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  • April 18th, 2017


By Joel M. Vance

I am seven years old and my cousins Pat and Sam and I are in a rowboat about 20 yards away from shore. My mother is splashing in the shallows of Birch Lake. She calls teasingly, “you boys had better get out of that rowboat or the owner will put you in jail.”
In panic, I immediately leap overboard, forgetting that I cannot swim. Instantly I am under the water. I flounder to the surface to see my horrified mother starting toward me. Even as I go down for the second time, I am counting because I’ve been told that if you go down for the third time, it’s for keeps. You drown.
As I bob up again, I think that I’ve only got one chance left. Then I sink and know my life is all over. Then a miracle! My feet touch the bottom, and I stagger ashore, whooping and bellowing. I have been spared and the world is wonderful!
Birchwood, Wisconsin, is the town where I spent my summers or nearly didn’t. I’ve never really left Birchwood. It lingers in my mind like the sweet memory of a teenage crush. It’s in northwest Wisconsin, near Hayward where the freshwater fishing Hall of Fame features a building size concrete muskellunge, a fish so large that you can climb into the mouth and peer far down through the massive teeth at the tourists below.
Birchwood is nothing like Hayward. My town is the self-proclaimed bluegill capital of Wisconsin, and no one builds temples to bluegills. But there is a bluegill festival held during the third weekend of July. Tourists from Indiana and Illinois get swept up in the annual street dance. One year, my son-in-law entered the beer keg throwing competition. He lost to a beefy individual who looked as though he had emptied the keg before he threw it.
There also is competition between the fire departments of area towns in which the volunteer firefighters try to push a beer keg, suspended on a cable, to their opponent’s end of the cable with powerful jets of firehose water.
Birchwood is a resort town. It has the feel of the Northwoods. Even in summer, there is a pine tang in the air. The folks here have a wind bit look, as if they’ve gone often to the woodshed for kindling when it’s below zero. Winter temperatures routinely are below zero, and nearby Rice Lake once recorded -60, the nation’s coldest that day.
Everyone fishes in Birchwood. Fish and a veneer mill are the lifeblood of the town. Once, the fish were northern pike, walleyes and bass. Those heavy stringers of long ago are mostly gone. Today’s catch is smaller fish. Tourists concentrate on bluegills and crappie. The old lakes simply had too much demand on them for too long
My father once caught a 20 pound northern pike and made the mistake of hauling it into the old wooden rowboat before the fish was exhausted. The pike flopped around on tackle boxes and fishing lures until Aunt Vic worked up the nerve to dive on the fish like a football player going for a loose ball. My father sat back and laughed and told the story for years afterward. I grew up listening to men who sat around a table with a checkered oil cloth draped over it, drank Bruenig’s lager, and told colorful stories like that.
There was a time in my life when almost everyone in Birchwood was related to me. My grandparents came overland in an ox drawn wagon and helped to pioneer this town situated midway down a 20 mile chain of lakes.
My grandmother ran a restaurant and baked bread for the logging crews who were laying waste to the Virgin North land. It was a tough life. Aunt Vic, later to be to become a nurse, watched in fascination as a doctor amputated her brother’s leg on the kitchen table by the light of a kerosene lantern. He had been pinned by a falling tree.
Nolan Eidsmoe, a Birchwood native who became a doctor in Rice Lake said, “when we landed at Birchwood in 1919, the first place I can ever remember visiting was your grandmother’s restaurant. We ate our first meal there. She was a wonderful lady who raised a large family and still had time to run a restaurant and bake bread to sell to others. She also had room for a couple of orphans at her table for meals.”
My grandfather? Well some years ago a middle-aged woman stopped me on the street and said, “I knew your grandfather. I was his lookout when I was a little girl.”
“Look out?” I asked, puzzled.
“For the still the still he had out in the woods on our farm,” she said. She looked at me for a moment. “You didn’t know he was the town bootlegger?” No, I didn’t. The family had kept that secret for more than half a century. Family was important to my mother and her sisters. They worshipped their mother and despite all his faults, loved their father. The only way you could criticize a Soper was to be a Soper.
Frontier enterprise always been characteristic of Birchwood. An uncle began a fishing resort by buying one room school houses as they were abandoned and turning them into cottages. His brother later started a bait shop, thus Sopers had tourists coming and going. They were also partners in the only bar in town.
Birchwood population 4314, today is about the same as it was 70 years ago when I was a barefoot kid. My cousins and I sneaked into Hud’s Bar to feed nickles into a shooting gallery machine. The targets were Japanese Zero fighter planes,. Yes, we were brave and strong. We were 10 years old.
My cousin Mike came home after World War Two yellowed and shaken by malaria. He had a thousand mile stare and a tendency to hit the dirt when he heard a loud noise He had been an island hopping Marine in the Pacific.
