Lumber town Laona’s Camp Five Museum

Tiny Laona, an unincorporated community in Forest County, has a great recipe for soup that has served its residents well for many years.

The annual Community Soup began 84 years ago on nearby Silver Lake beach. Families showed up with whatever was growing in their garden, and added it or meat to a soup pot. People visited while the soup simmered, and then everybody would share a meal.

Now the ritual is more organized and more people are fed. The Lions Club assigns an ingredient to each family in the township, they bring it to the beach, and the soup eventually is ladled out to a couple of thousand people. (About 1,300 live in the township; visitors are welcome to eat for free.)

“We put it all into large kettles, and you bring your own bowl to eat it,” explains long-time resident Don Kircher. This year’s event is Aug. 3, the last day of Laona’s three-day Centennial Celebration, which will be a mixture of food, fireworks and frivolity. For more, call (715) 674-3007.

Visitors are crucial to Laona’s economic health during this time of year. This is an old lumber town that has carefully preserved a part of its heritage: Its Camp Five Museum is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the museum complex is 640 acres that contain 10 former lumber camp buildings.

It is where lumberjacks lived until about 1940, when the invention of chain saws and trucks replaced the need for trains to move huge logs out of this part of Nicolet National Forest.

Kircher, a retired high school teacher who has managed Camp Five as a tourist site for 34 years, says he hires about 40 Laona area residents (high schoolers to retirees) to operate the museum in summer. This year, it is open daily until Aug. 30 (but closed on Sundays).

A part of the attraction is a 20-minute ride on a 1916 steam train that used to haul logs. The ride is 2 1/2 miles and scenic – past a lake, a river and into the heart of that gorgeous forest.

“It’s been a good experience,” Kircher says of his work, which he was drafted to do because he was a teacher and thus had his summers free.

The $15 per adult admission, he says, just covers a part of the cost of Camp Five operation and upkeep. Money from the estate of Gordon and Mary Connor (who used to run this and other lumber camps), plus other donations, keep the attraction open.

“Everything has to be custom-made,” Kircher says of the old train, to explain the need for money.

“Boy scouts will come here to earn merit badges in natural resources, or archaeology,” he says, to explain how Camp Five is an asset to the community. Regarding archeaology, what is found in the former camp dump still occasionally becomes part of the museum’s exhibits.

Three hours is the average time that a family spends at Camp Five, Kircher estimates; there are walking trails and nature tours on the property. To learn more, go to or call (800) 774-3414.

Laona is near the intersection of highways 32 and 8, about 40 miles east of Rhinelander, or less than two hours northwest of Green Bay.

My housemate and I occasionally discuss the tourist value of small town festivals. We’ve been to a lot of rural places where the amusements are way too generic for his tastes, and although he’s a tough one to please in this category, I sometimes have to agree.
One midway easily looks like the next, particularly since the same roadies move it all from one town to another. Food and music choices can be predictable. Beer tents are commonplace. It’s bingo here, a fire truck tour there. Parades have high school bands, horses and floats.

So it’s often a sense of community that makes the difference, certainly to the local residents who choose to attend. And a sense of welcome (or lack of it) is what will draw in (or turn off) visitors.

In Sheboygan County, where I’m from, each little community has its own fireman’s picnic during the summer. The components are pretty basic and the same. For me, it’s a good chance to reunite with former classmates and neighbors.

It is easy to buy a hot brat on a great hard roll here, or a generous slice of homemade pie for $1.25 (add a quarter for ice cream). It is not easy to strike up a conversation with strangers, but sometimes that is only because the polka music is too loud. A lot depends on the attitude of the local residents.

Close to and far from home, we’ve been made to feel included – and we have felt like aliens – at these festivals. Does that matter, or are they not meant to be for entertaining outsiders? I’d love to hear about your own experiences, good or bad, with events that are held in towns other than where you reside.

Last, a big thanks to Arlyn Colby of Barron (south of Rice Lake), who included Camp Five in a list of Wisconsin train attractions that he compiled for me. Arlyn is a volunteer with the Wisconsin Great Northern Tourist Railroad in Spooner (