Heritage & History
Three Lakes – Our Story
In the late 1800s, surveyors for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Company were frustrated with their lack of ability to plat a straight line through this area. In each direction they turned, they encountered yet another body of water which blocked their route northward toward Eagle River. It was these “three lakes” – Maple, Townline, Range Line – which served as the basis for what would eventually become the name of the community that formed here.
Since its formal organization as a Town in 1881, Three Lakes has experienced three distinct eras. In order, they were: 1) logging, 2) potato farming, and 3) tourism.
To satisfy the growing need for lumber in Chicago and other parts to the South, vast areas of the Northwoods were clear cut during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Forest products are of course a renewable resource but reforestation requires careful planning and the passage of many decades. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Civilian Conservation Corps was put to work in this region replanting forests where the stands of virgin timber once stood. During the ensuing decades, the naturally sandy soil that once supported old-growth forests was turned over, the stumps were removed, and Three Lakes became an agricultural community. Family-owned and operated potato farms abounded, production soared, and warehouses to store and broker product expanded to the point that Wisconsin’s first County Agricultural Agent was located in Three Lakes. Over time, corporate interests eventually absorbed all of the local production. Today, none of the commercial potato farms remain in production.
It was during this time of transition in the early 1900s from family potato farming that the Northwoods established itself as a premier destination for tourism and summer residency. Enabled by the mass production of affordable automobiles and the construction of passable roads, entire families traveled to Three Lakes and spent the summer season in residence. The same railroad that once hauled the local lumber off to parts beyond now delivered visitors from those same places. Housekeeping cottages and vintage resorts were constructed in large numbers. The Golden Age of Tourism for Three Lakes began in the 1930s and lasted well into the 1970s. For roughly the past 75 years, the Three Lakes economy was largely fueled by and dependent upon tourism and the seasonal visitors that it brought to our area.
Today, Three Lakes is in the process of reinventing its local economy from one that over the past 100 years has relied nearly exclusively on tourism into a diversified infrastructure founded on the four cornerstones of technology, tourism, agriculture, and the cultural arts. With our greatest natural resource being the largest chain of lakes in Wisconsin, tourism will forever remain an important calling card to attract visitors. However, we now boast more high speed internet and broadband options than any other community in a five county region, making Three Lakes the anchor for technology in the Northwoods.
Add to that a Top 3 Library and a Top 10 School District, and you will understand why our new advertising slogan is “come to play but maybe just stay”. Three Lakes truly is a place where you can work with all the latest technology you need while enjoying the highest quality of life with our pristine water, pure air, no traffic, non-existent crime, and close-knit community environment.
Photos courtesy of the Three Lakes Historical Society. Visit their website at: www.threelakeshistory.org
The first Annual Meeting of the Town of Three Lakes was on April 6, 1886. It was actually held at the Town of Gagen, in Forest County at that time, and included both the Village of Three Lakes and the Village of Monico.
Town meetings in those days were frequently held at the Three Lakes “lock-up” or jail structure.
The old “Military Road” connecting Chicago to points northward during the Civil War, and passing through Fort Howard in Green Bay along the way, still exists in the Town of Three Lakes. Today, it is a modern paved road and serves as the major north-south thoroughfare on the far eastern border of the township.
The completion of the railroad ushered in the region’s rapid development as a logging community. Bountiful virgin stands of pine and hardwoods were once bountiful here.
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, demand soared for wood to rebuild the city. By the turn of the 20th century most of the virgin forests were logged out and region’s first great economy came to an end.
- While still important, logging has never returned as a main employer or way of life in Northern Wisconsin.