Gear Review

The Chippewa: Biography of a Wisconsin Waterway

The ChippewaRecently, we were invited to review a new book by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, just published in 2017, The Chippewa: Biography of a Wisconsin Waterway, by Richard D. Cornell. As lovers of Wisconsin rivers in general and authors of our own “Guide To” individual streams we ourselves have paddled consummately, we were honored and thrilled to read this book that is all things Chippewa.

As the title states, Cornell’s work here is a biography of sorts, not a work of fiction. But the stories and side notes of the colorful characters and their chronicled history along the way from its headwaters south of Lake Superior to its mouth at the Mississippi River are every bit as vibrant as those in August Derleth’s The Wisconsin or still yet Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi – both of which inspired Cornell.

From 1990 to 2003 the author paddled the Chippewa River at various intervals, often with his daughter, in a much-loved canoe dubbed “old red.” Cornell weaves an admirably researched narrative that he tells, chapter by chapter, as he floats downstream, first trying to find the true source of the East Fork of the Chippewa and finally finding himself immersed in the Tiffany Wildlife Area, the largest floodplain forest in the Upper Midwest, near the mouth. A deft use of an epigram to the very “Introduction” of the book sets the stage for all the players and plot twists, travels and travails from end to end: “any river is really the summation of the whole valley. To think of it as nothing but water is to ignore the greater part.” Indeed, after soaking up the river itself from the vantage point of paddling its waters, Cornell returned to all the towns, small and large, along the way in order to meet and interview folks whose own relationships to the river and environs are as integral to the story of the Chippewa as is his own travel narrative. In diners, taverns, festivals, dams, museums and private homes, the author interviewed dozens of individuals whose identities, while anecdotal and sometimes tangential, provide a personal backdrop to the landscape that makes the whole story all the more memorable.

Being a self-described “biography,” The Chippewa is not a guidebook for paddling the eponymous river. Aspiring paddlers looking for specific tips on trips for when and where to paddle sections of the Chippewa River will be disappointed – but not misled; nowhere does the author presume to present his paean to the Chippewa as a paddling guidebook. Instead, the reader will be treated to a tapestry of stories about the mostly human history on and along the river. Much of that history is focused on the mid- to late 19th Century – the logging era, where in its heyday there were over 100 sawmills and dams along the river and its tributaries. But prior to the pineries and pioneers were the French voyageurs trading pelts followed by Jesuit priests pedaling salvation. And before them, of course, were the native peoples – primarily the Ojibwe and Dakota, for whom the author expresses a true reverence that is neither wishy-washy nor whitewashed. The living history flows into the 20th Century and to the present day, too, from the captains of industry and capitalists of the saw mills to entrepreneurs like uber-brewer Jacob Leinenkugel and Seymour Cray, who designed and built the world’s fastest supercomputer; to Hank Aaron, whose break into baseball began in Eau Claire in 1952 in a farm team of the then Milwaukee Braves; to Justin Vernon – better known by his musical moniker Bon Iver – who continues and cultivates a musical heritage in the valley area that is practically unheard of anywhere else.

The author allows that he was hardly the first to fall for the Chippewa or write faithfully about its entire system. Preceding him some 300 years were the French explorer Pierre-Espirit Radisson (yes, as in the hotel chain!) and Father Louis Hennepin (yes, as in the canal), although it would be another century until Jonathan Carver, a veteran of the French and Indian War, first wrote extensively about the river itself. Yet another full century later, in 1868, C.H. Cooke, a veteran of the Civil War, kept a diary of his canoeing the Chippewa, an excerpt of which is included, complete with the following line, which I personally love: “There is something glorious in the loneliness of this glorious solitude.” It’s an impressive river to capture the imagination and admiration of newcomers for over 300 years!

