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Wirt, Minnesota History

Railroad map of the area, 1898, Click map to enlarge or zoom.

Wirt Township was named by O. E. Walley, its first settler, probably for a township in New York or a county in West Virginia, where the name was given in honor of William Wirt (1772-1834), who was the attorney general of the United States, 1817-29. The village in sections 10 and 15 was established as a logging supply station on the Minneapolis and Rainy River Railway; its post office began in 1874 and was changed to a community post office in 1974. Elias O. Walley was the first settler, opening a store and becoming the first postmaster. The first site was on the north side of the Big Fork River with a store, a post office, and a hotel; the present community is across the river on the site of a former logging town, called Stanley by the railroad.

Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The little settlement of Wirt was first important as a logging camp and supply center along the M & R Railroad. A few settlers like Louis Phelps, Loren D. Lammon and Frank Herdegan filed claims in Wirt Township in 1902. Elias O. Walley and John E. Seeman had filed for homesteads in 1899 and Charlie Rife in 1895. No claims were proved up until 1904. Until the railroad was taken up, Wirt was an important little community.

Pines, Mines and Lakes - The Story of Itasca County
© 1960 James E. Rottsolk and the Itasca Historical Society

Highway map of the Wirt area around 1932. Note that present-day Wirt is called Stanley (Wirt was originally across the Big Fork River from Stanley). Also note the alignment of State Highway 6 north of Deer River, which was re-routed to avoid the swampy area around 1934.

Walter Scott's Story

I came to what is now Wirt in the spring of 1899. At that time there were only two settlers between Wirt and Bena. They were Frank Vance, and a family named Rose. Rose lived up on the Popple River from Vances. At the time I came here there were already several settlers along the Big Fork. They were Noah Fletcher who lived on Fletcher Creek where County Road 38 crosses the creek now, and from him Fletcher Creek was named. E. O. Walley lived where Old Wirt afterwards stood. Chas. Rife lived on the south side of the river from Old Wirt, or where Stanley afterwards stood, and where Wirt now stands. Frank Brusewitz lived ten or twelve miles farther down the river. In those days Frank was known as Big Foot the Scout. My homestead was located almost at the mouth of Fletcher Creek.

The earliest logging in here was on the school section, Sec. 16 of Wirt Township. This was the Itasca Lumber Co, camp. The lumber companies used to build all of their wanagans below the Hauck bridge, as the bridges above were all too low for them to pass under. The old Wirt bridge was a draw bridge, which was raised with block and tackle. The only time it was ever used was for the Eveleth, a steamboat operated by Frank Miller and wife.

Dr. Harrison had a summer place across the river and a short distance up the steam from my place. This place he leased from the Walker and Hinckley Lumber Co. He was attracted to this wild country by the abundance of wild game and fish that were here at that time.

Harrison built a large cabin on the hill, which was a large knoll overlooking the river, and covered with a heavy stand of Norway pine. Here he used to entertain his eastern friends. He was very fond of hunting, which at several times caused him some difficulty. I remember at one time, there were reports reached Grand Rapids that the Dr. was slaughtering deer on the river. There were no game wardens at that time, so the sheriff was sent up to look into the matter. At that time it was an eighty-five mile trip by later to Deer River, and as the sheriff was not very well acquainted with the route he and a deputy went to Deer River to see if some one could be found to guide them. At last they found a man who said he would guide them for twenty-five dollars. The sheriff thought the price was too high, but he finally made a deal with the man to take them for five dollars a day. This turned out to be a poor bargain for the sheriff. They reached Sand Lake in fine shape. Here the guide took the wrong steam and they became lost, finally reaching Chas. Rife's place after fifteen days. Rife's place was where Wirt now is, and was only three or four miles from Harrison's. Their supplies had given out, and they were nearly starved when they reached Rife's. This was in the afternoon, but they decided to have something to eat and rest up until morning before going on. Rife had a large pot of stew on the stove when the sheriff's party arrived, so they sat down and ate, and how they did eat. By night they were all so sick from over-eating, that Harrison gave them some pills, then stayed and sat up with them all night. The next morning when they told them what they were there for the Doctor was fit to be tied.

The sheriff said he had been told Harrison was slaughtering the deer and letting the meat waste. Dr. Harrison told him, "Sure, I kill what I want, the blooming things are too thick anyway; but I never let any spoil. If you think I do ask anyone on the river. If I kill a piece of meat when the weather is warm I always divide it with the other settlers, so none of it spoils. I'll tell you what I'll do. If you want to send a man up here, he can stay at my place and I will pay him forty dollars per month and his board, so he can report any law violations that I commit." But the sheriff refused this offer. But he wanted Harrison to pay the expense of the trip, which at five dollars per day for fifteen days amounted to seventy-five dollars. But Dr. Harrison flatly told him he would see his bloody soul in hell before he would pay it. So the sheriff had to go home seventy-five dollars in the red.

He wouldn't trust the guide to take him home. He and his deputy took the boat and started back, making the guide walk the tote road to Deer River, a distance of seventy miles.

