History of the Town of Russell
The Town of Russell is located on the most northern peninsula of Wisconsin with Lake Superior shoreline comprising the east and north borders of the Town. A brief chronological history follows.
The first people living in the area were the Ojibway. According to Ojibway legend, the Anishinabe were created on the east coast of Canada near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. A seashell called the Megis Shell would appear to them and be their guide. The Megis Shell appeared five times and five times the Anishinabe migrated westward on the Great Lakes finally settling on Madeline Island. During this migration which took about 500 years, the Anishinabe divided into three nations. The Ojibway, “the keepers of the faith”, settled in this area about 1490.
One area the Loon Clan of Ojibwa found to be an excellent place for fishing was directly across from Madeline Island on the shores of Lake Superior at what is known today as Raspberry and Frog Bays. Many people choose to build their homes there and stay year round. The Chief of the people who were living in the area was Anton Buffalo; therefore, they named another area Buffalo Bay. Later when the U.S. government established the reservation the area was named Red Cliff, a name that continues today.
Fur trapping originally brought early European explorers to the region in the 1600 and 1700s. Bayfield County was created in 1845; the State of Wisconsin came into being in 1848 and the Red Cliff Band of Chippewa Indians was recognized by treaty with the United States government in 1854. The Town of Russell did not form until 1912-1913 but there was much activity in the area prior to incorporation.
The U.S. government made efforts to settle the area by offering 160 acres for homesteads. Early pioneers started making land claims in the area from 1884 to 1899 to open up the land and develop small farms. Many of these farmers also subsidized their income by fishing. Commercial fishing peaked in the 1950s and has declined ever since.
Early travel in the Town was difficult. Logging roads were the only roads leading toward the City of Bayfield. One of the first roads built, Raspberry Road, went from Four Corners (present location of Turner Road junction with State Highway 13) north over the hill to current Old County Trunk K and then continued west and north to what was called Section 8. The road also continued to the south joining a logging road, which is now State Highway 13. The junction was known later as “Russell’s Crossing,” as the Russell homestead was located on that corner.
The road to Bayfield “Cemetery Road” started at Four Corners in a generally southerly direction. It passed along the south edge of a goat farm which was the field west of the current Weidinger orchard and traveled up the hill along the present road, used Cemetery 2 Road passing the Hauser farm to current County Trunk I, through the cemetery and on into Bayfield.
A railroad came to the area in the 1880s. Called the “Transfer,” this narrow gauge railroad went past the present Town Garage (State Highway 13 and east junction of Old County Trunk K). The track paralleled Old County Trunk K and the grade can be seen today just north of the road. The Transfer ended in Bell’s logging Camp in Sections 16- 17. The railroad hauled logs to a Bayfield sawmill and later farmers shipped fresh produce to stores in Bayfield. A branch line was built from the current Town Garage location west passing north of Four Corners and then southwesterly to a logging camp.
Formal education for children started in 1896 with two log schoolhouses being built. One was located in the Sand Bay area, and the other at the top of Peterson hill for what was known as the Raspberry community. The second is in existence today and may be seen at Old World Wisconsin.
Telephone came to the Town in 1900. Gotfred Peterson had the first telephone on a single line that ran from Bayfield to Cornucopia. A local telephone company was started in the Town in 1915 and operated until it was sold to Wisconsin Telephone Company in 1947. 1947 also marked the arrival of electricity to the Town when the REA began installing power lines.
The Town of Russell incorporated in 1912-1913. The land surveyed for the current Town was adjusted off what was then Town of Bayfield and City of Bayfield land. A Town government and school district were immediately formed. Rural Free Delivery (U.S. Mail) started in 1914.
New schools were soon opened. Carver School in January 1915 at the current Town Garage site and Sand Bay School in September 1922 which is currently the Town of Russell Community Center.
Roads were also improved. During 1916 a new road from Four Corners to Bayfield was laid out bypassing the big hills and offering an easier route to travel. These are the current Turner Road and County Trunk J.
The area was originally covered with large white pine. Logging in the 1800s soon removed the white pine, which allowed hemlock and other hardwoods to develop. Hemlock logging and bark stripping became very important businesses in the early 1900s. Bark was used by tanneries for processing hides into leather. Hardwood trees flourished after the hemlock gave out.
The hardwoods provided an opportunity for maple sugar making. Several Red Cliff families had a steady business during the 1920’s. Harvesting the hardwoods became the next venture. The Red Cliff saw mill operated for several years at the current site of the marina. After the hardwoods gave out and forest fires were controlled, poplar (aspen) provided a fourth round of logging activity that continues today.
The Red Cliff Tribal Governing Body adopted their constitution in June 1936. Red Cliff has developed into a business and population center within the Town.
The Apostle Islands National Lake Shore Park was formed in 1971. The park includes all but one of the Apostle Islands and all the lakeshore from Little Sand Bay west.
The Sand Bay School was rededicated in October 1999 as the Town of Russell Community Center after a major renovation and addition to the building. The building served as a school from 1922 to 1959 and as a Town Hall and community meeting place for many years. The building has also returned to being a school. In the fall of 2000, the Apostle Islands Academy operated by the Bayfield School District opened.
County forest, federal park, and tribal lands shape the Town’s demography. The Town of Russell is sparsely populated by rural residences and second and/or vacation homes. Farming and commercial fishing have declined, while logging is the primary commercial activity within the Town. The Town of Russell has a unique rural character and relative solitude which attracts people.