First people

As early as 10,000 years ago, people known today as late Paleo-Indians may have been visiting the barrens area. Archaeologists working at Solon Springs and Gordon, less than 20 miles from the Namekagon Barrens, have unearthed stone tools these people may have used for hunting and even sewing and fashioning dugout canoes.

Later, those that anthropologists call Archaic people likely were on the land. Eventually what is known as the Woodland culture was present in the area, possibly building burial mounds in the Yellow Lake area.

By the 1600s the barrens were part of the Dakota homeland, but Ojibwe people were moving from the east along the Great Lakes. Native American life was changing with the arrival of the fur trade, and by the 1700s, Ojibwe people were settling and hunting in northern Wisconsin and acting as fur-trade middlemen between the Dakota and French traders. It was with Ojibwe chiefs that the U.S. government negotiated in 1837 to obtain a huge area that includes the Namekagon Barrons Wildlife Area today.

The barrens were a popular blueberry gathering place for Ojibwe people, part of seasonal rounds people made to hunt, fish, collect sap, gather wild rice throughout the region. Blueberry picking remained a part of Ojibwe life well into the 20th Century. Today, of course, many Ojibwe people continue to live in the area. The closest band is the St. Croix band, formally known as the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, which was finally recognized as a tribe in 1934.

Treaty era.

The Pine Tree Treaty of 1837, while maintaining Ojibwe fishing, hunting and wild rice gathering rights and not forcing them off their land, did give timber interests access to the St. Croix River and its tributaries. They came first and famously for the white pine and floated countless logs down the rivers to sawmills.

But the first documented American mark on what would become the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area itself was the original land survey conducted in 1855. Surveyors noted the huge white pines along the rivers but also the “barrens,” thin jack pines and “third rate soil” a little ways from the rivers. Search the original survey notes for the barrens from 1855, kept by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands.

Before long there was regularly scheduled stage coach service on a road from St. Paul to Bayfield, passing right through what eventually became the wildlife area. Ruts are still visible in places. So are the crumbling piers of an 1863 bridge over the Namekagon River between the North and South units of the wildlife area.

Site of old bridge January 21, 2021

The stage coach road likely followed an old Native American path along the open and sandy terrain. A trip along the road by a wealthy New York family was chronicled in December 1863 by Harper’s Magazine.

“Overland from St. Paul to Lake Superior,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. See: Harper’s Magazine (FNBWA thanks Harper’s Magazine for a copy of the article)

Farming era

Once logging peaked in the 1890s, great efforts were made to bring immigrants and others to farm the barrens. Academics and promoters promised big crops on cheap land and in the early 1900s scores of settlers came. Some homesteaded, others bought land from the Chicago, St Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway, which had been given huge tracts by the government as an incentive to build a railroad from St. Paul to Superior and Bayfield.

A post office opened in a small general store on Five Mile Creek so the community came to be known as Five Mile. Farmers cleared land with horses and by fire; they planted oats and potatoes and cut wild hay; they built wood houses and concrete silos; they raised cows and chickens.

By 1903 the tiny Evergreen Cemetery was in use on Five Mile Road. By 1906 Forest Home School on St. Croix Trail was in use. There were community gatherings to dance or pick wild blueberries that farmers could sell at the general store.

But the sandy soil lacked nutrients and it was soon clear farming was not going to work. Some people sold out and others simply stopped paying taxes and let the land go. By the 1930s almost everyone had left, and the government paid to help the last settlers leave and find more productive land elsewhere. By 1938 they were gone.

See the scratched out fields on the barrens in 1938.

William and Mary Clemens farm, South of Rand Creek
1938 Aerial photo of Namekagon Barren Wildlife Area’s North Unit

Census records, land records and family recollections help tell the tale of some of these families:

Who lived on the barrens in 1915? Burnett County plat map of Blaine Township (see expanded Blaine Plat Map)

Forests or wildlife habitat?

Once the farmers had abandoned the barrens, Burnett County enrolled much of the land under a new forest crop law that encouraged the management of northern Wisconsin to generate timber revenue.

But naturalists, partly inspired by Aldo Leopold, the Wisconsin conservationist credited with fostering the environmental ethic of the 20th Century, began to push instead for the preservation of barrens habitat in Wisconsin. They were especially interested in land used by prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. Many of these people considered the Namekagon Barrens one of the last and best places to manage land to preserve this habitat by clearing and repeatedly burning it to maintain a pine and oak barrens landscape.

The debate sometimes grew acrimonious but by the mid-1950s, Burnett County agreed to withdraw some 5,000 acres from its forest crop law land and lease it to the state Conservation Department. The Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area came into being. Wildlife specialists cleared the barrens of their crumbling homesteads, began a controlled burning program and took other steps to encourage the survival of the sharp-tailed grouse.

For some 60 years the leases were renewed, although the county took back some land in the 1990s. In 2015, other land was added in Washburn County, and the Department of Natural Resources and Burnett County engineered a land swap resulting in state ownership of the 6,400-acre wildlife area. The land is now managed through prescribed fire, mowing and other measures to maintain and restore barrens habitat for the plant and animal species that depend on it, and for everyone’s enjoyment, appreciation, and recreation.

By Dave Peters