By Renée S. Gordon
“Ye who love the haunts of Nature, Love the sunshine of the meadow, Love the shadow of the forest, Love the wind among the branches, And the rain-shower and the snow-storm, And the rushing of great rivers Through their palisades of pine-trees”
–The Song of Hiawatha by H. W. Longfellow
The land that is now the northernmost point in the state of Wisconsin appears to have always had a Native American population the earliest of which were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Around 900 BC archeological evidence points to the establishment of settlements and the domestication of plants and animals. The first fully developed accounts of natives in the Bayfield Peninsula are oral histories of the Anishinaabe, or Ojibwa, of an account kept on a copper medallion, an ozawabik, passed down through generations.
It is believed that the Ojibwa originally lived in the East. The Seven Fires were prophecies and the prophet of the First Fire warned that if they did not move they would be wiped from the earth. Their journey west was to have seven stops, the Seven Fires, and would end when they reached a turtle-shaped island where food grew on the water. The migration began around 900 AD and took 500 years. The significant stops along the trail were Montreal, Niagara Falls, the Detroit River, Lake Huron, Sault Ste. Marie, Duluth’s Spirit Island and finally Lake Superior’s Madeline Island where manoomin, wild rice, grew in the water. Madeline Island continues to be regarded as a very spiritual place by Native Americans and visitors alike. Ironically the Anishinaabe who chose to remain behind were among the first to encounter Europeans and the first to be decimated by diseases to which they were not immune.
Etienne Brulé, an interpreter, claimed to have visited Lake Superior in 1623 but the first European to be given credit for exploring the area was Jean Nicolet in 1634 while seeking a route to China. He claimed the region for France and it remained French Territory until the British took it during the French and Indian War in 1760. Their loss of the American Revolution ended British ownership in 1783. Throughout these years the fur trade was the backbone of Wisconsin’s economy.
African Americans, though few in number, were always a part of the state’s history. The first documented mention of a black is from a 1725 speech about a massacre of four Frenchmen and a Negro slave. Records indicate that there were free blacks in the area including two black men who owned a fur trading post in the 1790s.
The Bayfield Peninsula juts out into Lake Superior and forms its southern shore. Seven major communities ring the perimeter of the peninsula on Highway 13 while the interior is largely the Chequamegon National Forest. The Apostle Islands are arrayed like gems on a tiara around the end of the peninsula.
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was established in 1970 and includes 21 of the 22 islands and a 12-mile swath of Bayfield Peninsula. Once home to more than 20,000 Native Americans, there are several versions of how the islands were named. The most widely accepted is that early European explorers only saw 12 islands.
The best orientation to Lake Superior, with 3 quadrillion gallons of water the largest body of fresh water on the planet, and the lakeshore is a narrated Grand Tour cruise aboard the Island Princess. This double-deck, 73-ft. boat provides outstanding views of the islands and historical background. Basswood Island had stone quarries until the late 1800s and much of the brownstone was used to rebuild Chicago, Rasberry Island boasts an unusual duplex lighthouse and Stockton Island has the largest concentration of black bears in the US. There are light stations, hundreds of bird species and countless opportunities for recreation including shipwreck diving and the greatest collection of caves and grottoes in the US. Tours last three-hours and depart from the Bayfield Dock. www.apostleislandscruises.com
Madeline Island, a 30-minute, three-mile, ferry ride from Bayfield, is the largest of the Apostles. It was the spiritual home of the Anishinaabe prior to the 1659 exploration of Radisson and Groseilliers, the establishment of a French fur trading post in 1693 and Jesuit missionary activity. They called it “Moningwanakaning,” “home of the Golden Shafted Woodpecker.” www.madelineisland.com
The Madeline Island Heritage Center at the dock in La Pointe does an excellent job of interpreting the history of the island. The museum is a historic site enclosed by a cedar picket stockade. The five buildings in the complex include a hand-hewn log cabin, an old jail, an 1835 fur trade warehouse and outdoor exhibits. Tours begin with a 20-minute orientation film and continue through rooms filled with artifacts that reflect the presence of the Native Americans, the fur traders, the voyageurs and the missionaries. www.madelineislandmuseum.org
Madeline Island’s post office, near the dock, was built in 1832 as the Mission House. There is no mail delivery on the island.
