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A toast to John Moeller: A life lost at Lake Sibley 125 years ago

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In the winter of 1887 the Gull River Lumber Company (GRLC) employed large crews of men to harvest pine logs on streams and lakes tributary to Gull Lake.

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The loggers were farmers, immigrants and Ojibwe, or adventurous young men seeking winter jobs. They spent their days in the woods and their nights in primitive base camps. They labored mostly with muscle power and hand tools.

Newspaper accounts of the time reveal the dangers of working in the woods, on log drives and in saw mills. During the winter of 1887, falling trees broke a man’s leg near Deerwood, seriously injured a man near Fort Ripley and killed a man on Daggett Brook south of Brainerd.

A man was nearly killed near Gull Lake when run over by a sled load of logs. Horrific milling accidents claimed and maimed several men in Brainerd.

Despite such conditions, by mid-February the GRLC crews had already cut, hauled and banked 12 million board feet of logs on waterways near Gull Lake.

With the coming spring thaw, the logs would be floated into the lake and then downstream to a saw mill at Gull River, a prosperous village on the mainline of the Northern Pacific Railroad. By early April the logging camps would close and most of the loggers would return home or find other summer employment.

In the winter of 1887 the GRLC had a logging camp on Lake Sibley near present-day Pequot Lakes. One man who worked at the camp that winter was a 21-year-old Iowan named John Moeller. John, the oldest son of Hermann and Susannah Moeller, was born in Ohio in 1866. John’s German-immigrant father, Hermann, died in 1870.

After Hermann’s death, Susannah took their three young sons to Iowa. There she married Henry C. Krech, a Prussian immigrant who ran a steam saw mill. Henry’s children from previous marriages included his son, Charles (“Charley”) Krech.

An 1885 census shows John Moeller and Charles Krech living in the Krech household in Bremer County, Iowa. John and Charles are listed as sawyers.

Maybe John was thinking about his family or a sweetheart when he rolled from his bunk at Lake Sibley on Monday morning, Jan. 9, 1888. Maybe he was wishing that it was Sunday again so he had more leisure time to write a letter, wash some clothes, shave or relax.

No one in the camps went anywhere on Sundays; and besides, there were few places to go other than Brainerd or Gull River, both of which were miles away.

For John, the work day probably began like any other. After a hot breakfast with coffee the woodcutters trekked from the camp into the forest to fell pine trees. They normally toiled from sunrise to sunset. John and a fellow sawyer were armed with a two-man crosscut saw, what some called “a Swedish fiddle.”

What happened next is only narrowly described in a later issue of the Brainerd Dispatch. Sometime during the day, John and his coworker were engaged in felling a large pine when the trunk of the partly sawed tree “split up and broke and came down on Moeller.”

The crushing weight of the tree slammed him to the ground, “killing him instantly.” His coworker’s identity is unknown, but the newspaper account implies that John’s stepbrother, Charley Krech, was working nearby.

In any case, John Moeller’s remains were taken to Losey & Dean, undertakers in Brainerd. Charley was summoned, and on Tuesday night he boarded a train to accompany the deceased to Waverly, Iowa. Soon after, the grief-stricken family interred John in the quiet, rural, East Janesville Cemetery north of Waterloo. His grave is marked by a tall and elegant granite headstone and marble footstone.

Charley Krech later returned to Minnesota and homesteaded land near the present site of the Brainerd International Raceway (BIR) just below North Long Lake. An 1895 census lists Charley as a farmer, but he also engaged in logging. He knew the value of a good education and made room for a country school on his land. A second version of the old Krech School still stands on the east side of Highway 371 just south of BIR.

Shortly after Moeller’s death, the local harvesting of pine logs was enhanced with the introduction of logging railroads. Between 1889 and 1894 two remarkable logging railroads were operated in the forests northwest of Brainerd and Gull Lake.

One, the Gull Lake & Northern, headquartered on Lake Margaret, was the only narrow gauge logging railroad built within the state of Minnesota. The other, the Brainerd & Northern Minnesota, at the time one of the most important logging railroads in the world, was a standard-gauge line that ran from Brainerd via Lake Hubert and the city of Lake Shore to Spider Lake west of Pine River.

Unfortunately, the business records of these pioneering railroads were destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1917.

Brainerd native Jeremy Jackson and I are now researching the history and geography of this early logging frontier. We seek old photographs, documents and interviews with descendants of people associated with early logging and settlement activities in this region.

With the help of volunteers we are also mapping the abandoned grades of the old railway systems. Our goal is to publish an illustrated history that reveals the big picture, yet tells stories of men like John Moeller and Charley Krech.

If you have correspondence, stories, images, maps, artifacts or other information relevant to this project that you would like to share, please email gulllakerailroads@yahoo.com or call 612-392-3810. You can also follow us on our Facebook page: Lost Railroads of Gull and Spider Lakes in Cass and Crow Wing Counties, MN.

As for John Moeller, we are deeply moved by the details of his short life and his tragic and long-forgotten demise at Lake Sibley. Indeed, we plan to raise a glass to his memory on Jan. 9, 2013, 125 years after the fact.

Here’s a toast to you, John Moeller!

(Doug Birk is an archaeologist and historian. He is a native of Pine River.)

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Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
(218) 855-5889
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