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Langlade County News

North Trail Store In Elcho Regains Its Original Look

July 10, 2013

If C.W. Fish returned to Elcho today, he’d be pleasantly surprised by what he’d find.

His stately home on Highway 45 has been artfully preserved by its current owners, and was included in the 2012 Parade of Homes offered by the Langlade Hospital Auxiliary; the Elcho Clubhouse still looms large over a portion of the downtown; and a facsimile of the old Chicago and Northwestern depot adorns the village green and is used as a cookout fund-raising booth.

And Fish’s eye would certainly be drawn to North Trail Store, which longtime owners Dennis and Karen O’Neil are restoring to its Tudor grandeur first envisioned by the Elcho lumber baron back the in early days of the 20th century.

“It was time to re-side or paint it and we decided to get it as close as we could to the original,” Dennis O’Neil explained. “To put vinyl or metal on it would be sacrilege. I didn’t want to do any disrespect to Fish.”

“We decided that if it needed to be redone, we might as well do it right,” Karen O’Neil added.

The present North Trail building dates to 1923, part of a Tudor fantasy village Fish constructed to replace Elcho’s downtown which had been swept by fire only seven months earlier.

Fish had come to the community in 1908, when he got the job of running the G.W. Jones Lumber Company store for $30 a month. Within four years, he assumed control of the mill, and the C.W. Fish Lumber Company dynasty was underway.

The village grew steadily, but a spectacular fire on Feb. 18, 1923 leveled much of the community.

It likely started in the drug store’s heating plant and quickly swept through Fish’s office building, bank, hotel, general store and even the railroad depot located across the street.

Where others saw catastrophe, Fish saw a newly cleaned slate, and, hearkening to his overseas travels and using $700,000 in bonding, he recreated the village as a European fantasy land. It included the Clubhouse, which still stands, Ye Olde Muskie Inn and an adjoining theater, now long razed, a charming little bank and what is now North Trail Store.

“No town in Wisconsin is more picturesque than Elcho, according to tourists from all over the state,” the Antigo Daily Journal reported. “The buildings are of the old English style of architecture and combine the beautiful with the practical.”

By the time the O’Neils arrived in 1976, the exterior had been covered with wood siding and an addition with living quarters and storage space added to the back.

Bowing to modern necessity, the O’Neils eventually traded in the long glass display case filled with penny candy and the old brass cash register for modern tallying equipment, check-out lanes and coolers.

But with those exception, the store’s interior is little changed, complete with well-kept, but admittedly creaky, wooden floors. The O’Neils also purchased the adjoining building when Northwoods National Bank constructed a new facility on the community’s north side and operate a charming gift shop in the space. The original vault is still in place, housing gifts rather than safety deposit boxes and rolls of nickels and quarters.

Fish went bankrupt and left Elcho three years after his fantasy village was constructed and the store was operated for decades by the Lionel and Ena Palmer family, Clara Follstad and then Chuck and Ruth Broukal prior to the O’Neils.

The O’Neils hired local builder Tom Parise to do the restoration work and he painstakingly cut the clover leaves that adorn the top of the store’s exterior. In a nod to their Irish heritage, the O’Neils added a special touch of their own, two shamrocks that can be spotted by sharp-eyed observers.

Dennis O’Neil explained, “that’s my personal signature for the future for O’Neil.”

The project is not yet complete, the O’Neils said. After the busy, tourist-soaked summer season, Parise will be back to complete the residing of the storefront to match the rest of the structure.

The project has been a hit with the community.

“We’re getting lots of good comments on how it looks, and thank yous from people with memories of the old days,” O’Neil said.

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