Monday, September 5, 2011

Peshtigo Tidbits and Postcards

Catholic Church, Peshtigo (now the Fire Museum)

Dear George,

It’s a truism to say that our lives and character are shaped by the various communities in which we live and spend time. My early experiences were mostly in Menominee and Marinette, but other places were significant too. Many of our forest outings occurred at Cedar River. Green Bay (pop. 50,000), an hour away, was our closest metro destination for shopping and orthodontics, and family trips to Milwaukee and Chicago provided the year’s other-worldly cultural highlights. Peshtigo (pop. 3,400) was our closest neighbor, seven miles south of Marinette on Highway 41. Though we only visited occasionally, Peshtigo turned out to be the site of some of the more thrilling and scarier experiences of my childhood.

Like Menominee and Marinette, Peshtigo was a logging boom town. French fur traders had explored the area in the late eighteenth century, and a man named J. H. Levenworth built Peshtigo’s first sawmill in 1838. The lumber industry thrived over subsequent decades, with millions of feet of lumber transported down the Peshtigo River to mills on the shores of Green Bay. The town is best known for the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, the largest forest fire in American history which destroyed 1.5 million acres of woodlands and killed at least 1300 people. Like many towns in the area, Peshtigo’s name is an Indian word, translated as “wild goose”. Today Peshtigo’s economy is centered around the Badger Paper Mills, a grandchild of the logging era.

Sorting logs on the Peshtigo River

For Katja and I, Peshtigo has always been a landmark on our trips home for family reunions. Driving in, we’d take note of the city limit sign and the Peshtigo River because they signaled that we had just a few more miles to Marinette and Menominee. I’ve always procrastinated on journeys home, so we’d normally stop in Peshtigo to delay our arrival time, typically by having a Hot Fudge sundae at the town’s Dairy Queen. If it were close to supper time, we’d go to Anderson’s Family Restaurant and have a Butterburger (a remarkably delicious, sinful burger that I’ve seen only in the twin city area). For years there was a raggedy junk store on Highway 41 near the middle of town where we’d search for old postcards, antique dishware, and other castoff treasures. Then the world’s greatest flea market was just a couple of miles further up the road, an absolutely essential stop.

In our childhood, Peshtigo was the destination for the year’s single most exciting trip. That’s because it was the nearest place that one could buy fireworks for the Fourth of July. Each year on the morning of the Fourth two or three dads would put their oldest kids in somebody’s station wagon and drive over to Peshtigo to buy an array of skyrockets to shoot off that evening at Northwood Cove. The older we got, the more say we had in selecting which fireworks to purchase, and then we’d be allowed to set them off ourselves that night. There were tons of fireworks at the roadside stand, and the young debated endlessly about which ones to choose. It’s hard to describe our level of eager anticipation. When we were teenagers, we’d go back to Peshtigo with our dads a few months later because it had one of the area’s best hunting stores. With the approach of deer season, we’d stock up on ammunition for a November trip to hunting camp in Cedar River. While not as amazing as fireworks, boxes of rifle bullets had their own emotional aura.

The Marinette County Insane Asylum at Peshtigo

Peshtigo was also the source of deep childhood anxieties. The area’s single most frightening place, the Marinette County Insane Asylum, was located on the north edge of town, set in a grove of pine trees about 150 yards off the road. We children would stare intently at it as we passed by and share fantasies about crazed people locked in chains or bashing their heads against the walls of their padded cells. Our stereotypes came from old Hollywood movies like “The Snake Pit.” All of us, we believed, were at risk of losing our minds, and now and then we would hear a rumor about somebody being shipped off to the Asylum. After many such trips, I spent the next few decades worrying about being locked away. It’s probably a good sign that I haven’t thought about that for a long time, but maybe that’s just because I don’t travel through Peshtigo these days.

I’ve collected a big collection of Menominee and Marinette postcards over the years, and I always keep an eye out for Peshtigo too. Here are some images from the early 1900’s to the 1960’s which give a feeling for the history of our next door neighbor.



Downtown Peshtigo

Peshtigo's first auto

Employees of the Wisconsin and Michigan Railroad, Peshtigo

Train Depot, Peshtigo

Peshtigo High School, ca. 1910

Peshtigo Gun Club (1909)

Thompson Boat Company, Peshtigo

Badger Paper Mills, Peshtigo

Peshtigo Fire Cemetery

Peshtigo River

G-mail Comments

-Gayle C-L (9-6): David. Great story with great pictures. ;))).

Lots of love.

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