Cornell accepts as a necessary compromise the human impact on the river and environment – that is, the white Eurocentric tradition. From the Lake Chippewa Flowage down to the city of Eau Claire, six hydroelectric dams tame what was once a wild river. Each of these dams impacts the natural ecology – especially the one in the town of Winter, which created the 15,000-acres ginormous flowage that flooded the original land (and homes) of the Lac Court Oreilles Ojibwe. The first dams were for sawmills, which while no longer in use for such purposes, have been superseded by bigger, costlier dams of a different nature (but still privately owned). Dams first brought settlers, and dams now serve the energy consumption of the descendents of the settlers and transplants alike. As Cornell writes, “Businesses sprang up to serve the newcomers – shoes, beer, bars, and saw blades – and communities were born.” Some things never change, either, no matter the century. The author pensively mentions the might-makes-right-of-way that large corporations today literally railroad county boards and town councils in the name of the frac sand boon. From sawdust to frac sand, the Chippewa Valley has been subjugated by profit and pollution for three centuries now.

What We Like:

A river as broad and fabled as the Chippewa collects a tremendous amount of water (and sand) from its abundant tributaries – the most notable of which is the Flambeau River. It’s not surprising then that a book about the river also should be endowed with anecdotes and curios. Two that I personally found interesting involve individuals named Ezra. The first is Ezra Cornell, a businessman who purchased some half-million acres of land that the US government “acquired” from the Ojibwe in 1837. He did so under the Land-Grant College Act, first purchasing the land for sixty cents an acre and then sold it to lumber companies for over $20 an acre. He used the windfall to establish the Ivy League Cornell University in upstate New York. A river town along the Chippewa now also bears his name – apparently no relation to the author himself (although no formal disclaimer against that is made, which in itself is kind of curious). The other Ezra is that of the poet Pound, whose grandfather was the first owner of the Chippewa Springs, which later become famous for the water used in Leinie’s beer.

All that said, some of the anecdotes are a little taxing. Is it interesting that champion middleweight wrestler Charlie Fischer is from the area and first “cut his teeth on logging” or that an area school district is named “Midgets” after him? Sure, maybe. Worth two pages? I didn’t think so. Likewise I could have done without the eleven pages on Hayward, Wisconsin, which would’ve been fine for a book about the Namekagon River, but seemed tenuous at best for the Chippewa. Others might enjoy an entire chapter entitled “Beyond the Water,” which is primarily about the town of Glidden, population 125, but I found it a bit beside the point.

But to each his or her own. I relished two anecdotes about shootouts: one involving John Dietz, a farmer and family man who refused to cave under the pressure of lumber baron Frederick Weyerhaeuser and stood off law enforcement from as wide and far as Chicago and Milwaukee (cue the song “I Shot the Sheriff”); the other pertained to two outlaws in Durand, brothers, who killed two other brothers, lawmen both – followed by a four-months-long search party with bloodhounds and a posse of 500 men caught up with the renegades in Nebraska (although the only “justice” served was an extrajudicial lynching).

And I suspect that many readers will appreciate the story of Old Abe, a bald eagle that was as much a mascot as it was a comrade and rallying cry used by the Eighth Wisconsin Infantry Regiment in the Civil War. Offered to the Chippewa militia, the bird first demonstrated its patriotism at Camp Randall, in Madison, by grasping the company flag in its talons during a rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and flapping its wings – described as a “majestic sight” by one local newspaper. In the war, a Confederate General went so far as to put a bounty on Old Abe’s bald head, such a detriment he proved to be to the Rebel cause. The bird “fought” in over two dozen battles during the war. Today, the author concludes, his likeness “appears on the left shoulder patch of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division – an elite unit known as the Screaming Eagles.” Not bad for a bird from Sawyer County.

The Final Word:

All in all, The Chippewa is a love song worth reading for anyone interested in the famed river or even the history of northwestern Wisconsin. The book has further whetted my interest in paddling the mighty river, to discover its legacies on my own and to create my own stories. And for that, we tip our hats to Mr. Cornell for having written this worthy book.

Key Info:

Author: Richard D. Cornell
Publisher: Wisconsin Historical Society Press
Pages: 200 pages

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