ABOUT THE TOWN
W314 N7624 Highway 83
P.O. Box 128
North Lake, WI 53064
About the Town
In 1837, a Yankee named Ralph Allen staked his claim just north of what is now the Village of Hartland. He shared his cabin with two other bachelors while they cleared their own land, and was Merton Township's first white settler. The area had previously been populated by Native Americans, who camped along the rivers and lakes during their journeys north and south.
In 1841, another settler, a young man from Sweden, Gustav Unonius, accompanied by his wife, her maid and a fellow Swede they had met in Milwaukee, were looking for land in Waukesha County. He staked a claim on the east shore of Pine Lake, calling it the "most lovely lake he had ever seen". He called the settlement New Uppsala after a Swedish university Town, and pursued his dream to establish a Swedish cultural and intellectual center on the frontier. He attracted an assortment of nobles, theologians, merchants, teachers and military officers.
His choice of land was not a practical location for a settlement. The lake shore was stony and the soil unproductive. The colony failed almost as soon as it was started. The people who were accustomed to luxury ended up feeding the straw from their mattresses to their horses. Noblemen worked for blacksmiths, and one baron was hired as a cook.
Unonious himself became the Nashotah House Seminary;s first graduate and was ordained an Episcopal priest, leading some of his coutrymen away from the Lutheran Church. Within a decade or two of its inception, "New Uppsala" had vanished.
During the struggle of Unonious and his colony, the rest of the township was filling in with settlers from other countries. European immigrants formed a high percentage of the population. Norwegians settled across Pine Lake from the Swedes, and they did not function as a Scandinavian unit. The lake divided them as did the Dovre Mountains in Sweden. Irish farms dominated the northern section of the township, with twenty-one Irishmen staking their claims in 1842. The claims averaged 80 acres each near the northern boundary of the county. The reason the Irish passed over all the available land between their claims and Milwaukee seems best summed up by Father Lincoln Whelan, an Irish priest who wrote, "They may have been misled by a land speculator, a fellow Irishman, who was said to have "enough mouth for two rows of teeth." Father Whelan went on to say, "They somehow got the notion that stones are a sign of fertile soil.. as farmers, the Irish were no good for king or county."
The central and southeastern sections of the township were settled by a mixture of Yankees and Englishmen with a few Scots and Dutchmen, and a large number of Danes.
The villages that served the settlers were located where water power was available. Mills were built on the Oconomowoc River at Monches, North Lake, Stone Bank and Merton. Noth Lake was the last because it was located on "school land." The sixteenth section of every township was withheld from the original market and sold later to provide funding for school construction.
The Villages were more ethnically mixed than the rural areas. The Scots in the Stone Bank area started a Presbyterian Church. The Monches miller was a Swiss immigrant, and a Dane built the brewery in North Lake.
Railroads played a large role in developing the township with the Milwaukee Watertown Railroad on the south in the Delafield township. The Danes and Norwegians around Pine Lake cleared timber and sold it to the railroad for fuel. Merton township got its own railroad in 1899, when the Milwaukee and Superior Railroad came through Merton to North Lake, The railroad was facetiously referred to as the Misery and Suffering railroad. The line was originally intended to go all the way to Superior, Wisconsin, but never got any further than North Lake. A grain elevator was constructed just before the railroad arrived, and North Lake became an important shipping point for area farmers. Many of the area students road the train to the high school in Menomonee Falls every day. The line was eventually taken over by the Milwaukee Road, and in 1972 it was sold to a group of railroad buffs. They ran an excursion line between Merton and North Lake during the summer months until 2004, when the business was shut down.
In 1910, the Chicago and North Western Railroad was extended through central Merton Township. North Lake was the only village with a depot on the line. This railroad and the Superior line provided shipping outlets for North Lake's two largest industries in the early twentieth century; the huge gravel quarry just north of the village and the ice harvest on North Lake itself. Much of the ice was used to refrigerate railroad cars.
The Merton Township has many beautiful lakes and the hotels and cottages on them provided a summer haven for the wealthy. Pine Lake even provided a steam launch to carry guests around the lake, Beaver Lake and North Lake had large hotels and resorts such as Interlachen Resort and Idlehaven. The early development on the lakes was rather exclusively wealthy, but some of the early resorts served a clientele of more modest means. Many Milwaukeans rented cottages for a weekend and returned to Milwaukee to work. It was said that on Sunday night, the train had standing room only all the way from Okauchee to Milwaukee. The conductor couldn't cover the whole train before the trip was over.
The growing popularity of the automobile opened up the lake region to non-exclusive residential development, and in the 1920's, the shores of North Lake, Lake Keeus and Okauchee Lake began to fill in with small cottages. The wealthier lake communities viewed this trend with alarm. They objected to what they considered the "exploitation" of the lake region and took steps to prevent it from happening on their lakes. Pine Lake residents put restrictions on the deeds to the lands saying "No public boat or aeroplane landing or livery, dance hall, or place of public amusement of any kind shall be permitted on said land, and not more than one house per acre or per 150' of lake frontage".. Since 1928 the Village of Chenequa has had no problem with growth. The other lakes were seeing an opposite trend with cottages springing up on every 50' lot.
Those cottages have since been replaced by large, imposing year round homes, a trend that began after World War II. In 1970, 20% of the area's housing was still seasonal. Today it is less than 1%.
Subdivision growth was strong in the 1960's, but in the 1990's it exploded. When the farmers realized that their children wanted to go to college and get off the farms, they sold the properties to developers, who in turn built subdivisons. At one time farming was a way of life in the Merton Township, but today there are only a handful of working farms left, and many of those are operated by last generation farmers.
The unincorporated villages of Monches, North Lake and Stone Bank are clannish, dominated by a few old-line family names and made up of blue collar workers, historically resistant to change. The core of the villages is the church and the social gathering place is the local tavern. These small villages were laid out in small lots, usually 66' x 165', with residences and businesses mixed throughout, leaving little room for growth. The growth has taken place all around the villages in the subdivisions, but due to the closing of some outlying schools and expansion of others, the people still form a community. The churches also tend to bring people together, as do the festivals and summer events in the area.
In conclusion, Merton township is a collection of distinctly different communities, each independent, each with strong interests. Although the "newcomers" constitute a majority of the area's population, the long-established communities have remained cohesive, and all of the groups co-exist in what approximates an equilibrium. Development is likey to continue, and whether or not the township will be able to retain its heterogeneity in the face of continued change remains to be seen.
Information provided by Jeanne Ann Frederickson
Former Town Clerk
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