WRIGHTSVILLE, Wis. – A lumber story with a twist took place in northern Jackson County back in the 1800s. Three of Wrightsville’s early settlers were polygamous wives of the Mormon faith who helped to start a town of which nothing remains.

In the 1840s wood was needed in Nauvoo, Illinois, to build a Mormon temple and the Nauvoo House, a building used to house new families in the area. A crew headed by Lyman Wight was sent to Jackson and Clark counties in Wisconsin to cut timber near the Black River. By 1843 there were 150 men with their families working in the woods; they built a mill on the river for cutting the logs. A large quantity was rafted down the Black River to the Mississippi River at La Crosse, Wisconsin, where they were sent to Nauvoo.

The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, was killed in 1844. That caused dissension among the sect; a group of Mormons at Nauvoo decided to split from the main group and move to an island in Lake Michigan. That group, led by James Jessie Strang, prospered until 1856 when it was discovered that he and about 20 of his followers were practicing polygamy. Strang was shot. In the aftermath several families were forced to leave, including brothers Benjamine, Phineas and Samuel Wright. Among their children were two of Strang’s wives, Sara and Phoebe, along with their children. A third wife, Betsy McNutt, also joined them.

They first traveled to southern Wisconsin where they worked in the wheat fields. They earned enough money to purchase oxen and wagons to continue to Jackson County where they settled along Hall’s Creek, about 4 miles south of Merrillan, Wisconsin, and 4 miles west of the Black River. There they built homes, and within four years bought an existing grist mill and sawmills. The town of Wrightsville was born.

Benjamine, as the oldest Wright brother, became the general manager of the family-owned businesses. They bought other mills along the creek and extensive pineries that supplied the trees.

By 1868 business was flourishing. They built a new bigger grist mill south of the original, four stories high and 32 feet by 60 feet for feed and flour. By that time 60 workmen were living in the small community, which consisted of a store, blacksmith shop, stable and several homes. The Wright family owned three sawmills, the grist mill, 3,000 acres of trees, the village and eight mill sites along Hall’s Creek. It was estimated that in the previous year they had cut 4 million board feet of lumber.

The following year a rail line was built west of the town with a hotel that served as a depot. After serving the community for four years, it was discontinued – along with the telegraph office after Merrillan built a depot to serve the area.

Formal schooling was started in 1871 when resident Rhoda Whitney taught classes in a building along the creek. That motivated the townspeople to build a new edifice, which was moved 20 years later to a more-central location in the township. It took two months and eight sets of skids to move the building. Several members of the Wright family were among the teachers who taught in the school.

Two interesting events happened to the town in 1874. In April the town and surrounding land shook.

“A large gristmill has been the scene of the greatest commotion, and the water in the pond has been lashed about as though the old sea serpent was on a rampage. The ground is said to have been shaken for miles, and of course the people are scared out of their wits,” reported the newspaper in Portland, Maine.

The following month timber started on fire and burned at least 15 of the town’s homes. Fire was a constant danger; in 1886 the grist and flour mill were also destroyed. As fires took one building after another and the timber was cut, Wrightsville disappeared. The only building remaining is a farmhouse that at one time contained the post office and where members of the Wright family dwelt.

As for the three wives of Jesse James Strang, they moved on to other areas. Betsy McNutt, who had four children by Strang, lived in several Wisconsin communities before settling in Lamoni, Iowa. Phoebe Wright relocated to Tacoma, Washington, and changed her name to Phoebe Jesse. Sara Wright remarried a local Mormon polygamist named Dr. Joseph Smith Wing; they moved west to Utah. She became a doctor specializing in midwifery; she died in 1923 in Idaho.

LeeAnne Bulman writes about agriculture from her farm overlooking the beautiful Danuser Valley on Wisconsin’s west coast. When not writing she helps her husband on their small grain and beef farm.