Tim Belter | Spooner, WI
On my dad’s side, my grandfather was the last family member born in Germany. He was born in 1885, two years after the establishment of the city of Spooner. As a young man, he lived in the southwestern portion of central Wisconsin, and he worked for the railroad as a carpenter. They shipped him to Bismarck, North Dakota, where he married and had three children. In 1922, he was transferred by the railroad to Spooner. By that point in time, the railroad in Spooner was very well established, it had gotten quite large, so they needed additional people. He was a finish carpenter and his skill was needed. Back then boxcars were all made of wood and some of those old passenger cars had ornate woodwork. Because of my grandfather’s skill with detail work, he was useful for the railroad. So that is how my father got to Spooner, his dad transferred there when he was two.
On my mom’s side, her father was a drayman. He was running his horses and hauling copper ore from the mine outside of Chittamo to the railhead in Minong. When that played out, he moved to Hayward, where he eventually became chief of police. My mother was born in 1922. Years later, when my dad graduated from high school, he worked for Schwann’s Meat Company. At that time Schwann’s was a purveyor of meats — whole hogs, halves of beef, hindquarters, front quarters — so they transferred a lot of swinging meat on refrigerated boxcars.
Well, my dad was sent up to Hayward to unload a boxcar onto a truck. My mother’s older brother, Howard, was also working for Schwann’s at the time, and he was sent over to the depot to unload the same boxcar. He met my dad, and he asked him, ‘What are you doing for lunch?’ Dad said, ‘I didn’t have time to pack one.’ So, my uncle said, ‘Well, you’re coming over to the house.’ My grandmother lived about two blocks from the depot. While they were eating lunch Howard’s sister, my mother, came home from high school for lunch. Two years later, they were married.
My whole family is tied to the railroad, and this is true for many families in Spooner. I can remember when the Spooner yard was full of steam engines pulling trains and the railroad was a vital part of Spooner’s economy. I’m retired now and serve as the President of the Board of Directors for the Railroad Museum in Spooner. I wanted to be part of preserving and sharing this history.
In the late 1800s, twenty miles north of here they’d found copper and that was one of the reasons the railroads wanted to get up in this area. Logging and mining drove early railroad construction in Northern Wisconsin. They also wanted to be able to connect the Duluth/Superior ports with the rest of the state of Wisconsin and eventually Chicago. So, in 1879, the North Wisconsin Railway Company built 26 miles of track north from Cumberland to a point just north of where Spooner would be built a few years later. The company established a settlement called Chandler which consisted of a railway roundhouse, depot, about 25 private homes, two warehouses for logging supplies, four stores, Scribner’s Hotel, and several saloons and places to eat. But the water in Chandler had lime in it and was causing problems with the boilers on the engine, so in 1883 they moved a few miles south to where the water was better.
The new town was named Spooner, after Col. John C Spooner. Soon Spooner had a large passenger depot, freight depots, a restaurant, express office, switching yards, locomotive and car shops, a roundhouse, lumber yards, and offices. During its heyday, Spooner had 18 passenger trains/day, 11 logging trains and 10 freight trains run each day.
The railroad business was good until the late 1920s when the impact of trucks and the depression was felt. During WWII the need for freights was big, but by the 1950s as factories started to close, there was less need for rail shipping. Passenger service in Spooner ended in 1961. I was in middle school and rode that last passenger train south out of Spooner. My dad was the train conductor and knew it was the very last train and wanted me to go.
When I was a kid I would hear the sounds of the trains twenty-four hours a day. Now we can no longer hear the sounds of the steam whistle or the clank of the steel wheels on iron tracks. I want the people in Spooner to know our history. I started volunteering with the Railroad Museum so I could be part of sharing this history. It was because of the railroad that my dad traveled to Hayward in the 1930s. If he hadn’t been unloading a refrigerated boxcar full of meat, he wouldn’t have met my Uncle Howard and then gone home with him for lunch. Without that lunch, he would’ve never met my mother. I tell people this story all the time because this is also the story of the city of Spooner. It is not unique. This is a heritage that belongs to all the people of Spooner. If it wasn’t for the railroad, Spooner would not exist.
