Henry J. Wachsmuth – The “Big Push”

Henry J. Wachsmuth
Henry J. Wachsmuth

Henry J. Wachsmuth – The “Big Push”

Wachsmuth Lumber Company

By Journalist- Chick Sheridan

ca 1965-1966 but no date given

In the Bayfield County Press of December 30, 1921 the editor of the paper, at that time most likely Currie G. Bell, was having dinner at the “Hoyt’s Place logging camp” with the lumberjacks and with the owner of the Wachsmuth Lumber Company, old “H. J.” himself. It was at this sitting that the editor referred to H. J., as nick-named by the lumberjacks, “the Big Push”.  And what a “big push” old Henry was in the timber industry on the Bayfield Peninsula. Hereafter in this excerpt from Washburn, Wisconsin journalist Chick Sheridan is an introduction to this “shaker and mover” of the timber industry via obituary.

“The story of Henry J. Wachsmuth, Bayfield’s “grand old man”, is the story of Bayfield for the past 83 years and nine months for he lived here all that time and was an outstanding community leader throughout his maturity. Born August 8, 1874, he was a native of Furstenhaugen, province of Hanover, Germany. There was only one day’s difference between his birthday and that of the late President Herbert Hoover, whom he always admired and had the privilege of meeting twice.

When he was only seven years old, Henry came to United States with his father, August, who had been a weaver, and his mother, born Louise Fischer. Her brother, Fred Fischer, had a store and did some logging in Bayfield, so they arrived here October 1, 1881.   “That was three years before the railroad reached Bayfield so we came on the tug Favorite from Ashland,” recalled Mr. Wachsmuth in later years. “We debarked at three or four A.M. in the sawmill slip. In the darkness, I stepped on a cow lying on the beach. Later I found out it was owned by a man named Cooper and was the only cow in Bayfield, which then had 500 to 600 residents.”

“There were no streetlights in town then, but kerosene lamps were installed not long after. Fishing was the principal industry. There was a cooperage shop on the beach where they made kegs from white pine taken out of the hill back of town. Open sailboats were used for fishing. When the Booth Company moved in they used small steam tugs, but found it didn’t pay.”

When he was only 10 years old Henry started part-time work in the R. D. Pike saw mill, piling slabs for $.50 a day. At 11 he quit school to work steady. He learned the lumber business from the sawdust up, working at almost every job in the mill.  When he was only 19 years old, he entered the retail lumber business.

About 1904, Mr. Wachsmuth and two associates organized the Wachsmuth Lumber Company. They took over the Red Cliff Lumber Company and after R. D. Pike’s death they bought the Pike saw mill in Bayfield. “We bought practically all the remaining timber in this area,” Mr. Wachsmuth said, “most of it was west of Bayfield toward Cornucopia, and on the Apostle Islands. In all, we had about 30,000 acres. A logging railroad [Bayfield Transfer] brought many of the logs to the mill in Bayfield. Large portions of the cut were towed into Bayfield”.

“We operated for about 30 years and during that time we employed an average of about 300 workers in the camps and the mill, sometimes less, and sometimes more. When the mill was running the population of Bayfield climbed to 1500 to 1600”. In 1925 the saw mill was closed down, and Mr. Wachsmuth established a retail lumber yard, which he operated until selling out some years ago. He retained a desk in the lumber firm’s office, where he not only transacted municipal business but bought and sold pulpwood.

During his years as a lumberman, Mr. Wachsmuth was also active in many other local enterprises. Back in the 1920s he was one of the principal backers of the Apostle Islands Indian Pageant. For years he served as a director of the First National Bank at Bayfield, and in 1932 and 1933, when the banks were closing all over the country, he twice supplied cash to keep the local institutions doors open, putting in a total of $48,000. The bank never closed until ordered to do so in the “national bank holiday” and was one of the first to reopen.

Mr. Wachsmuth was first elected mayor of Bayfield in 1924. Streets were paved and he was instrumental in changing the source of supply of the city waterworks. “We had an intake pipe running out to Lake Superior for 700 feet and we were always having trouble with it,” he used to recall. “We hired a well driller and I had to guarantee the project personally. He went down 360 feet before he hit a good supply. Since then Bayfield has had some of the finest well water in the country in its water system. “In 1951, when Mayor Irving Hadland became ill and resigned, Mr. Wachsmuth returned to office as a pinch-hitter. In 1952 he was elected for a two-year term and in 1954 his name was not on the ballot, but was returned to office by written-in ballots. During these years he faced the toughest municipal problem in Bayfield’s history, control of the flash floods, which had periodically caused great property damage in Bayfield in the previous decade. Solution of this problem came when the federal government put up $140,000 and the state government $44,000 for a flood control system, which has worked satisfactorily.

Mr. Wachsmuth attributed his lifelong physical fitness, like that of a man in his 50s when he was in his 80s, to the training he received as a boy in Germany. He went to school there one year before coming to the United States and learned how to work on the horizontal bars and on other “turning” or gymnastic exercises. He kept up that sort of program, including work on a punching bag in his basement until he was 60 years old. In the 70s and 80s, when he was semi-retired, he was a familiar figure as he hiked the streets of Bayfield with a sturdy stride like that of a much younger man.

Mr. Wachsmuth was 90 years and 11 months old when he passed at 3 PM in a Washburn hospital. [The date is not affixed by Mr. Sheridan] Funeral rites were held the following Saturday afternoon at the Bayfield Presbyterian Church and he is buried in Bayfield’s Greenwood cemetery. Mr. Wachsmuth was survived by his son Julian of Bayfield, two daughters, Mrs. Irene Kreumen, of Memphis, Tennessee, and Mrs. Evelyn O’Connell, of Portland, Oregon. He had one adopted daughter by the name of Mrs. Elsie Patterson, of Kalispell, Montana. His wife, the former Lena Tetzner of Washburn had died several years prior.

This history brief was written by Robert J. Nelson. Generously sharing our local history through his research and writing.