Philip Bergin Gordon was born in 1885, his grandfather was doing
a thriving business at the trading post. During his childhood Phil
enjoyed visiting the store with its colorful array of goods displayed
for trade with the Indians.
Me-sa-bi would be there too. He made his home with his sister, A-te-ge-kwe,
who was Philip's mother. Although Joe Mesabi was Phil's uncle, their
ages were close and they became pals.
William Gray Purcell describes the Gordon place in his book, St.
Croix Trail Country. One of his characters in the book, Gordon Young
says, "You know old Antoine built that place of his before northern
Wisconsin was even surveyed and mapped. That was about 1843." (This
date is incorrect.) "When the trail was cut through he added a porch
to his store and built the sleeping rooms and kitchen and eating
room across the road. Just north of his hotel, he made a fine church
with straight logs, square-faced inside and out and tenoned at the
corners like his store. This was the way Father Baraga had taught
him, to build all things with respect. The wood, the tools, and
the skills were those of aged Wendish carpenters, artist-axemen
of the Baltic North"
He set up an outdoor Shrine of Music in the churchyard - four satin-smooth
peeled poles, six yards in length, to be for a belfry. These he
canted like a sort of tripod to form a seat for a swinging bell
at the top of it. He also made a sheltering roof with long, clean,
split shakes. These he pegged making good projection for its eaves.
He painted it all white and the church too, within and without,
and on the peak of his belfry was a cross which he painted yellow."
fellow, Old Man Gordon."
Orrin McGrath, who lived as a boy at Trego, twenty four miles south
of Gordon, remembers the old store with its walls and ceiling blackened
by smoke from the fireplace and the early methods of lighting. In
the very early times, before the coming of the railroad, various
methods of lighting were used, depending on what was most available.
Torches were made of pine needles and pitch, or pine knots, which
could be found where a tree had fallen and decayed. Candles were
made of deer tallow placed in a dish with a piece of wool yarn or
cloth twisted and used for a wick. But mostly, the traders depended
After the railroad came through, kerosene lanterns hanging from
the ceiling provided somewhat better lighting. McGrath remembers
when Gordon got a stove and blocked up the fireplace around 1903
Phil and Joe were accustomed to the air in the store, heavy with
pungent, musky odor of hides hanging from pegs around the room,
mingling with the fragrant burning logs, tobacco, and wet clothing
drying by the fireplace.
When the post was built, lumber had to be hauled long distances
from the nearest mill, and so there were not many shelves in the
store. Many supplies, such as flour, beans, molasses, were hauled
in wooden barrels, which were made by hand. These stood on the floor.
Maple sugar was left in birchbark containers in which the Indians
had brought it. There was tea, and later coffee, blankets, bolts
of calico in bright colors, a few guns, traps, axes, and brilliantly
colored beads and trinkets which appealed to the Indians. They were
mostly deerskin clothing, but as time went on such articles as shirts
and pants were added to the stock.
The trading post was an exciting place for two little boys. They
had continuous contact with older Indians at the store. The Indians
revealed to Phil and Joe many tales and legends of their ancestors
- Battles with their traditional enemies, the Sioux; how the Chippewa
had defeated them; they heard how Phil's father, when he was only
twelve years old, went with his father to Minnesota to convince
Pug-o-ne-gi-jik, (Hole in the Day) the war chief, not to go along
with the Sioux against the white people.
Antoine Gaudin went from the present Gordon, over a hundred miles,
down the St. Croix River by canoe, and then by horseback into Minnesota
and persuaded his cousin not to join the Sioux nation in the uprising
that resulted in the blood New Ulm and Mankato massacres. The towns
were burned and several hundred settlers were killed. The affair
ended with the greatest mass hanging in the history of the United
States. After much deliberation, President Lincoln released many
Indians, but he signed the death warrant for thirty-eight Sioux,
who were hanged and buried at Wood Lake. But the lives of perhaps
hundreds of white people were saved by Gaudin's action.
Philip' father, William, had gone as far as Rush City and rode back
the one hundred miles through the wilderness, alone.
The boys heard tales of the voyageurs, Phil's brave, bronzed French
ancestors with their bright caps and scarves and flamboyant airs,
who mingled with the Indians and did much to pave the way for civilization.
