A marker in memory of Cyril Olson (1904-1965) is situated at the entrance to the Star Lake Cemetery at the corner of highways N and K in the town of Plum Lake. —Photos By Wally Geist
A marker in memory of Cyril Olson (1904-1965) is situated at the entrance to the Star Lake Cemetery at the corner of highways N and K in the town of Plum Lake. —Photos By Wally Geist
It seems strange that a cemetery would be on a list of interesting places for tourists to visit, but Star Lake Cemetery at the intersection of highways N and K is on such a list and presents a lesson for today.

The cemetery in the town of Plum Lake is still used for burials. Beyond visits from family and friends of the deceased, the cemetery draws visitors interested in the history of the community and the virtually unmarked graves of those lost in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Many of the graves are marked by plain wooden crosses which were replacements for the original crosses placed between 1880-1912, which rotted away over time. The Star Lakers Club, organized in the early 1960s to celebrate the town’s 75th anniversary, replaced the original crosses with newer versions, researched burial records and produced a large plaque at the entrance to the cemetery with names of those buried on cross-marked portions of the property.

Unmarked graves speak to periods when people in a community became aware of a sudden surge in the number of local deaths. These spikes in mortality produced an emergency.

When the logging companies decided to make Star Lake a hub for railroading and milling, the arrival of a large number of loggers created a society in which hard work, a dangerous occupation and widespread illness required burial grounds.

There is a historical reference that the Salsich and Williams Lumber Co. set aside a place for the cemetery on a hill at the east end of Star Lake. There, most of those who died from accidents, drowning and accidents in the woods would rest in peace.

Mortal remains had to be prepared quickly for burial and the sometimes large number of deceased individuals made it difficult to keep up with marking the graves and conducting burials. One historical source indicates that a small island in Star Lake had become a place for treating victims of “pestilence,” which dramatically increased the number of deaths over a short period of time.

Those who died on the island, many being unknown loggers, had their bodies washed, wrapped in blankets and buried in a trench between the cemetery and the lake. The occurrence of a pestilence, generally described as an epidemic, could have been smallpox, consumption (tuberculosis) or scarlet fever.

The population of Star Lake is estimated to have gone from a few lumber company scouts to 600 or more in a matter of months. Housing slowly kept up with the increase in population and, being a company town, the mill ordered some families to double up in completed dwellings.

When the lumber companies completed their work they moved on. When they closed their mills, company-owned houses were dismantled piece by piece, loaded on railcars and relocated to the site of a new mill.

Previous to logging settlers, it is estimated that Native American communities existed in the area for centuries and sustained themselves by hunting, fishing, trapping and other activities. Other cemeteries in the area include the Native American burial ground of Pottawattomi Chief John Escanaba, near Lake Laura.

The history of Star Lake’s lumber industry, the rapid growth in population and the rapid spread of contagious diseases left a community overwhelmed by death from causes that were poorly understood and for which the people were unprepared. Smallpox vaccination was available at the time Star Lake became a lumber camp, but few residents either had natural immunity or inoculation available to them.

The year 1903 was a memorable one according to one historical source. It was the year forest fires burned around Star Lake’s perimeter and, according to other historical resources, across the nation. Little could be done to stop the fire, but young mill workers and loggers used wet burlap, sand, dirt, backfires and, when timing permitted, trenching, to slow the spread of the fire. The fires would burn until either they burned out or rains came and doused the flames.

Three years later, in 1906, the final log was cut and a ceremony marked the closing of the mill.

The unmarked crosses at Star Lake Cemetery remain as a reminder of the past, but also as a reminder of our own susceptibility to death from accident and illness.