Walking in Henry Wheeler’s Footsteps: Reflections on a Reenactment

By Tom Wheeler, 2013

The author, Tom Wheeler, walks along the Old Military Road wearing period clothing and carrying period gear. In 2005 Tom reenacted his great-grandfather Henry Wheeler’s 1855 walk from St. Paul to Superior, Wisconsin. (Image: Tom wheeler)

In April of 2005, I had the privilege or reenacting my great-grandfather Henry Wheeler’s 1855 walk to what is now Duluth via the Old Military Road that ran from Point Douglas at the intersection of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers to Superior, Wisconsin. He had been invited by Reverend Edmund Ely to build a sawmill at Oneota Township—the first sawmill at the Head of the Lakes. He journeyed forth alone with a bedroll on a “road” that was more of a path. My father spoke often of his grandfather’s trek. As a history major and avid reader, I became increasingly interested in Henry—what was he thinking, leaving behind a family to venture forth 150 miles by foot into unknown territory to build a sawmill where relatively few people lived?

With the help of of family oral histories, family archives, Pat Maus of the Kathryn A. Martin Library at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and David Grabitiske of the Minnesota Historical Society, I began to research Henry’s journey. It wasn’t his first long trek: in the early 1840s he walked some 400 miles from Grass Lake, Michigan, to Galena, Illinois. The oral history was helpful answering such questions as why April: No bugs, no bogs, no bears. My grandfather, Bert Wheeler, had further written that Henry went “most of the way on foot” which then led me to start in Stillwater, closer to the route of the Military Road, rather than St. Paul, where Henry had lived. This also simplified things, as I no longer had to worry about walking through traffic in St. Paul, or finding a safe place to sleep that night.

The largest research issue, however, was the Old Military Road itself. It was constructed with Federal funds for “defense” purposes—ostensibly soldiers would use the road in the event of an Indian attack.

The Old  Military Road had a rather short lifespan. It was built between 1854 and 1857 and fell out of use in 1870, when the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad began service. Approximately half of the 180 mile road is now paved or surfaced with gravel roads. The other 90 miles, which passed through in lowlands and bogs, were abandoned. Winter travel was preferred: footing was more solid on the frozen ground, there were no bugs, and bears were in hibernation. It was easier to deal with the cold.

To map my route I took photocopies of the Old Military Road maps and overlaid them on contemporary road maps. This allowed me to trace (with reasonably accuracy) the original route. I could detour where necessary to avoid obstacles—buildings, for instance—that had been built on abandoned sections of the road. I tried to be as authentic as possible.

Tom Wheeler rolling his gear up in his bedroll before another long day on the trail. (Image: Tom Wheeler)

David Grabitiske suggested I consider wearing vintage clothing during my reenactment. I was able to purchase pre-Civil War gear and garb online: a canteen, two haversacks for food and utensils, a bed roll with two blankets, wide-brimmed hat, a muslin shirt, a vest, long johns, and wool socks with a button fly that proved advantageous as air conditioning when the weather grew warm (it was a solitary trek). Friends described me as a cross between the Marlboro Man and a character from Deliverance.

I received many inquiries from friends offering further help. Did Henry carry a firearm? I didn’t know. Would you like one anyway? I declined, but did take a knife and hatchet. Many people were afraid for me: wild animals, evil people, loneliness, the dark. I never realized how pervasive fear is. I wasn’t mauled, and I met nothing but nice people, which was the highlight of my trip.

My original intent had been to undertake this trek for personal fulfillment; I wanted no publicity, nor anyone to second-guess my motives. This would not be grandstanding for attention. It was pointed out to me, however, that there was also an opportunity to perhaps inspire others to seek out their own family histories. at the time I was President of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation and Howard Klatzky, a fellow board member, suggested it could be used to promote their mission of giving back to  the community. Sam Cook became a trusted confidant and wrote up pre-, mid- and post-journey articles. The widespread interest and favorable reaction stunned me.

Map showing the route of the Old Military Road and other pioneer roadways. (Image: Tom Wheeler)

On April 9, 2005, 150 years after Henry’s original walk, I embarked from Stillwater. During the first mile I broke my glasses, lost my pedometer; and my canteen strap broke, causing it to hit the pavement and spring a leak; otherwise, things went smoothly.

I mentioned that the highlight of the journey were the encounters I had with strangers along the way. Minnesota Nice is never truer than in April when folks are glad to be out of doors again, cleaning yards, out for a hike or a bike ride. People extended themselves to me, making inquiries; it was  not uncommon for a car to drive past, stop,  back up and ask, “Say are you the fellow….” It must have been the hat. I was fed, watered, given fruit, venison jerky, and even birthday cake. One rainy night, when there was no woods nearby to find shelter, a car driving the opposite direction did a u-turned and pulled up alongside me. The driver invited me for dinner and an overnight stay—and I accepted (I insisted on sleeping on the floor to maintain some authenticity). But much to my chagrin, the stories I had heard in junior high school were not true: Not a single farmer with an attractive, lonely daughter offered to let me sleep in his hayloft.

