BRUCE — The farms, homes and cornfields just north of Bruce along State Highway 40 in Rusk County give up no clues to the fact that, many years ago, this stretch was home to a thriving lumber town called Atlanta. Memories of Atlanta, like so many other ghost towns throughout Wisconsin, have been relegated to the history books. Atlanta lives on only through artifacts and writings housed at the Bruce Area Historical Society museum.
But every so often, dairy farmers Don and Jeanette Hoffelt dig up — quite literally — a small reminder of their farm’s illustrious past as a hub for the Arpin Hardwood Lumber Co., nestled near Devils Creek, or Mad Creek as it was known at the time.
“The swamp was full of saw blades and sawdust,” said Don, 63. “To this day, I still plow up sawdust when I plow next to it. ... We find glass and horseshoes in the fields.”
The Hoffelts’ farm served as the nucleus of the town, which stretched for about a half-mile, and the couple now own all the frontage along the road that used to be part of the town. Their house, heavily remodeled in the decades since the mill closed, was home to the foreman of the Arpin Hardwood Lumber Co. Their barn, built in the 1880s and now filled with Holsteins, sheltered horses.
“It’s much more than a barn; it’s a town,” Don said.
The farm, purchased by the Arpin Company as a support system for the lumber company, was a source of meat, milk, butter, cheese and vegetables for the Arpin store, as well as the local hotel and boarding house.
While little remains of Atlanta in the physical sense, the Hoffelts hope to bring pieces of the town back to life by opening a two-unit bed-and-breakfast in their historic home, perhaps as early as next spring.
Although he has no firsthand memories of Atlanta, which fell off the maps after about 1920, Don has spent a lifetime in the town of Atlanta and has heard all the stories from old-timers who do remember. He was born and raised just down the road in what used to be the Arpin family’s summer home, a former mansion that, during its heyday, played host to the Arpin family’s elaborate lawn luncheons.
His parents moved into the home in 1952. Since they passed away a few years ago, the Hoffelts have been renting it out. Built from locally quarried rocks and virgin timber, the home has been heavily remodeled through the years, including removal of the upper stories, but its footprint is the same, Don said. An only child, he recalls his mother assigning him the tedious task of picking up debris including glass and horseshoes left from the town’s residents.
“I spent many a day doing that,” he said.
The Hoffelts bought the former Arpin farm, which had fallen into disrepair, in 1978 but didn’t move in until 1982, after they were married, and the barn wasn’t fit for a milking herd until a few years later.
“It was pretty much abandoned when we came here. There was trash everywhere. ... We burned for two weeks,” Don said. “The barn probably was the best thing on the whole place.”
Still, the barn, which had begun to lean, required some work before it was ready for cows. They lifted the building, removed the old blocks, put down new footings and laid the old blocks below-grade with new blocks above. At one point in the renovation process, the haymow was up on jacks, Don said.
“The barn was tied to a wrecker, and that’s how they straightened it,” he said.
Much of the original lumber, including the sturdy hand-hewn beams and wooden pegs, was salvaged, and the barn has been covered in steel siding.
As for the house, the Hoffelts removed the second story and added on to the main floor as their family grew. With their six children out of the nest and looking to diversify their income, the couple began remodeling for a B&B a few years ago and have been gradually adding furniture items purchased through Craigslist and elsewhere.
Jeanette, 60, also alters wedding dresses to help supplement their 250-acre farm, which includes 100 tillable acres and 45 milk cows. The economics of dairy farming have made it difficult to make ends meet in recent years.
“We’re thinking about the future, which won’t be dairying forever,” Don said. “(Planning for the B&B) has been fun. It’s energized us. ... We’re constantly moving and remodeling and changing.”
Mill went bankrupt
Along with the Hoffelts’ home and barn, only two other structures from Atlanta remain — two other homes just down the road, including the Arpin summer house in which Don grew up. But along with the Arpin Hardwood Lumber Co., the mill town included a boarding house, school and general store. Until about five years ago, the school served as a town hall.
Workers at the mill were paid in scrip money so they had to spend it locally, Don said, adding, “This town was bigger than Bruce at that time.”
But the mill — built in 1899 and once one of the wealthiest business concerns in the area as it cut a million feet of lumber daily and was constantly expanding — and subsequently, the town, began to decline in the early 1900s after A.M. Arpin retired and J.Z. Arpin took over. Poorly managed and with declining tree populations, the company began to lose money, slipping deeper into debt and, eventually, going bankrupt. In 1918, the mill burned down and operations ceased.
“I heard they moved up to Radisson and built a huge dam to float logs,” Don said. “They went bankrupt after that.”
The long-gone town of Apolonia, just across U.S. Highway 8 from Atlanta, suffered a similar fate. Named for timber mogul Frederick Weyerhaeuser’s daughter and once home to more than 400 residents, all that remains of Apolonia is two cemeteries and an historic church built in 1895.
“There’s tons of history,” Don said. “History is here; it’s underneath.”
Along with showcasing Atlanta’s history through their B&B, the Hoffelts hope to capitalize on their farm’s proximity to the Blue Hills and popular recreational opportunities such as Christie Mountain and the Ice Age Trail.
“We want it to be kind of an intimate and quiet place to come,” Jeanette said. “We have everything we want right here; we thought maybe we should just share it.”