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You would not know it by visiting Rib Lake today, but it holds its place in Wisconsin's history as the site of a booming lumber mill.  The early history of Rib Lake involves the industries of milling and tanning. The first mill was built in 1882 by J. J. Kennedy, named the Rib Lake Lumber Company, and within a year was destroyed by fire. In 1883 the mill was rebuilt and a railroad was built to serve its needs. The mill burned a second time in 1914 and when the mill reopened it was one of the largest in the state and remained in operation until the summer of 1948.

The hide tannery was founded by Fayette Shaw in 1891. The industry thrived until 1923, then ceased for reasons unknown. The two industries depended on each other to survive because they were intertwined. Scrap lumber from the mill was ground and transported by railroad to the tannery and burned to generate steam. The workers from both industries lived in Rib Lake.

The lumber mill became the major destination for logging from northern Wisconsin.  During operation, fell logs were transported to the mill by floating them down a series of rivers.  As time progressed and technology grew, railroads became the major use of transportation.  The railroad was built to run directly past the mill for ease and efficiency.  Rib Lake was used as a large holding pond to store and separate the logs while they were waiting to enter the mill.  During the winter months when the lake was frozen, teams of horses and sleighs were used to transport the logs.    Today, State Highway 102 follows the old railroad bed adjacent to Rib Lake.

Over the life of the lumber mill, billions of board feet passed through Rib Lake.  Since water was the major means of transportation, a certain percentage of the logs became water-logged and sank to the bottom of the lake before they ever made it into the mill.  The best estimate for how many logs sank, has been derived at roughly ten percent.  In addition to becoming water-logged, it is also known through local history that several sleigh loads of logs fell through the ice and also remain at the bottom of the lake.  The significance of this lost lumber has been made public in recent years by attempts at similar recovery projects in Lake Superior.  The Lake Superior projects were not very successful, but they did allow for some of these logs that have been completely submerged in water since they first sank, to be examined.  Due to the low oxygen levels, the logs remained in near perfect condition, hence the huge possibilities for this project.  The rare virgin timber which can be recovered and harvested demands a high price for its unique, natural beauty that has been preserved.

However, everything is not as simple as it may seem.  Unfortunately, for the community of Rib Lake, the submerged logs are covered by as much as 30 feet or more of organic sediments.  Before the lumber mill was in operation, Rib Lake had a maximum depth of about 40 feet.  Today, however, the maximum depth of the lake is only about 8-9 feet.  The lumber mill and nearby tannery, along Tannery Creek, both used Rib Lake as a dumping ground for their waste.  Sawdust, slabs, and human/animal waste were dumped into the lake by the lumber mill, and spent chemicals used in the tanning process were also dumped into Rib Lake.  In conjunction with becoming a waste receptacle for the mill and tannery, the lake underwent a period of heavy sedimentation, most-likely due to the massive clear cutting of forests.  Because of the large amount of sediment, and current water clarity issues, it is hard to get an idea of how many logs are buried below the lake.  Also it was not known if dredging for the logs would displace too much sediment and cause further depletion of the water quality. 

In hopes of answering these questions and others, the residents of Rib Lake formed the Community Development Foundation, Inc.

 

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