Richard Ackley: A rich history in Sokaogon lands in Wisconsin

A special treat awaits lovers of Wisconsin history in Forest County October 6, 2012, at the site of the 1860s Dinesen Log House located on State Highway 55.

No one can deny the breath taking beauty of northern Wisconsin's Wolf River, as you drive along highway 55 within Langlade County, especially during the peak Fall colors season. The drive adjacent the pristinely beautiful Wolf River, recognized as one of America's original wild and rustic waterways back in the 1960s, is well worth putting your digital camera to work.

The first Europeans traveled by land across the state of Wisconsin in 1829, traveling from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien. Past records reveal that travel generally followed much of the already established Indian trails. Indian trails at one time were abundant throughout the Wisconsin and great lakes area. Indian villages were linked with major waterways.

Hunting and fishing grounds and settlements were naturally connected with the region's bountiful waterways which existed as the earliest network of travel, as well as for communication, for multiple types of trade, and at times warfare. These trails were usually a result of natural routes created by deer and other large animals. The trails followed in a logical pattern upon easy grades, winding around hills or various natural obstructions.

Trails crossed rivers and streams at shallow points. Most often the trails would run along side streams and rivers providing important escape routes and of course drinking water. Out in the the open, the trails offered strategic views of the surrounding areas allowing animals to be able to observe, should enemies be near. Indigenous people also followed these same animal routes and for similar reasons. Eventually European travelers and settlers eventually did the same.

In early times, fur traders, explorers and missionaries took advantage of the established network of the so called Indian trails. Settlers moving into the region during the early decades of the nineteenth century had to make the trails wider into roads to accommodate ox carts and wagons. Then around 1829, lead miners created meandering wagon roads through the southern part of Wisconsin to allow for the hauling of lead over to the Mississippi River and over to Milwaukee for shipment to eastern markets.

The established Indian trail between Fort Dearborn (Chicago) and Fort Howard (Green Bay) was eventually straightened by settlers and used as a wagon road. Even this improved road was difficult to follow and the trip from Chicago to Green Bay took four days.

Although the locations of many of the old trails are known and recorded, remnants of only a few trails remain visible today. Traces of most trails have been destroyed by agricultural practices, highway construction, and urban development. The military route or road which was created between Fort Dearborn, Green Bay and the upper peninsula of Copper Harbour, Michigan allowed for the mining and transport of copper and was also an Indian trail running along side the Wolf River.

In the 1860s a small one-room log cabin was built along this route and now sits in the heart of the Mole Lake community. Mole Lake is the site of one of Wisconsin's oldest surviving log cabins, now referred to as the Dinesen Log House.

Just inside the county line driving north on State Highway 55, you will encounter the community of Mole Lake. The area was noted as the site of the 1806 Battle of Mole Lake between Chippewa and Sioux warriors who fought over ancient wild rice beds which exist to this day in Forest County just south of Crandon, and is the home to the Sokaogon Chippewa.

This particular log cabin is a very special piece of historic American architecture, built in the late 1860s–early 1870s and more recently was listed on Wisconsin's most endangered properties back in 2003. This cabin was fully restored and listed on the National Register of Historic Properties in 2005. It had undergone a complete restoration with help of the US Park Service and a private family foundation and then was officially opened to the public in April 2010.

History has recorded that in the early 1870s, a man named Wilhelm Dinesen, a Danish adventurer, traveled to northern Wisconsin and took residence in the cabin and became friends with the Mole Lake Chippewa. He took it upon himself to give the cabin the name "Frydenlund", or "Grove of Joy".

After 14 months of hunting, fishing, fur trapping, and roaming the wilderness, he returned to Denmark. He fathered a daughter Isak Dinesen when he returned to his homeland. She grew up and assumed the pen name Karen Blixen, as the author of a book entitled “Out of Africa”, which eventually became a major Hollywood motion picture featuring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

In the April 2003 issue of Wisconsin Trails Magazine, it stated "Wilhelm Dinesen's legacy among the Chippewa is assured. A few months after he left Denmark, you see, Kate, the Chippewa woman who had been his cook and housekeeper, bore a daughter, Emma, who went on to have children of her own."

The Sokaogon Mole Lake Band of the Lake Superior recently passed a resolution to support the dynamics of submitting an application for State Scenic By-Way status for a portion of Hwy 55. Another organization, the Forest County Economic Development Partnership, also adopted a similar resolution in support of this plan. A corridor management plan will be required as part of the application, which includes a mile-by-mile inventory, setting goals, objectives and a timeline.

The state scenic by-way will also need assistance from an organization within Langlade County so as to create the logical corridor connection to Forest County, The economics of tourism would be greatly enhanced with the acquisition of scenic by-way status; as a natural compliment to the well established northwoods four-season outdoor recreation destination “brand”.

The log cabin is a popular attraction and utilized as the center of an annual August event called Mole Lake Heritage Days where attendees are given a tour and hear about local history along with folk music and traditional Native American food such as wild rice and Indian fry bread. Also Native American arts and crafts are displayed including Woodland Indian beadwork, Pow wow dance regalia and birch bark basketry.

Demonstrations of pow wow dancing and an introduction to the Ojibwe language compliment a walk-through historical photographic display. A video tour of the cabin is also available at the Discover Wisconsin web site and simply enter the words, “WisconsinTribal Lands Learn and Enjoy” when searching. Eventually period furnishings will be placed inside to reflect a sense of wilderness Wisconsin 1800s rustic life.

Donations of period furnishings are always welcome and very much appreciated. Visitors to the log cabin, under the colorful Autumn skies in Mole Lake, will be delighted October 6, as the cabin will be open for tours. Ojibwe traditions of the Sokaogon Chippewa will be show cased to include demonstrations, food, displays and videos.

The all day event is free to the public and activities will take place between the hours of 10 AM until 5 PM followed by an old fashioned camp fire and marshmallow roast...so bring your lawn chairs. Ample parking is available for attendees as well as open areas for vendors (for a small donation) along Highway 55 in a flea market style atmosphere. Anyone wishing to set up a space or for information, contact Richard D. Ackley, Jr at 715-478-7500 or rich@molelake.com

Richard D. Ackley, Jr. is a member of the Sokaogon Mole Lake Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin.

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