Early settlers in the United States were often faced with the daunting task of clearing forested lands of trees before they could begin farming. The frequently burned lands in and around Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area (NBWA) were largely free of mature trees, and the sandy soils were relatively easy to plow. Land speculators promoted the area as productive land ready for farmers. While settlers had been grazing cattle and lightly farming the region since the turn of the century, promotion of the barrens started the development of a farmland community here in 1920. Newly plowed land was initially fertile enough to grow decent crops. Favorable precipitation along with initial fertility caused early farming success in this area. More immigrants came from across America and Europe. Unfortunately, the soil was quickly depleted and crops failed a couple years later. Settlers were facing hardship and starvation due to the infertile soils, drought, and depression. Government agencies assisted the farm families in a move to more fertile farm land further south in Burnett County.
Many sites throughout the barrens, as well as many other areas in the North that were over-logged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were abandoned and became tax delinquent. In an effort to restore productive forestland, the State of Wisconsin gave the tax delinquent lands to the respective counties in a cooperative state-county program that established the county forest system.
The thin, sandy soils of the NBWA support a diverse assemblage of plant species consisting of grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees. After ninety years of laying fallow, the outlines of these square, farmed plots of land are still evident in the Barrens. Most homestead sites and previously farmed areas have naturally restored quite well. The old school site is one of the best places to see pasque flowers. The Barrens is pretty good at healing itself when given time and fire. Sometimes it requires a little extra help from managers and volunteers to help control invasive plants.
Enjoy these stories of early settlers who tried to make a living in the sand country:
The map below shows the four sites of early 20th Century farmsteads just south of the north unit of Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area (dark green outlined in blue). 1. William and Grace House. 2. Olaf and Rena Johnson. 3. Henry and Mary Zach. 4. Ingebregt and Severne Bradley.