History of The Town of Pensaukee
(as used in our Comprehensive Plan)
The town of Pensaukee was formed in 1855, becoming the first town in Oconto County. It included all the land in Township 27 North from the bay of Green Bay to the west side of the county (which at the time included the present day towns of Abrams and Morgan). At the time of incorporation it had three unincorporated communities developing. The settlement of Pensaukee being the largest, Oak Orchard and Brookside, the crossroad community that is now centrally located within the reduced boundaries of the county. The town took its name from the Menominee Indian name for the river “Paissacue”, along which the largest community was developing.
The unincorporated village of Pensaukee developed in the area of the original waterwheel powered mill site (including a grist mill) built in 1827 approximately 1 mile from the mouth of the river. It was the first sustained commercial sawmill in the Michigan territory (which included everything west of the great lakes to the Pacific Ocean). Between 1850 and 1852 a new mill site was developed at the mouth of the river, around which the community developed. Oak Orchard developed where a stopping off spot for travelers was built, and commercial fishing in the area circa 1847 was started. This location also had the Treaty Tree where early settlers negotiated with the Indians. Brookside developed at the intersection of two Indian trails, one running north/south (now CTH J) and the other east/west (presently Brookside Road).
At the height of the logging industry, there were seven dams on the Pensaukee River with at least three mills operating at one time. The later mills were eventually powered by steam. Surrounding the mill site, as at all mill locations, a farming community developed. This was a necessity, as people had to grow the basic needs for the camp. This also led to adding a needed gristmill to grind the grain. As the timber needed was logged, people began purchasing or homesteading on land to establish farms. Many would log in the winter and clear land and till soil in the summer.
By the 1870’s, the town had established roads and schools. Some of the communities built churches, general stores and necessary trade people established. However, the communities in the town suffered enormous loss of timber as well as loss of some property during the fire in the fall of 1871, commonly referred to as the Peshtigo Fire, which culminated on Oct. 8.
The Pensaukee tornado of 1877 nearly destroyed the entire village on the river, plus doing damage as it approached. The lumber, milling and gristmills, plus the machine shops of the Gardner Company and most of the homes and businesses were demolished. The community was rebuilt, including the mills, only to see them close in 1884. The economy of the village then completely switched to commercial fishing and businesses to support the surrounding growing farms.
By the early 1900’s, the town of Pensaukee had no evidence of its first major industry. The village of Pensaukee had the appearance of a typical fishing village with a row of fish shanties along the river, boats moored in front of them and nets being dried on net reels along shanty sides and smokehouses. There was a business district consisting of several hotels, general store, saloon and necessary trades. The community of Brookside was now about equal in commercial district size, but with fewer free standing homes. Both were bustling little communities, which remained through the 1940’s and 50’s surrounded by farms. The community of Oak Orchard never developed commercially. As modern society advanced and the supply of fish decreased, the town contains an entirely different economic base. With modern transportation, most of the stores are gone, as are the hotels, schools, churches and feed mills.
Presently the town of Pensaukee encompasses an area of over 35 square miles, or 22,570 acres. USH 41 and the Pensaukee River dissect the town that consists of nearly 50 percent woodlands (11,166 acres) and approximately 6,427 acres of wetlands. The town has become an area of farming, residential dwellings, plus a majority of residents are commuters to the cities of Green Bay, Oconto, etc. Development pressure is felt in the town today due to much of the growth continuing northward from the city of Green Bay and lands being limited for development based on the town’s many sensitive areas (e.g., wetlands, floodplains, etc.).