Big Bay State Park is located seven-miles from the dock and has facilities for camping, fishing, swimming, hiking and biking. The park affords wonderful views of Lake Superior. This was the region referred to in The Song of Hiawatha as “Gitche Gumee”, the shining big seawater, and nowhere is it more clearly apparent why than here where the forest meets the inland sea. www.wiparks.net
Tom’s Burned Down Café is a local legend. It is an outdoor bar decorated with sayings and memorabilia in every conceivable spot. Tom purchased it and moved it to its current location. It burned down to the floorboards and he just moved in a truck trailer and kept serving. You get serious traveler props for visiting and bellying up to the bar. www.tomsburneddowncafe.com
The Inn on Madeline Island is an ideal destination or a perfect place from which to start each day’s adventure. Accommodations vary from townhouses to guest rooms, lake vistas are stunning and there is a Pub Restaurant and Wine Bar is on the premises. www.madisland.com
Nestled against the shoreline of Lake Superior is the coastal community of Bayfield. The beautiful historic town has 52 edifices on the National Register visible within a 174-acre walking tour that showcases the architecture and ambience. Along the way there are ample opportunities to shop in the unique stores throughout town. www.bayfield.org
Visitors can purchase the perfect souvenir at Donalee Designs Silversmith. Donalee creates jewelry that incorporates regional stones and natural gems. wwwdonaleedesigns.com
Three miles south of Bayfield is Big Top Chautauqua, a year round performing arts organization celebrating its silver anniversary. A complete schedule is available online. One of their most popular programs, “Riding the Wind,” is an enteretaining way to learn the regional history presented through songs, skits and Native American oral testimony. www.bigtop.com
An eight-block section of Ashland’s business area has been registered as a National Historic District and features the Ashland Mural Walk. The walk highlights the history of the city in 13 murals by Kelly Meredith and Susan Martinsen. The most popular murals are the Bureau of Indian Affairs Mural showcasing 10 Northern Wisconsin Tribes at a Pow Wow and the Lumberjack Mural with a female of the era as a central figure. www.visitashland.com
The oredock, once the largest concrete structure in the world, can still be viewed. Constructed in 1916 at 1,800-ft., it was used to load ore onto ships. It is the only one of five left in the country.
Just west of the city is the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, 100-ft observation tower and ¾-mile boardwalk. The center provides an overview of regional history, resources and culture. www.nglvc.org
The town of Washburn was created solely to ship out Washburn Flour and the Washburn Historical Museum and Cultural Center relates this history on two levels in a historic bank building. Additionally the city offers campgrounds and world class trout fishing. www.washburnchamber.com
One of Northwest Wisconsin’s hidden jewels is A World of Accordions Museum in Superior. More than 1,100 of the instruments are displayed chronologically, from 1829, and by country of origin. The museum and the only technical college for accordion repair in the US are housed inside a former church. You won’t believe how much fun you’ll have here. www.accordionworld.org
The Anishinaabe told their stories in the winter because that was when the spirits slept beneath the snow. Winter was a time of spiritual renewal and a time for passing on the legacy of the people. The Bayfield Peninsula continues to be magical in winter. There are ice caves to explore, the Lake Superior ice road to drive and a host of other winter recreational adventures. Wisconsin is truly a destination for all seasons. Plan now for a very special vacation. www.travelwisconsin.com
“Beautiful is the sun, O strangers, When you come so far to see us!
All our town in peace awaits you, All our doors stand open for you;
You shall enter all our wigwams, For the heart’s right hand we give you.”
I wish you smooth and soothing travels!