Mail and supplies were now transported by train, but the boys heard
stories about how Phil's father, when a young man, had carried mail
on the route from Gordon to Bayfield, the last leg of the Stillwater
to Bayfield route. He traveled only during the summer as his father
would not let the boy tackle the trip during the severe winter months
with below zero temperatures and many feet of snow.
Often the mail went through only once a month during the winter
when transportation was on snowshoes or with a dog team.
William would leave Gordon at three or four o'clock in the morning
and travel on foot all day along the narrow trail through the dense
woods. His little pure white dog, which always accompanied him,
help him many times to find the way as it walked ahead of him through
the dark, early morning hours.
With the heavy pack on his back, William would reach his destination
in the late afternoon or early evening, the route led past Ox Creek
and on to the Halfway House at Spider Lake. He traveled about thirty
five miles in the undisturbed wilderness of dark pine woods to the
half-way point between Gordon and Bayfield. The remainder of the
way, the mail was carried by Mr. Busquet (or Buskey), whose uncle
operated a trading post at Spider Lake. He also made the trip in
winter when he could. There were times when he had to plod ahead
of the dogs to break a trail.
South of Gordon, William's brother, Edward, who had a post on the
Namekagon River, carried the mail. From there it was relayed to
Sunrise and Rush City, Minnesota, and then transported by train
by rail to St. Paul.
If the mail from Bayfield was already at Spider Lake, William would
make the return trip the next day. If there were delays, he would
have to wait over at the Halfway House before returning to Gordon.
Although the route through the forest was dangerous, Gordon was
never armed and never had an accident. He recalled that Mr. Buskey
had a close call one evening when he encountered a pack of wolves.
Buskey also had a small dog for company. He grabbed the dog and
climbed a tree for safety. The mail pouch, which sometimes weighed
seventy pounds, was too heavy so he dropped it to the ground at
the foot of the tree where it was torn to bits by the savage wolves.
Buskey remained in the tree with this dog until nearly daylight
when the wolves left the scene.
Phil's father told the boys of trips he made with his father during
the early days when travel was extremely difficult. Tony Gordon
would go by ox team to St. Croix to buy furs, which was more important
than money in trade. William recalled a time when a grain bag stuffed
with money was tossed on the wagon and handled the same as if it
had been a bag of potatoes.
The two little Indian boys had been indoctrinated into the tribal
customs and the mysteries of the Medicine Men. One day Me-sa-bi
would take the place of Osawati; the chief shaman of the tribe because
tribal heritage was carried on through the female line and Me-sa-bi
had been adopted by his sister.
But they were also being educated in the ways of the white man in
the new one-room school building that had replaced the original
log structure built by Phil's grandfather. With a later addition
this school was still standing in 1933 when it was destroyed by
fire. The boys would live to see many schools built in Gordon and
the surrounding district.
Tales of the lumberjacks, who were now coming to the store, were
equally fascinating to the boys. The tide of immigration had set
in. The prairie country to the west was being settled and the demand
for lumber from the immense pine forests was strong. The logs were
hauled by ox teams to the river banks and floated down the St. Croix
River to St. Croix Falls and Stillwater, Minnesota, which became
a terminal for timber cut all around the area.
As Phil heard more of the outside world, he began to realize even
at an early age, that the Indians were not living as well as others.
Mauser-Sauntry and Weyerhauser had large camps in the vicinity of
Gordon, Wascott and Solon Springs. Gordon became the chief supply
point for these camps in the winter and for the drivers in the spring.
Lumberjacks going into the big woods to cut logs took with them
horses, oxen, beans, flour, hay, whiskey, canthooks, axes, saws,
salt pork and sourdough.
Early settlers in the East had learned through experience that they
could not afford to use timber of inferior quality in their farm
buildings, their churches, or the fortifications they built for
protection from the Indians. When they moved west, the lumber industry
had no choice but to cut the best logs and leave the inferior timber
in the woods. Mush was wasted and often burned. Although they have
been condemned for their practices, there was a demand only for
quality lumber; It was the price we paid for the development of
A journey of a few miles with a team of oxen was a slow and tedious
process through unbelievably dense growth. The pioneers could not
foresee the end of the magnificent forests that extended beyond
Times were changing rapidly with the growing lumber business and
the dwindling fur supply. In 1897, William Gordon moved his large
family to the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in Sawyer County,
which was the area where his Indian wife had lived. From there they
went to Odanah on the Bad River Reservation and another phase in
the life of Philip Gordon began.