For most of her life, Rhonda Fochs has been searching for and finding “lost towns.”
It all began in northern Wisconsin back when Fochs was a young girl wandering the woods of Iron County. Her family owned land upon which a long-ago lost town once sat. Emerson was that town.
Years later, Fochs authored four books about lost towns in Minnesota and now she has published “Wisconsin’s Lost Towns” which covers over 200 once-thriving, now lost or nearly gone communities throughout all of Wisconsin.
The book includes lost towns from Manitowoc, Sheboygan, and Fond du Lac counties in this area. Manitowoc County places included in the “Wisconsin’s Lost Towns” book and project are Cato, Cooperstown, Greenstreet, Grimms, King’s Bridge, Niles (Slab City), Osman, Quarry, Shoto, Steinthal (Strong Valley), Taus, Two Creeks, and Wells. From Sheboygan County are Amsterdam, Dacada, Five Corners, Haven, Onion River, Parnell, Six Corners (St. George), and Winooski, with Ceresco being the only Fond du Lac County town covered. Fochs said she has not yet included any Calumet County towns but hopes to do further research in the future.
Fochs has deep family ties with Wisconsin and it is where her passion for lost towns was born. Her family has been in northern Wisconsin and also the Mosinee/Marathon County area since the late 1800s. Her grandmother was Powell’s last postmistress.

Defining lost towns
Just what is a “lost town?”
Shortly after embarking on the research for the lost towns project, it soon became apparent that a clear-cut definition was needed. “It seems everyone I talked to, every book and resource I read, had a different version of what a lost town was,” Fochs said. Purists wrote that, pure and simple, a lost town is a human settlement that had been abandoned. Others stated that any community smaller in population than in its heyday have been termed “memory towns,” “long ago towns,” “ghost towns,” “used-to-be towns” and “lost towns.” One very friendly and helpful historical society volunteer called them “Poke and Plum” towns. “I had never heard the term before, so she further explained: ‘They are those towns and communities that by the time you poke your head out the window, you are plum out of town.’ I like that terminology; however, I call them ‘lost towns.’”
It didn’t take long to learn that Wisconsin ghost towns are different.
They are not the stuff of Hollywood movie sets nor the iconic “Wild West” images. “Our ghost towns are more the vanished villages, lost locations, abandoned communities, and relocated town sites variety,” Fochs said.
Equally evident is the fact that not all lost towns fit into one peg. They each have their own uniqueness, their own personalities, and their own look and feel. In fact, researchers—primarily Gary Speck—developed a classification system for lost towns. In summary and modification, the generally accepted classification is as follows:
Class A—barren land, reclaimed by nature, no visible signs of inhabitation
Class B—rubble, foundations, roof-less buildings
Class C—standing abandoned buildings, no/small or rural population
Class D—semi/near ghost town, small resident population, many abandoned buildings
Class E—busy community, smaller than in its heyday
Class F—restored or historic designation (state park, National Register of Historic Places)
Class G—absorbed or joined with a neighboring, thriving community/city.

Drive past them every day
These lost towns, now mostly vanished from the landscape, were once homes, businesses, schools, places of worship, and centers of activity. People lived their lives, raised their children, hoped and dreamed and for various reasons packed up their lives and moved elsewhere. Fochs said, “Without realizing it we drive by, over, and around these forgotten locations every day.”
In Wisconsin, with its abundant natural resources (timber, mining, lakes, and woods), there are a multitude of lost towns. Generally based on a one-industry/one-resource economy and the service-oriented support businesses, such as banks, retail, saloons and brothels, the communities thrived as long as the resource did. Once depleted, the industry owners moved to the next location, the supporting businesses failed, the residents moved on, and the village faded, leaving few if any traces of its existence. A wide-spot along the highway, a clearing in the landscape, a crumbling foundation or two, decrepit weather-beaten buildings, often a cemetery, and memories are the only remainders of what used to be.
Towns big and small were created for a wide variety of reasons. Most were located along transportation routes, the earliest being rivers and waterways (the highways of their time), later along railroad station stops and more recently along newly constructed highways. The early waterways provided power for mills, the railroads offered connections to market and shipping lines, and the highways opened remote areas to larger communities, better wages, and access to less expensive and a wider variety of goods.
America was booming in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In fact, that time period could be said to be the peak of America’s small town development. In 1901, America had more post offices than at any other time in American history, nearly 80,000. With the advent of Rural Free Delivery (RFD) the number of operating post offices significantly dropped. Just 10 years later there were 18,000 fewer post offices. Today there are just over 38,000, with more being discontinued yearly. Nationwide, that is a loss of nearly 42,000 small communities.
In addition to RFD, the changing transportation modes, and the depleted natural resources, other causes for the loss of communities were natural disasters, wars, and county seat designations.

Tracking them down today
Finding lost towns today is a mixed bag. Some left rich histories including letters, diaries, memoirs, newspapers and more. Still others left nothing at all. “All we know about some are the post office dates of operation,” Fochs said. “Local historical societies are the keeper of our past including lost towns. I urge everyone to support their local historical societies and libraries, donate your photos and your histories and your financial help. Perhaps you can volunteer your time and your help. Our knowledge of history would be sorely hurt without them to hold the past for the future.”
A recently retired history teacher, Fochs provided some examples of research discovered about that town of Emerson. It all began with the Emerson brothers. Originally built to clear acres of downed timber after a 1904 tornado, a settlement soon developed as did the logging activity. Soon the community included a school, a general store, the sawmill operations, and homes for the residents which numbered over 100. A forest fired destroyed the village in 1905 leaving only one home standing. By 1906 the town and all its activity was rebuilt. Tragedy struck the community in 1908 when an electrical storm killed John Emerson, one of his sons and one of his nephews. The residents lost heart and within a short time the town was abandoned.
Decades later Fochs walked the old town site and marveled at the fact that once a thriving, bustling community once existed where now she saw only forest and open patches of land. Some depressions and a few crumbling foundations were visible. Some artifacts were found, primarily bottles. Fochs said the Emerson brothers were ardent prohibitionists and forbade alcohol within the village. Ironically, the majority of the bottles found were alcohol bottles, and empty ones at that.
Fochs said she believes everyone has a lost, long ago or nearly gone town, either in family history, driving through them while on backroads or living in the region. Oftentimes the name lives on, sometimes leaving a church, a school building or a cemetery to mark its existence.

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