The lilacs of Severne Bradley were the telltale, opening a window on a century-old community of struggling farmers in the sands of northwest Wisconsin.
In a mixed forest of pine, oak and aspen a half mile south of the main unit of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area in East Blaine, Vern Drake, Mark Nupen and I spent a late May morning exploring remnants of at least four settler homes in what was the community of Fivemile.
Fivemile was a short-lived and geographically ill-defined barrens farming settlement of more than a 100 people, with a general store and a post office that lasted from 1908 to 1920. What we saw were a few tangible reminders of a few farm families who settled on the dry, sandy barrens starting just after 1900 and remaining a few decades at most. Two sisters who grew up there recalled years later that this was a time of picking blueberries with Indians, house parties, cold winters and, finally, departure.
We were guided by Kraig and Kory McConaughey, brothers whose family has had a cabin in the area for decades and who have poked around in the woods for years.
We made several stops and identified the scant remains of homesteads of William and Grace House, Olaf and Rena Johnson, Henry and Mary Zach and, perhaps most satisfying and evocative, Ingebregt T. and Severne Bradley.
The Bradley homestead lies on 160 acres mostly southwest of Bradley Lake, on the Burnett-Washburn county line. A short driveway off Fivemile Road led to a clearing in the mixed forest several hundred feet across. Most remarkable was the pink-lavender lilac bush in full and fragrant bloom.
The lilacs seemed to provide more clearly than anything else we saw an account of a century-plus-old effort at settlement and domestication. We easily found the adjacent square foundation of a house measuring about 36 feet by 36 feet, each block of poured concrete about two feet long and perhaps 10 inches wide. The walls were gone, of course, but there were smaller depressions nearby, perhaps outhouses, storage places or the like.
We saw two other structures nearby. Another set of poured concrete blocks marked the rectangular foundation of what was perhaps a barn, and a circle of blocks were the remains of what was apparently a silo, about 12 feet across and several courses high.
The Bradleys arrived in east Blaine Township around 1904, according to the Burnett County plat book, and homesteaded the 160 acres. Ingebregt (sometimes spelled Engebregt or Englbregt) was born in Norway in 1854, Severne (sometimes spelled Severene or Severena) was an Olson from Minnesota, born in 1868. They had married in Albert Lea, Minn., in 1887.
They came to the barrens with at least three children, possibly five, and had a sixth while living there. The 1910 census shows four children living with them, ages 3 to 17.
Ten years later, the 1920 census shows the only person living with the couple was their granddaughter Evelyn Bertone, apparently the child of their daughter Tena. By this time, Ingebregt was 66 and Severne was 52. Records are incomplete but it seems likely that three of their children, daughters Carolyne and Stella and son Severt, lay buried a mile west in Evergreen Cemetery.
By the time of the 1930 census, Ingebregt had died, and Severne was living alone, listed as a “farm manager” in the census enumeration. Daughter Tena was married and living in Chisholm, Minn. Her daughter, Evelyn Bertone, likely born on the barrens in 1913, lived with relatives in Spooner and later worked in St. Paul, Minn., as a file clerk. In 1935 or 1936, apparently after a failure to pay property taxes, the farm was foreclosed on and the land went to the county.
That was the eventual end for virtually all homesteads on the sands of the barrens, but this homestead stands out among those for miles around partly because the buildings were of a size that almost suggests relative prosperity and also because it had been inhabited by the same family for so long. The building foundations and the lovely touch of lilacs are all that remains. Lilacs were introduced to the North American colonies in the 18th Century and were a popular – and long-lived – flowering bush in climates where the May blooms were particularly welcome after a hard winter. It’s compelling to think of them as Severne’s lilacs, marking a homestead where she gave birth to her youngest, saw a daughter grow up and move on, witnessed the death of other children, then outlived her husband.
The four homesteads we explored didn’t last long and there is little left of them. The land has largely grown over in aspen, oak and jack and red pine and is mostly owned by Burnett County as a result of the difficulty settlers found in making a go of things. But they are evocative remnants of a group of hardy people who came from all over, struggled to make a living on tough land and ultimately had to concede to the reality of nature.
(This map shows the four sites of early 20th Century farmsteads just south of the north unit of Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area (dark green outlined in blue). 1. William and Grace House. 2. Olaf and Rena Johnson. 3. Henry and Mary Zach. 4. Ingebregt and Severne Bradley.)