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"Big Bill" by Bill Rutherford

Today, our village is called “Presque Isle”, which means “almost an island”. But did you also know that, in times past, we were known by not one, but two, other names? Let’s go back to the early 1900’s and see how it all began……

In 1905, J.J. Foster, from Greenville, Michigan, was superintendent of the Vilas County Lumber Company., and the town became known as Fosterville. While the prospects for the lumber industry in the region were very good, unfortunately for Mr. Foster, his ability to run a successful logging operation left something to be desired. Fosterville lasted just five short years.

In 1910, the lumber company, having parted ways with Foster. William S. Winegar, from Grand Rapids, one of the original investors of the Sawmill took over the running of the mill. According to Vilas County history, Winegar, known as “Big Bill” to his friends, was a man of “abundant energy”, who was able to turn around the fortunes of the Fosterville mill. Under his guidance the mill, and the village, were transformed into one of the most industrial scenes in all of Vilas County. Mr. Winegar was often heard to proudly proclaim, “My name is Bill! I never failed, and I never will!” Because his efforts were so successful here, he renamed the village after himself, and Winegar, Wisconsin was on the map.

During the logging boom, the town consisted of the huge Sawmill and its’ various outbuildings- the sawmill, the planing mill, shingle mill and an engine house generating electricity for the mills and town. The railroad came to town alongside of what is now County Highway B, and ended at the bottom of the hill on Main Street, turning around on a large turntable constructed there, and heading back east. There were many company-owned houses for the mill employees, and they were almost all painted green and white (a few of them remain today). At its peak, in the 1920’s, the town of Winegar boasted a population of almost 2000 residents, between those who lived in town and the lumberjacks living in at least six lumber camps that were scattered though out the area.

Mr. Winegar lived in the one “mansion” in town, which was located on the east side of Main Street, just north of what is now Sensenbrenner Park. This building, in the 50’s and 60’s, was the location of the summer bakery that was owned by the Harnesch family, from Milwaukee. It was torn down in 1989. He also owned a home on the “Peaceful Island” in Oxbow Lake, where he spent most weekends.

When World War I broke out, the mill was one of the main suppliers of lumber for the northern part of the state, since it was the only mill in the area that had dry lumber, thanks to the efforts of Bill Winegar. The trains would haul out 10 to 12 boxcar loads of lumber a day. When he started the mill, many of the workers did not get paid, but now, with the mill running at peak capacity, he was able to pay all of them back for their loyalty to him.

If there was one area when Mr. Winegar and others fell short, it was that they apparently thought the lumber in the area would never run out. Because of this they didn’t replant trees to replace the ones being cut and also didn’t practice ‘selective logging’. This short-sightedness would prove to be a fatal blow to the lumber business by the 1930’s, when the mill was forced to close and move its operations to Lake Linden, MI.

In 1926, in poor health, William Winegar and the investors sold the lumber company, and returned to his native Grand Rapids, MI, where sadly, on April 17th, 1927, at the age of 72, he passed away.

The town retained the name “Winegar” until 1955, when it was changed to its present name of Presque Isle.

For a collection of 20 more of Bill's essays on Winegar/Presque Isle read his book:

WINEGAR Reflections, Shelbyville, KY: Wasteland Press, 2016.

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