Spooner had a very large railroad yard, it was huge. There were 26 tracks at the widest point, and where I lived, it was probably 10 tracks wide.
My early fascination with trains started with listening to them. The trains ran 24 hours a day in Spooner. All day long I heard the banging and the whistling and the ding, ding, ding. If the trains stopped, if the noise wasn’t there, that’s what I would notice it. I would go to bed listening to them switch cars, it was kind of like a lullaby.
My dad was a conductor. He didn’t hire out on the railroad until he came back from World War II, so around 1945. He worked his way up through seniority to become a conductor. By the time the passenger service went out in 1961, my dad was the oldest, seniority-wise, passenger conductor on the northern division of the Omaha Chicago & North Western railroad.
I could ride a train anytime I wanted. I could take a passenger train from Spooner to Hayward, and get off at Hayward to visit my grandma. All railroad workers had what they called ‘a golden pass’, that allowed their families to ride the company railroad for nothing. Other railroad companies let you ride for half-fare. Even when I was in college, I was still riding for half fare.
One of my most memorable train rides was right around when they were taking steam engines out of service. I was eight or nine years old and got to ride on one of the last steam engines going north out of Spooner. It was a fall day and I remember the train hitting an incline. There were leaves on the tracks and the wheels were slipping. Steam locomotives have sanders that can funnel sand just in front of the drive wheels to increase traction, but this day the sanders were plugged, so the train couldn’t make it up the uphill grade. They had to back the train down and get the sanders to work, so they could get sand on the rails. Then they had to make a run at that hill in order to get up over the hill. This memory has stayed with me. I remember just so vividly the sound of those big wheels spinning, trying to get traction. And the engineer trying to get his gauges right, get his controls right, so he could get his maximum power and get the train up the hill.
At one time I had thought about working with the railroad, but that turned out not to be an option. Due to a hunting accident when I was a young boy, I couldn’t pass the physical. Many of my school friends did hire out and eventually retired from the railroad.
I was a high school Biology and Zoology teacher for five years. I taught in New London, which was the birthplace of Hillshire Farms. Hillshire Farms was right there, so I worked for them in the summertime. There is a myth that teachers make so much money that we can take the summer off, but I needed an additional summer job. I was their first research and development guy and made a product called Cheddarwurst, a traditional smoke sausage with Wisconsin cheddar cheese melted through it. It wasn’t called Cheddarwurst at the time, it was called a cheese bratwurst.
The rest, as they say, is history. Hillshire brought me on full-time, and I spent the next 40 years in the meat industry. I worked for Hillshire, Johnsonville, and I ended my career as a consultant. I worked for several different meat companies as a consultant, but the last physical location was in Sheboygan. It was my work in the meat industry that first got me connected to the Railroad Museum.
The museum, which is what remains of the original Depot that was built in 1902, sits in the center of the City of Spooner Railroad Park Board’s newly developing Railroad Park. When folks first started the museum, back in 1987, they organized fundraisers. Initially, these fundraisers were used to pay for the memorabilia collection that had been purchased and brought back to the museum. Later fundraisers were designed to pay off the mortgage on the building and grounds.
I knew several of the people on the museum board. One of the members is a close family friend. I went to school with her daughter and her husband had been a train engineer who worked with my dad. She contacted me and asked if I would be willing to help them out with their Brat Fry fundraiser. So, I donated to it. For 11 years I donated all the brats to the fundraiser. A good friend of mine, Phil Markgren, also a Board member, owned a bakery and donated all the buns. They were able to make a lot of money from these Brat Fry Fundraisers.
