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