but escaped shortly thereafter.
Tracy and another convict fled to Brown’s Park, then an outlaw haven on the Colorado-Wyoming-Utah border. Law officers pursued him and he shot and killed a posse member. Tracy was again captured and this time he was put in a Colorado jail, from which he also escaped!
Tracy was loose during the period Joe Blackburn was murdered, in 1897. Shortly after Blackburn’s murder a young man cashed in some gold coins at the Minong Hotel and was never seen again.
Tracy was on the loose until the winter of 1898-1899, when he and a man by the name of Merrill were arrested and sent to the Oregon prison at Salem. In June, 1902, Tracy and Merrill escaped, killing three guards in the breakout. As they moved up the coast, Tracy killed Merrill. In various shootouts, Tracy killed three more officers in Seattle. In August 1902, when he was surrounded by a posse and wounded in the leg, he committed suicide.
So, who killed Joe Blackburn? His Murder remains unsolved to this day.
Interviews with Frank Berquist
The Superior Evening Telegram, January 22, 1932
History of Washburn County and Surrounding Area
Old West magazine
Notes from an unknown author who was in the Civilian Conservation Corps CC at Minong
A letter from Ben Kreiner
Interview with Bill and Fred Newsome
The Copper Mines
The copper mines were started in the year 1890, and ended in 1913. There were copper mining operations at the Weyerhaeuser and Mudge Mines. One of the larger copper developments was the Weyerhaeuser Mine, which was a series of shafts and small dumps near Wascott and Gordon.
In the mine the F shaft descended three hundred feet and had four levels. The Native copper is found as small wires and masses in veins and amygdales in basaltic lava flows. The deposit was discovered in the late 1890’s. The mine work continued at the Weyerhaeuser Mine in 1906-1914 with shafts, trenching and drilling. Even so, no more than a few thousand pounds of ore were extracted.
The mines were located at the SE corner of Gordon, WI. In 1767 the copper was discovered by prospectors who were looking for other minerals. There was not much copper where they were, but what was found was almost pure copper. There were ancient Indian cultures that started the mines. The clanks of tools hitting rock could be heard from miles away. Early in the 18th century the miners started using dynamite to blast through rock to hit copper deposits.
The native copper was the primary ore mineral, being found as wires and masses reportedly weighing up to seven pounds. Minerals found in the mine and on the mine dumps include copper, silver, malachite, azurite, calcite, quarts, and chlorite.
Standard Oil Product- Youngquist Garage- Haakenson Shop
By: Gavyn Haakenson
The first half of the building was built in 1928 as a blacksmith shop. The blacksmith shop was a 50 by 50. Then in 1938 the second half was built and it was turned into a gas station called Standard Oil Product. The second half was another 50 feet by 50 feet so the shop is 100 feet by 50 feet now. The gas station had modern gas pumps. The gas station had the first flush bathrooms in the Gordon area. At that time Nelsons Shell Service Station was across the street and Farmers Union Service Station closed. The gas station was made there because it was right off the main highway 53 now old 53.
The shop walls are mostly built out of clay blocks and the trusses are steel. On the roof of the shop it had a aircraft marker number to help tell the pilot where they were because they did have gps’s. George Youngquist owned the auto repair and recycling. Tom Smith was Goerges partner a they were cousins. They would burn the plastic off the cars in the backyard so they could scrap the car, because you had to burn the plastic off to scrap it.
In 2001 the haakensen bought the shop for storage and so they could work in there. In 2004 the shop had a small fire in the shop. The fire only burnt the inside of the shop and a lot of their stuff was burnt that was in there. The shop is still the same excepted for the new wood on the ceiling since the fire burned it.