Caught In Time Northwoods Wisconsin Memories and Gifts
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Fond Memories ...
"He's the "grand old man"
of the Lakeland area...
his home and life for
four score plus years...
living what he knows as...
the good life."
If you spend a few hours with Ralph Bressett
of Hazelhurst you can take a trip back through time. Back to
the days when his town was a bustling mill community of some
115 homes and 800 people, most of them involved in some phase
of the Yawkey-Bissell mill operation. Back to the days when baseball
was big and Ralph was a "star." Back to the days of
World War I when Ralph was the first resident of Hazelhurst to
go and the last one to return.
The residents of Hazelhurst worked hard, and by today's standards, earned but a pittance. As a young man, Bressett spend his vacations piling slabs at the mill and was paid 50 cents for a 10-hour day. The men of the community earned varying wages: $1.60 per day for work in the dry-yard; $1.90 for work in the green-yard; and $1.75 a day as a mill hand.
But those were the days when they paid $4 a month rent for a company house and you could buy a cart load of 16-inch slab wood for $2. It was a time when you went to the company store and bought eggs for 8 cents a dozen, a pound of butter for 10 cents and a 100 pound sack of flour for 90 cents. If you wanted to splurge you bought a ring of baloney and a hunk of cheese for 20 or 25 cents and they threw in the crackers. You paid for your housing and purchases with company money; brass coins, imprinted with the Yawkey-Bissell name; in all denominations.
Those were the days when Lake Katherine was called Brown Lake, and baseball reigned supreme, and Ralph Bressett was the "king" of Hazelhurst baseball.
Ralph was a good enough player that at the age of 14 he was playing on the company team. He was not only good, he was diversified. He could play third base, first base, shortstop or the outfield...and he played those positions only if he wasn't pitching. There were just two interests in Ralph's life....work and baseball. Work because his father had died when he was 14 and he was responsible for the family. Baseball because it was his love.
Hazelhurst had a team before World War I, but they were limited as to their opponents; for they had to travel to their games by horse and buggy. They played Flambeau, Minocqua and Arbor Vitae. It took over two hours just to make the trip to Arbor Vitae, and even longer to Flambeau. After World War I they traveled in style. They put benches on the Winger's truck and the gang piled on wives, friends and sweethearts....and if the trips were of any length, picnic baskets filled with goodies.
When Hazelhurst joined the Oneida County Hodag League they were considered a joke team. They were referred to as the Hazels and the "put-down" was reinforced as they lost their first 11 games. Tides and attitudes turned when they did a complete about-face and won the remaining 11 games. They were no longer a joke and were never referred to again as the Hazels.
Ralph's fame as a player spread, and the pros came to look him over on at least seven different occasions. Each one had the same comment to make. "You've got the stuff, but you're too small." And small he was, standing 5 feet, 3/4 inch tall and weighing just 133 pounds. In retrospect, he's glad he didn't qualify, for there was no real money in baseball then, and he had his family to think of. Top salary in the major leagues was $300/month. In Wisconsin's League the pay was $50 a month and board. To top that salary would require driving the team bus.
Ralph pitched his last game at age 55 on Hazelhurst's last team. They played McNaughton and the game was written up in the Sporting News. He still follows baseball, always watches the "Game Of The Week," the Playoffs and the World Series. But the thrill is gone. He felt that the coming of a major league team to Wisconsin hastened the demise of the smaller leagues. If fans were going to a game, they wanted to watch the majors, and in his words, "it was real classy, but it sure wasn't the fun that the small leagues were."
He remembers vividly the trips to Eau Claire to see a young man play. He was good and he loved to watch him. His name was Hank Aaron.
In 1909 Yawkey-Bissell dumped their remaining company money in Lake Katherine and moved the saw mill to Mississippi, where they rechristened their new town Hazelhurst.
In 1911 the box factory left for Hawkings. With it went most of the town activity and many of the residents; and Hazelhurst began to take on the look of the quiet resort community it is today.
When the remaining townsfolk gathered, the talk usually turned to the days when the town was "swinging." One story sure to be told was of one of the company dances (they were held at the Town Hall each Saturday night). They were the highlight of the week. There was a $1 admission charge, but well worth it, because there was live music. Orchestras from Tomahawk, Merrill or Wausau would journey north to play.
One particular Saturday, the chief of police of Minocqua attended. He was just well into the swing of things when one of his deputies galloped up in his horse and buggy to say that the bank in Minocqua had just been robbed; the suspects had made their get-away by hand car and were at this moemt heading down the tracks toward Hazelhurst. Everyone raced out of the hall and headed for the depot. Sure enough, before too long they spotted the culprits. Confusion reigned...shots were fired...but the suspects were able to leap off the hand-car and disappear into the woods. They were never found or heard of again.
Years of transition followed. There were still some logging camps back in the woods, but they weren't too busy. Some of the residents turned to farming and successfully grew potatoes, hay, alfalfa, and clover. Ralph worked for Wingers, making concrete blocks. He worked for Axel Anderson at the store and then he worked for the Lake Katherine Improvement Company. The company had been started by Axel Anderson and John G. Schwartz; then they split, with Axel taking the store and John the company.
Those were busy, productive years. They built the shells for summer homes and cabins and several resorts; for the tourists had now discovered the north in greater numbers. The store and the Lake Katherine Improvement Company were about the only local businesses until the mid-30's. The company folded when John Schwartz died in 1938.
From this point on Ralph and his brother Larry worked as carpenters in the area. They pretty much stayed in Hazelhurst with the exception of trips to Canada for some 30 years and one brief spell of three months when they worked laying telephone lines on the Alaskan Highway. They were avid bowlers and continued to bowl until three years ago.
Ralph loves the woods and the north, and he loves the cold weather. "I spent one winter in France in World War I and it was warm. I didn't like it." He likes to get out in the snow and cold and he and his brother spent hours in the woods on snowshoes.
Ralph scoffs at those who think current winters are cold. This really isn't much compared to the "old days." According to Ralph, "those were the really cold winters. Why, I can remember one time it never got above zero in the daytime for over five weeks. It took a lot of wood to keep warm. We used to go back into the swamps and get the tamarack wood. Those fires kept you warm. It doesn't snow as much as it used to either. Why we used to be walking over the tops of the fences on the drifts by January...and I'll tell you we were 10 times as healthy then. Cold weather doesn't hurt. Larry and I worked in the woods when it was 52 degrees below zero. We couldn't stay out too long, but we worked."
Ralph's alone now, the only remaining member of his immediate family. His best friend and companion--his brother Larry -- died three years ago. It left a void in his life that can never be filled, for they were inseparable. They did everything together. The only time they were apart was during Ralph's years of service.
Ralph's favorite enjoyment is reminiscing about the old days in Hazelhurst; but when you're 83 there aren't too many of the old-timers left to talk with. But Ralph keeps his memories alive. He still takes his trips to Canada in the summer; and the neatly piled cords of wood that flank his home attest to his activity in the winter. He looks forward to his daily trips to the Hazelhurst Post Office, his chats with his neighbors and "Hee-Haw" on the television each Saturday night.
He picks the berries in the late summer and fills his cupboards with jellies. This summer's big project will be a garden. He plans to grow his own produce. He still fishes but gave up hunting two years ago.
He's the "grand old man" of Hazelhurst...town historian...major booster of the Lakeland area...his home and life for four score plus years...living what he knows as...the good life.