We wondered about the glamour of war then.
There is a monument to Birchwood’s veterans next to the town hall. Two Sopers served in World War One. Their children were just beyond draft age for World War Two but-225 men from the Birchwood area served in World War Two– a tremendous chunk out of the young adult resource of a rural county.
Eight didn’t return.
There once was a Quonset hut movie theater in town. We watched Charlie Starrett and Ken Maynard. But a big storm in the 40s blew the roof off and dumped it in the middle of the street approximately opposite where a little girl hit me in the back of the head with a brick. I had said something to irritate her and turned my back to her. That was a mistake. She caught me square with a brick from at least 30 feet away. I saw stars and bled copiously. Another time I fell while running and ran the stob of a weed down my throat. I remember the hurts as well as the pleasures.
It’s a miracle any kid ever grows up. One Fourth of July, my cousin Pat threw a firecracker that didn’t explode. Being silly, he picked it up and put it in his mouth like a cigarette. “Look at me,” he said. “I’m smoking!” In an instant, he was! The thing exploded, burning his mouth and face. It made my ears ring for two days.
Many years ago, out-of-town investors restored the old Tagalong golf course, just south of Birchwood. It had been built by a millionaire in the 1920s, part of a lovely estate carved out of the woods. Now it is a country club for fly in tourists but for one summer, it was my private course. Back then it had gone to pasture. No one cared if I came out and hacked my way around the course. I played through worried knots of dairy cattle. I fumed at my wild hooks and slices, and the cows would moo apprehensively.
Once, I teed off right into a tree no more than 30 feet away, and the ball rebounded past my ear with the whiz of a rifle bullet. It made me think about my career in golf. I soon quit when I realized I could throw a club farther than I could hit the ball.
There is a saying that you can’t go home again, but I thought maybe you could. I went back to Birchwood one time. The Birch Lake Inn guarded the north end of Main Street–it since has burned to the ground. The Inn was a few yards from the northern states power company dam which created the lake. It was an old inn before it burned down.
I walked to the dam and looked at the roaring froth 30 feet down and shuddered. They said my cousin Bob went over the dam once but I never asked him because it’s deliciously scary enough to think it might’ve happened. It was starting to get late in the evening, and I was hungry. I stopped at the Inn and ordered a superb walleye dinner for only $7.50. Try to match that in Minneapolis or Madison. It will never happen again. When I finished my walleye, I walked outside and headed south along Main Street
Some towns measure their success by how progressive they are, how many new industries they attract, how much they grow, how modern they become. I measured Birchwood by how tenaciously it sticks in my memories. There, in my memories, it is a town of sunlight in summer. And it is not reality. I walked down Main Street, looking in vain for the town I knew and the kids of long ago who played tag in the summer evenings and the town that smelled of the lake and of hot road tar and fish slime.
Little of what I knew remains. The bank, the hardware store and the bar have different names couple of other buildings still stand, but almost everything else is new. The old Soo line tracks are gone. Now the rail bed throbs to the whine of snowmobiles in wintertime. Another part of it became a highway that now speeds traffic right through the middle of Birchwood.
The Bruenig’s lager brewery in nearby Rice Lake is long closed. The icehouse is gone. We crouched there on hot days top thousands of pounds of ice cut from the lake in the winter to serve the town’s ice boxes in the summer. We dug through the insulating sawdust from the veneer mill to find chunks of ice to suck, and we sat in the door and listen to the dry stridulation of insects.
My aunt Pill’s angular house, where I had awakened to see the roof of the movie theater sitting smack in the middle of Main Street became decrepit and doomed for removal. Hud’s Bar, where my uncles dispensed beer and fishing advice, is now the Bluegill Bar. The bait shop across the street is now somebody’s office. The spidery bridge above the Narrows between Birch Lake and Lake Chetek has joined the town dock in history. How can Birchwood still be my hometown when so little of what it was to me is still there today?
My hometown is in my mind. Most of the reality of it lies in the Methodist churchyard or in old photos gone sepia with age that tell a different story than the one told today. As I reached the end of the street, feeling depressed, a couple of boys of about 10 raced by, intent on some childhood adventure. Maybe they were going to the store for a double-dip ice cream cone or to dig some worms for bait. Maybe they were just yelling because kids yell when their sap rises. I looked at them and realized that Birchwood today is not my hometown—it is theirs.
They’ll go home again someday, too, and discover the home is where the heart is, that scrapbooks and memories are the reality of the hometown, not what not what it has become.

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