When I retired and moved back to Spooner, I joined the board of directors. A few years later I was president. In March 2021, I was asked to become the chair of the fundraising arm of the park, The Friends of the Railroad Park, Incorporated (FORPP). Since then, I’m the president of both the Museum and FORRP. The goal of the Museum, FORRP, and the Railroad Park Board is to preserve Spooner’s rich railroad history, educate future generations on how and why Spooner was founded, and help revitalize Spooner’s downtown by creating this park space in the former train yard.
Being on the railroad museum board has given me the opportunity to talk with young people about Spooner’s history. A fifth-grade teacher used to bring his students down to the railroad Museum every year in the spring. It had a dual purpose. They learned a little bit about the history of the railroad in Spooner, but also they’d do a clean-up for us. The kids would rake the leaves, rake the lawn and pick up stuff. One of the first things I ask the kids when they come down to the park is how many had relatives that worked on the railroad. For these kids, it would probably be great-grandparents that had worked on the railroad. The last passenger trains went out of Spooner in 1961 and the freight train service was pretty well done in the early ’90s. We had some interesting conversations.
This fifth-grade teacher is a principal now, and he talked to me about putting together a course on Spooner’s railroad history that they could teach in the middle school. The superintendent has embraced this project, he too is from a railroad family up at the head of the lakes, in the Duluth area. They both feel the way that I do, that our railroad history is important and should be part of the curriculum so the young people know why Spooner is here. For example, I would like them to know why the school mascot is called the Railroaders. Why is the mascot dressed up in striped bib overalls and an engineer’s cap? What are the rails, and what did the railroad do? Those kinds of questions. Now I’ve just got to get my butt in gear and finish writing the thing.
The Railroad Park is just a block away from downtown. The park has a portion of the original roundhouse that was built back in the late 1800s. It also has the 90-foot turntable that was built in 1906. The museum is in the old Chicago & North depot and sits right in the center of the park, so the museum is the central focal point, along with the roundhouse. We also want it to be a community gathering place, so the park also has a Pavilion with picnic tables and walking trails. Being part of the Friends of Railroad Park Board and the Museum Board is a rewarding retirement project for me since my family has a long railroad history and I know a lot about the history of the railroad in Northern Wisconsin.
Last year I spent the entire summer at the museum. I was able to see firsthand the impact we are having in Spooner. At least as far as bringing tourists to Spooner goes. The railroad had been covered up by the old post office, but once the post office was torn down, the museum was visible again, looking like it did back when I was in high school.
The state was also redoing Highway 63 last year, so they had to reroute traffic. Well, that traffic went a half a block from the depot, and we became more visible to a lot more people. Ever since I become president of the museum I have kept track of why people come to the museum. We ask them, ‘what brought you here?’ It was surprising. A lot of people said, ‘Well, we saw you when we were traveling by. We were staying up by Hayward, and when we saw the museum sign we decided to come back down.’
I saw firsthand that young kids are just excited as all get out to be in a train museum. Parents tell me they came to the museum ‘because our son just loves the railroad,’ or, ‘our daughter just loves trains, and so we had to come to the museum.’ We’ve got the big diorama in the center of the room that shows what Spooner’s yard looked like back in the day, and the kids just love that stuff.
Every town has a story to tell. I am glad that I can be part of telling Spooner’s rich history with the railroads. About the hardworking railroaders who kept the trains moving every day, helped move the troops in times of war and were part of the logging and mining history of Northern Wisconsin. At the museum, which is located in the old train depot, we are collecting and preserving this history by sharing historic photos and documents, railroad equipment and other railroading memorabilia. Since I was a little kid growing up just a few yards from the railroad, I have always loved riding on trains. I still do.
Photo 1: Spooner’s train depot and 100-room Hotel Spooner in 1906; Photo 2: Engine #123 in the Spooner roundhouse on its last day of service in 1928. Its first day of service was in 1883, the year Spooner was ‘born’; Photo #3: This is the Sand Tower and an engine ready to take on sand in 1955.
The Spooner train was featured on the Great Scenic Railway Journeys.