One memorable stop was at the elementary school near Banning Junction. An alert 5th grade teacher read about my hike and called to ask if I might stop by his classroom. The students were mesmerized by the clothing and gear; which I let them carry. Their questions charmed me: Did I stop at McDonald’s? Did I go to the bathroom in the woods?

Another was at the Grand Casino in Hinckley, which lies on the Old Government Road (aka Old Military Road) at its approximate halfway point. How authentic was it to stay at a casino? Had Henry encountered a logging camp along his way, he would likely have found shelter for the night among the Jacks. And in a lumber camp Henry would have encountered hot food, alcohol,  gambling, and tobacco use. (Not that he would have enjoyed more than a meal—Henry Wheeler didn’t touch alcohol or tobacco.) He would also have stopped to take care of any ailments. I had to: at this point, my feet were raw as hamburger.

Yes, despite friendly encounters, the trip had its physical and mental demands. As far as the physical went, blisters plagued me. The only vintage clothing I had not procured—and my sole concession to modernity—were hiking boots. I hiked some 50 to 75 miles in them during February and March, thinking that would sufficiently break them in. Alas, the warmer temperatures toward the Twin Cites—50 to 70 degree daytime temps—caused my feet to sweat. Feet rubbing against wet socks rubbing against leather for miles and miles created blisters, which then broke. Were it not for a gentleman who backed up his truck near Barnum (the blister remedies delivered to the Grand Casino had not taken) I might not have completed the trip. He said he had read about using duct tape, and fortunately I had some—a remnant from the canteen repair. I applied the tape directly to the blisters and, after some initial pain, found that the tape did stop the rubbing and my feet survived. Thank you Mr. Duct Tape!

Sleeping out in the woods at night was really not a problem. Hiking an average of 16 miles each day carrying 30 pounds of gear removed any discomfort from sleeping on the ground—I was too exhausted to notice. Furthermore, my romantic notions of building a fire and journaling at night never did come to pass. I would normally fall asleep between 7 and 8 p.m. and rise at 6 a.m., awakened by the birds.

There were no animal encounters other than a few dutiful farm dogs protecting their turf. It did rain six of the eight nights I slept outside, but never heavily, so a light tarp sufficed. Finding a place to sleep was no problem; simply walk 100 yards or so into the woods and find a suitable place to lie down and hang my gear. I suffered a number of minor nicks and cuts but nothing significant. It would take me from 60 to 90 minutes to have breakfast, pack up and get under way. I had brought pita bread, peanut butter, carrots, dried fruit, jerky, and cheese. I indulged occasionally, stopping to buy some fresh fruit or a Diet Coke.

Once under way I would typically walk for 20 to 25 minutes, covering about a mile, and then rest 5 or 10 minutes. This was my version of the “50/10 rule”—50 minutes of work followed by ten of rest—adjusted for my age and gear load. My body acclimated and I was never stiff or sore, likely thanks to the vigorous advanced training: I had literally walked every street in Duluth. We Duluthians in a fascinating city, which became more apparent to me as I explored neighborhoods and areas with which I was not familiar. What stories each house must hold.

I spent the last night just outside Oliver, Wisconsin, then woke and walked into Superior. I was met by Sam Cook and the good folks of the Duluth-Superior Community Foundation. As I  proceeded down Stinson Avenue and approached the bay. I can recall mumbling to Sam, “I guess this is the end.” I was overcome with emotion.

What was it like, I wondered, for Henry Wheeler when he first saw St. Louis Bay, likely tired and hungry and concern for the wife and three young children he had left in St. Paul. (They had a remarkable journey to Duluth all their own, recounted here.) I could now rest, and knew there was a hot shower, a cold beer, a good steak awaiting me. When he arrived, Henry Wheeler still had to build a sawmill and a home for his family.

Henry Wheeler accomplished many things in the 50 years following his historic walk, but his journey on the Old Military Road never left him. Shortly before his death in 1906—on his 85th birthday—Henry had told my grandfather that “when I die I want to be placed in an oak casket put together with nails. I want to be wrapped in a blanket so I can sleep as I did so many nights on the trail.”
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Tom Wheeler works with Wheeler Associates, an insurance and investment firm that has operated in Duluth since 1934. He is also the great-grandson of Duluth and Oneota Township pioneers Henry and Sara Wheeler and the grandson of Bert Wheeler, a long-time public servant of Duluth. Following his journey, Tom created the Henry and Sarah Wheeler Historical Awareness Fund as part of the Duluth-Superior Community Foundation, promising match any contributions made in order to build a fund so that others might undertake similar historical projects regarding the rich heritage of the Twin Ports. The response, says Tom, was “humbling and overwhelming.” Today the fund assets exceed $50,000 and, through annual contributions, is still growing. Find out more about the Duluth-Superior Community Foundation—and the Henry and Sarah Wheeler Historical Awareness Fund—here.

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