Humans on the barrens: Clemens family, Clemens Creek

IMG_2156Concrete foundations of what likely were silos for hay on the homestead of William and Mary Clemens.

At least three of us – Brian Finstad, Vern Drake and I – have poked around separately in recent weeks on what seems to be the homestead of William and Mary Clemens just west of Dry Landing Road in the barrens.

The couple came from Iowa in the early 1900s, farmed briefly, raised a family and then left after less than 20 years, among the dozens who settled in the barrens but only temporarily.

If you follow a two-track path through dense mixed forest about three-tenths of a mile west from Dry Landing, you come to a grass clearing a couple hundred feet across amid jack pines and pin oaks. The clearing is just south of what has come to be known as Clemens Creek, a short drainage flowing out of the Namekagon Barrens and into the St. Croix River.

The main features in the clearing are two round, poured-concrete foundations about 10 feet across, presumably the bases of silos for hay at one time but now filled with trees. Other remnants of civilization are a rusty bed or hideabed, a concrete slab embedded with bolts, even an old aluminum TV antenna. So it’s hard to know what might have belonged to the Clemens family and what came later.

There isn’t an obvious house foundation that any of us found, but perhaps further exploration would reveal something. This land was homesteaded just after 1900, among the many parcels from which settlers at the time were trying to eke out a living.

William Clemens was born around 1870 in Geneva, Iowa, to parents who had come from Pennsylvania. Geneva is close to Webster City in Hamilton County, which is where other barrens homesteaders and settlers also hailed from.

In about 1902, he married 16-year-old Mary, whose parents were Bohemian and who had come from Nebraska.

The couple apparently arrived on the barrens around 1905. They do not show up in the 1905 Wisconsin census but a listing in the 1915 Burnett County plat book indicated they had come to the county in 1905 and raised hogs, cattle and chickens. They registered their 160-acre homestead with the federal land office in 1913.

They had three children – Alfred, James R. and Edith (spellings vary in different records) – and were counted in the 1910 and 1920 federal censuses. The 1915 plat book lists their postal address as Fivemile. That was a general store and post office about four miles to the southeast in Washburn County. In 1920, they had a boarder, a school teacher named Anna McGrew.

And at some point, the creek running past their land came to be named for them, although there has been confusion over the decades with the name Rand Creek, named for a family of neighboring settlers. Some records show Rand Creek as a tributary to Clemens Creek from the north but many people refer to that as Clemens Creek.

William and Mary Clemens sold their farm in 1923 to a couple named Joseph and Mary Brown, who in turn sold it again in a couple parcels in 1925 and 1926. By then, the barrens’ poor farming prospects were apparent and nearby parcels were going to the county for failure by owners to pay taxes.

When the Clemens family left the barrens, they wound up in Cumberland, Wis., about 60 miles south, where son Alfred apparently died in 1923. They later moved to Hennepin County in Minnesota, where William farmed, Mary (also spelled Marie) worked as a mender in a laundry and son James was a filling station attendant. Living with them was a 7-year-old grandson, Robert Gross.

Perhaps the family moved back to Cumberland; when they died – William in 1947, James in 1953 and Mary in 1961 – all were buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Cumberland, joining Alfred. The record for daughter Edith is scant, but perhaps her hand can be seen on Mary’s 1961 tombstone, inscribed simply “Mother.”

Today, the Clemens homestead lies on Burnett County forest land, adjacent to the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area. So what was once a farm now is close to open scrub oak areas that are regularly subject to controlled fires, but the homestead itself remains a mixed forest. William and Mary Clemens didn’t stay long on the barrens, but their name comes up frequently because of the good birdwatching along their namesake creek.


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One Comment

  1. Fabulous story. This is a glimpse of what may have been common on the Barrens habitats north and south of the Namekagon Barrens. Thanks Dave and Vern for ‘sleuthing’ the rest of the story.

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