Dr. Harrison was an English doctor who was practicing in New York City. There were any number of settlers who proved up on claims having good stands of timber, for timber companies. One I remember. In fact there were two of them. These two men took claims adjoining each other, on the north and west of Clear Lake. They built a little shack on the line between the claims. This shack was not over four or five feet high, and had neither door nor windows. What time they spent on their claims they lived in a tent. It was said the Itasca Lumber Co. paid them a hundred dollars a month for the time it took them to prove up. They proved up in fourteen months, so it cost the Itasca Lbr. Co. fourteen hundred dollars a quarter for the claims.

For several years I carried mail from Deer River to Big Fork and points between, also to Wirt. There were no mailclerks on the M. & R Railroad, so permission was granted for star route carriers to ride the train. I carried the mail out of Deer River in this way, going to Big Fork on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and the Bass Lake and Wirt branch on Monday, Wednesday & Friday each week. The first stop out of Deer River was at County Road, about four and one-half miles from Deer River, and about two miles south of the county road. This was sometimes called Gravel Pit, as that is where the county road ran. The next stop was McVey, or Clark's Siding; then Alder, or Jessie Lake Junction; Big Fork; Effie; Craig.

On the Jessie Lake Branch the stops were as follows: Mack, called the coal docks or Jessie Lake Hoist; Spring Lake; Fox Lake Junction; Fox Lake; White Fish Junction; Bass Lake; Dora Lake; Stanley; Ford; Burns; Pomroy.

Dr. Harrison was the first settler around Wirt, although some would not call him a settler as he never owned any land here. His place on the Big Fork river was known for miles up and down the stream. It was not considered a summer trip up or down the river was complete if we didn't stop at the large spring on Harrison Hill for a drink of clear, cold water, and to write our names on the wall of the log spring house which covered it. It was at Harrison Hill that many of our picnics were held, also Fourth of July celebrations, until the pine was cut off in 1917.

Some of the early settlers around Wirt were: E. 0. Walley, Noah Fletcher, Chas. Rife, Geo. and Phil Hauck, Frank & Geo. Brusewitz, Frank Bittner, Fred and John Ekman, Will Franke, Jim David, Henry Gagnon, Ole and Paul Paulson, Henry Hinken (for whom Hinken Creek was named), James Bart, Geo. Bart, Roy Phelps, Chas. Vetter, Wm. LaFever, Bert Brown, Andy and Chas. Farrell, J. N. Babcock, L. Ableman, Archie Hiller, and L. D. Lammon.

From Northwoods Pioneers, © 1980 Robert B. Porter
Individual interview property of the Minnesota Historical Society

Mrs.  Walter Scott's Story

In the winter of 1899 I came to what is now Wirt to keep house for my father E. O. Walley, and my youngest brother, Ross. My father had been here for a year or so before I came. He had been coming in here to hunt for seven or eight years before he settled here.

I sure didn't know what I was getting into when I came. I was met at Deer River by Walter Scott, whom I had known a long time. I had never seen him except with good clothes on, as he had always clerked in a store. When he met me he had on a pair of old wool pants, stagged almost to the knees. He was driving a little pony not over four feet high, which was hooked to a sled with a box on it just large enough for me to sit in. We must have followed a chain of lakes coming up, as it seemed to me there was a lot of hay meadows. After I reached Wirt I found they were not meadows at all, but lakes. My father, knowing my fear of water, had told Walter I was afraid of water so not to tell me when we crossed a lake or river. So he told me they were all hay meadows.

At the time I came in Mrs. Vance and I were the only white women be--men what is now Big Fork and Bena. My brother Ross Walley was old enough to go to school, so right after I came we took him over to stay at Frank Vance's, where there was a school. This was in the winter of 1899. There were five or six children attending school. They were Virginia and Irene Vance, two or three of the Rose children, and my brother, Ross Walley. One of the Rose girls taught the school. The school was in Sec. 13, R. 27, T. 149.

Not long after I came here my father married again, and I went to live with Vance's. After Walter and I were married, my brother Ross came to live with us. We used to call him Busticogan, as he and Old Chief Busti .used to be such friends. Busti would take him to the woods for hours at a time. He would ask Ross the English work for everything they saw. He could tell Ross the Chippewa name for it. Soon Ross could talk Chippewa and Busti could talk English.

Chief Busti was very fond of music. We had a piano, and he would sit for hours if someone would only play it. Sometimes he would walk around It when someone was playing. He would look on top of it, behind it, and underneath it, for he could never seem to understand what made it work.

I never see a butter maker testing cream at a creamery without thinking of Chief Busticogan and the barrel of apples. Some friends from our old home in Iowa sent them to us. Chief Busticogan and his squaw were at our house when they arrived. He would take a bite of an apple, swallow it around in his mouth, screw up his face, then sample another one. We had a hard time explaining to him what kind of bush they grew on. He thought they were the funniest thing he had ever eaten.

My father, E. O. Walley, ran the first store at Wirt. He was also the first postmaster. Walter and I ran a stopping place at Wirt for a number of years. I remember one hunting season, we had thirty-three hunters come in on us before ten o'clock at night, and I had to feed them along and find places for them to sleep, and most of them had their deer when they left. Some of them had to sleep on the floor as we were- not fixed for so many.

From Northwoods Pioneers, © 1980 Robert B. Porter
Individual interview property of the Minnesota Historical Society

Itasca County in 1895 (before Koochiching County was created).
Full map is located at 

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