Caught In Time Northwoods Wisconsin Memories and Gifts - Manitowish Waters
Fond Memories ...
An excerpt from
If, in the year 1905, you had been anywhere near the Chicago-Northwestern depot in what is now the Manitowish Waters area, you would have seen a young lad busily near the water tank...for it was George LaPorte's job to keep the great tank full so that the engines could take on water to keep their boilers rolling.
Each evening George would start the pump that brought the water from the Manitowish River into the tank. He was required to have it filled by 10 p.m. The job wasn't too difficult during the summer months, but winter was another story. He had to keep the fires in the pump house going around the clock, plus draining the pipes each evening to keep them from freezing.
For these chores, George was paid the magnificent sum of 75 cents a day. To further supplement this income, he earned an additional 75 cents every two weeks for scrubbing the depot. This was wonderful money for an 11-year-old boy in those days.
George LaPorte, who had been born in Rhinelander in 1892, had moved to the north when his father, an itinerant timber cruiser, found logging work in the area.
However, after just a year, he moved on to Bundy where his father had been hired as the foreman of one of the Bundy Lumber Company's camps. George was to work with him.
The trip to Bundy was unforgettable. The crew met at the Schlitz Hotel and bar room in Rhinelander and were each given a pint of whiskey before setting out on the 12-mile walk to camp. George still remembers his first drink of whiskey at the tender age of 12. It was on the shores of Lake Julia where they had stopped for a brief rest. They then continued walking and sipping throughout the night, finally reaching the camp at 5 a.m.
Here, without rest, George plunged into his work as a chore boy. He washed the lanterns and lamps; carried lunch to the men in the woods; and, in addition to other chores, was required to split three cords of wood each day for the campfires. Life wasn't easy.
The following year, George worked with a section crew laying the new railroad tracks into the north. Then, early in 1908, he moved on the Hatley (near Wausau) with his parents. Here he took over the operation of the blacksmith shop his father had purchased, while his father continued his work logging. It was in 1908 that he voted for the first time. Someone came and got him, took him to the polling place, and then showed him how to mark the ballot for Taft for President.
It was a nomadic life for the LaPorte family. In fact, George figured he had moved some 53 times with this family after he was four years old. Now these moves weren't easy, for everything moved---household items, horses, cattle, and even chickens were piled into the boxcar to be carried to their new destination.
In late 1908, the family again returned to the Manitowish Waters area and, though he started school, work again took precedence. In fact, he was so busy sawing wood for sale that he was only able to attend five days of school before Christmas. Finally, in the seventh grade, George left school and never went back.
His memories of those days? Great snowfalls. "Why, I remember in the winter of 1905 I had worked late into the evening, loading the wagon with hay to be ready for an early morning delivery. It snowed during the night, so much so that when I brought out the horses, the snow came right up under their collars.There was another big snow in the winter of 1912. I was working with a logging crew, and it took all of us working for 10 days before we had shoveled out enough to continue skidding the logs from the woods.
George remembered the trips with the buckboard to Mercer to lay in a winter's supply of groceries. And, according to George, "I still rest easier if I know I have my winter's supply of food put away."
There were only four or five families in the Manitowish Water area in the early 1900's...and they were all related.
Then George met Anna Mattson. She lived with her widowed father in Rice Lake, where they were trying to eke out a living by farming. Love soon followed and they were married in 1923 and settled in the Manitowish area. George worked even harder, for now he had a wife to support, and a family was soon to follow---Calvin, Jim and Dorothy by name.
George skidded logs, split and sold firewood, hauled guests to the various resort, and even hauled fish boxes and the mail. He built roads and spent a great deal of time building the road to Hurley. It was built over a swamp which had to be filled with logs and stumps before they could gravel. When it was finally completed, it was just wide enough for a wagon.
Probably George's favorite endeavor was trapping, and he did very well. He would ship the furs out by express to Oshkosh, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Chicago where they would be graded. "In all those years, they were more than fair with me, and I made good money," George recalls.
Even with all his other pursuits, George still continued to guide---and did so well into the 40's. "In fact," George said, "I'm probably the only one who knows how Stone Lake got its name. There used to be a great single rock in the lake, about nine or ten feet in diameter. It was one of my favorite fishing spots. Today, there is about six feet of water over the rock, but I could tell you exactly where it is, even though the last time I saw it was in 1911 when the dam drained out. It was one of my favorite fishing spots."
In the late 30's George started building. He built a home for his mother and father, a home for his family, some other small buildings, and in 1935 he built and opened a small grocery store---for now Manitowish Waters was coming into being. The area had withdrawn from the Town of Flambeau in 1927, and had become the Town of Spider Lake. And...in just a few short years its name would be changed to Manitowish Waters.
The little store carried everything in groceries and, after a short while, further expanded with a meat department. It wasn't easy for George to start the store, for at first suppliers were very reluctant to sell to anyone with such a small operation.
The bulk of George's business was, of course, done during the summer, and it wasn't unusual to put in a 16- or 17-hour day. George also kept the store open during the slower winter months, and the entire operation was supplemented with a bait shop.
The store prospered, and when sons' Calvin and Jim were old enough, George turned the operation of the store over to them. It still remains in the family as LaPorte's IGA in Manitowish Waters.
As the years advanced and the boys gradually took over the store's operation, George and his wife would spend their winters in Florida. These vacations came to an abrupt halt in 1958, when a Greyhound bus hit the LaPorte care, killing his wife and her sister and brother-in-law, Henry and Ruth Voss. "I just haven't gone back since." George said.
Indeed, George spends the entire year in Manitowish Waters with his wife Ejna, whom he married in 1961. Because of a bone problem, he needs a walker to get around; and, as a result of the Florida accident, has difficulty reading and watching TV, but these infirmities bother him but little. "I can still lick any man from the waist up," he stated.
And, indeed, we believe he could, for the rigors of surviving in Wisconsin's north created a virility...and fulfillment of one's worth...a challenge that is hard to find today.