From the earliest times to present day, the history of the Northwoods of Wisconsin has been written by the lakes, rivers, forests and changing seasons. Bands of Native Americans were the earliest inhabitants of Manitowish Waters, drawn by its abundant wild rice, fish, game and maple syrup that they harvested to sustain generation after generation.
The earliest European voyageurs and fur trappers were next on the horizon. In the 19th century, these explorers traded with the natives and mapped the territory for the next influx of immigrants. The Northwoods’ vast timber resources that stretched over the land seemed endless. Timber barons sent their work crews steadily into the Northwoods, felling giant red and white pines, floating them down raging rivers in the spring, and later, bringing them out of the woods by oxen pulling huge loads of cut trees that towered above them.
Entrepreneurs saw promise in other ways: some through homesteading; others sensing the desire of city folk to relax, fish and hunt in the pristine and beautiful Northwoods. Sportsmen and wealthy families traveled by rail from Chicago and Milwaukee to rail hubs, then were taken by horse and wagon, some even by boat, to reach their vacation destination. The first lodge was built on Island Lake in the 1880’s.
By the first few decades of the 20th century, Manitowish Waters and the rest of the Northwoods swelled in population as more and more vacationers sought to escape big city life. Small towns grew noticeably bigger, as resorts needed more goods and workers, including fishing guides.
During Prohibition, the lodges and halls filled with “one-armed bandits” and “rum runner” spirits. The local law rarely enforced the federal laws against alcohol and gambling. Famous and infamous guests were legendary. Among the latter, were members of the Chicago mob. For the most part, they behaved themselves while “Up North” and didn’t attract much outside attention.
A notable exception occurred in 1934, when the FBI caught wind that the John Dillinger gang was staying at the Little Bohemia Resort. A trap was laid, but Dillinger escaped. The resulting shootout left town constable Carl Christensen riddled with eight bullet wounds. He survived, got $3,500 from the federal government for his troubles, and started his own resort and bar on Hwy. 51. The tavern is still running today and is called the Cozy Cove. Their Bluegrass Festival in July still brings in big name Bluegrass bands from around the country.
Visitors can still see the bullet holes in the walls of Little Bohemia Resort; Christensen’s scrapbook and other historic artifacts are housed at the Koller Library and at businesses throughout town. The town’s colorful history includes tightrope walker Bob Loveless and a caged bear at the Howling Bear.
Eventual civic development led to a school, cemetery and town hall. The airport came after World War II when public enthusiasm for aviation burgeoned. With the advent of the snowmobile in the ’60s, the Northwoods officially became a four-season vacationland. Hwy. 51 was vastly improved, greatly improving the time for visitors from Chicago and Milwaukee to travel north.
The Manitowish Waters Skiing Skeeters – one of the oldest amateur water-ski clubs in the U.S. – was established in the late 1950s. They sponsored, and won, the first statewide barefoot tournament held in the U.S. in 1964. National publicity of the event established Manitowish Waters as the “Barefoot Capital of the Midwest.”
Today, Manitowish Waters is also famous for its cranberry industry, its location on the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail, and its breathtaking “Legendary 10-Lake Chain of Lakes.” It is a community connected by a love for nature, its sparkling waters and numerous recreation opportunities.
We invite you to make Manitowish Waters your vacation destination and to build your own memories.
This article was compiled from the following sources:
“Manitowish Waters Area History: A Look Back” – Michael Dunn III
mwlibrary.blogspot.com/ Manitowish Waters Koller Library Blog “The History of Manitowish Waters” – Callie Bates