Saturday, June 5, 2010

Mystery Island

There is an island on a lake in Northern Wisconsin that positively intrigues me. Denby Island, between Medicine and Laurel Lakes in Three Lakes Wisconsin is the setting I have chosen to use for a story I've been writing (or more like thinking about writing.). It's a seriously creepy place that sparks my imagination in a huge way.

The island is shaped (from the air) like a hatchet. In fact, my story will be called "Hatchet Island" or something like that. The large part of the isle is fenced in with 10-foot high chain-link fencing that is topped by barbed wire in some spots. Parts of the fencing appear almost new - other areas are in disrepair, though still standing. Where the large island joins the long spit that juts out from it there is a stone archway set with a door in the fencing. Then a bridge over to the spit, on which sits a several-hundred year old French chateau, slate roofing and all. Apparently it was dissassembled and brought over near the turn of the century. There is also a small caretakers cottage on that spit, along with two over-the-water boathouses and a permanent dock. Near the bridge is a grotto of some kind with a sundial and two other arches made of stones. That area seems nearly like a ritual setting. The chateau is stone and the whole of that spit and the big island is heavily wooded. From the water, one cannot see into the interior of the large part (the hatchet) of the island, though I know there are a few buildings in the center of it. (My son and cousin did a fly-over and took pictures from my cousin's two-seater plane a year or so ago for me.) Those buildings appear to be either barns (or something similar) and perhaps a big greenhouse of some kind.

Whenever we have asked townspeople about the history of that island, it seems to us that the questions are either evaded or met with a shrug. Can no one know what goes on (or went on) in that large part of the island? For two years we have asked and asked about this property. The local antiques shop proprietess claims to know the owner and have toured the house, which she claims is "loaded" with french antiques. Interesting. But no one seems to have been able to get on that island to look around at what is going on. Hence the mystery. As to the buildings in the center of the large part of the island - well no one knows about them - or at least is talking.

It so happens my son is good friends with a local boy. The young man has stayed with us a number of times at our property nearby. I asked him about Denby's history and was again met with the "I dunno" shrug - but this time with a promise that he'd ask his father, who is postmaster in that area for the last 20 some-odd years. So he knows both the owner and some of the details about that property. At any rate, the father has agreed to get me an interview with the owner, who is apparently quite elderly. Am I ever excited about this. I've been photographing that place for two years from the water. Maybe finally I'll get some answers!

Guesses about what has or is going on there have ranged from "Jurassic Park" kind of wild-goose musings to the more practical suggestions of "deer farm". That doens't seem to fit either though. Deer farm in the Northwoods of Wisconsin? Kind of an oxymoron. It has to be something else entirey. My son thinks they are growing "weed" up there. My daughter thinks it's a government operation. See what I mean? Hugely varied ideas about that place.

Certainly that place has seen its heyday come and go. Much of it appears in disrepair. The owner is in her 80's and reputably, her offspring aren't interested in the place. I've seen her once, walking up to the house from a pontoon boat moored at her boathouse landing. I am so looking forward to meeing her and maybe even getting a tour myself. It seems that one day very soon, the big mysteries of the island will no longer be consigned to my imagination but will be out-in-the open.

Not sure how I feel about that. Sometimes it's a whole lot more fun to guess. :) Now back to my story writing....


  1. hi! found your blog doing a search for the history of denby island. we just moved to eagle river & i've been wondering the story of that gorgeous old place. would you be willing to tell me what you found out? thanks so much!

    1. Hi Jacqui. What I now know is that the place was built in 1928 by Mr. Frank Allen. Here is his history: He was born in Leamington, England in 1863 and apprenticed at a Liverpool bank before coming to the US in 1884. He then went to Medical School in New York and became a veterinarian. Doc Allen married Edna Flora Hesselgrave and they raised the seven children he had with his first wife, Ada, who died. The children called Edna "Nan". He worked as the attending veterinarian for a number of large stables in Chicago, including Brink's stable of over 100 horses used to draw the express wagons. He also held contracts for care of horses for Wells Fargo and Adams Express companies. They lived in a suite of rooms at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on Lake Michigan on Chicago's north side. In 1905 he bought his first shares of Brinks, and by 1909 was elected to the company's board of directors. In 1918 he was named president, and he and his son John gained almost complete control of the company. Under their direction Brink's was expanded nationwide and into Canada. Allen is credited with "inventing" the armored car. Frank and Edna built the large home on Denby Island in the 1920's to vacation. It was likely designed by architect Preston Rubush of Chicago. (I have a few photos of him from D. BIllings Swain, of Three Lakes). Local townspeople are said to remember Doc Allen and his workers coming though town in the Brinks wagons. In 1932, Edna drowned at Denby in Medicine Lake.

      The family has owned that property until recently. I believe the most recent owner was Stuart Pettingell, a son-in-law to Frank Allen Jr. His sister, Nancy passed away about four or five years ago and was the person who used the place most often. I had seen her coming and going from the place a few times. She often brought trinkets, china and odd things to the antiques shop in Three Lakes to sell. The owner of that shop has said there were loads of fresh antiques there. The recent caretaker was Bill Gaffron Jr, son of the original island caretaker. It is through he and Bill Swain, a lumber baron in that area, now very elderly that I obtained several photos of Denby and the Allen family from the 20's.

      Denby Island takes its name from Frank Allen's mother's maiden name - Carlotta Maria Denby (Allen). His father was Barton Fletcher Allen.

      Just this past summer (2012) I saw new people on the island, so I'm pretty sure it was finally purchased again. The grounds were newly mown and a young family was walking out to the larger part of the island. Later we saw him working on brush on the big island. I do know there is a barn of sorts with an attached greenhouse on the large island. Frank Allen was said to be a horticulturalist as a hobby, so he probably cultivated plants on the island in his green house. Though I have heard others say the big part of this island may have been a deer farm, I have not uncovered any evidence of this other than hearsay. It seems unlikely that in the north woods someone would be breeding and raising deer, who are otherwise in abundance in the area. I still have not found out why the high chain link fence was installed around the larger island. That remains a mystery I am still trying to solve.

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