In 1880, a lush, lumber rich outpost existed in the heart of the Wisconsin territory. Travel was on foot or horseback over narrow wagon trails or Indian paths until the fall of 1880 when the Milwaukee Lake Shore and Western railroad arrived.
Crews worked through swamps and high land to clear a right of way a little over four miles from Eland to Birnamwood. It is said that railroad officials came north in a locomotive drawn caboose to inspect the line. Brush and timber cleared to make way for the railroad, burned brightly on both sides of the track. When the train stopped, a young man left the caboose to join a blanketed Indian who stood watching the flames.
“Heap big fire,” the young man said.
“Heap Big,” the Indian answered, “Burn em wood.”
“Why that’s right out of Shakespeare,” the young man exclaimed.
“MacBeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam-Wood from high Dunsinine Hill shall come against him,” he quoted.
He returned to the caboose and told his father that he had found a name for the new settlement, Birnamwood. The officials approved the name and it was designated on the Wisconsin map.
A Depot was built in 1880 but relocated in 1909 near the Northern Milling Company warehouse. However in 1912, it burned to the ground. A box car served as an office until a new depot was erected.
In 1894, the first village board was organized. Soon afterward, in February of 1895, paperwork was filed to incorporate Birnamwood. With a total of 75 votes (67 for and 8 against), the incorporation was passed. The first officers were elected in 1895 and by-laws drafted.
The early 1880’s was a time of expansion. The first school opened in September of 1880 with the entire community joining in the building project. However by 1889 enrollment outgrew the building and a larger facility was built. Not long afterwards, in 1894, the expansion of a high school was brought forth and 25 students were identified. Birnamwood High School opened in 1895 with the first class to graduate in 1898.
Birnamwood Post office, the oldest institution in the village, appointed its first headmaster in 1881.
The First Congregational Church was formed in 1881. This is the oldest church on record followed by Trinity Lutheran in 1892, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in 1898 and St. Philomena’s Catholic Church in 1905.
The first sawmill was established in 1881. Several sawmills popped up over the years but they slowly phased out with the last closing in 1959. The lumber industry in Birnamwood was silent until 1977, when a new sawmill opened that is still running today.
Forest Cemetery contains the oldest headstone dated 1883. Veterans of all wars lie in the cemetery and are honored each year by the American Legion.
April 1899 brought the first telephone company to the area but service was limited until 1902 when service expanded. In 1956, the dial system was installed changing exchanges from 2 to the 7 digit phone numbers.
1902 marks an important time in Birnamwood. It brought electricity, sidewalks and extended phone lines. It was also the same year a Smallpox epidemic struck that left almost no family untouched.
Over the next decades, Birnamwood continued to expand services. The first library opened in November of 1934. It served the community until 1962 when it closed and the Shawano County Bookmobile replaced it. However, in 1977 a new library addition was added to the Birnamwood Elementary School as a result of a generous donation from Miss. Minnie Prahl, a graduate of Birnamwood High School class of 1904.
The first hospital was opened in in 1937 but a shortage of nurses and other difficulties forced the facility to close. It wasn’t until 1967 that Ambulance service for Birnamwood and the surrounding area was started.
Birnamwood has withstood the test of time because the pioneers who forged the land and called Birnamwood home, laid the foundation upon which subsequent generations could build their life. Descendants of these pioneers reside in Birnamwood today.
The same sense of commitment and community that built Birnamwood is still present today. With a population just over 800 persons, Birnamwood portrays a friendly, community lifestyle. You see it, not only in the people but in the businesses, community organizations and local government.
Small businesses have taken a foothold in Birnamwood. The hard-working, dedicated mentality is evident by the number of long standing businesses such as the Funeral Home (1937), Bakery (1960), Lumberyard (1977) and Veterinary practice (1966) to name a few.
Birnamwood has a small industrial sector that is home to several businesses including an international water and wastewater lab. Inquiries about the park are managed by the Village Board.
Community organizations such as the Birnamwood Improvement Club, Birnamwood Lions Club, American Legion Darling Gunderson Post 341, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, serve and support the community. Their efforts are present in the parks, school, and homes of the village.
Birnamwood maintained an independent school until 1970 when the school became consolidated with the Wittenberg District. Now part of the Wittenberg-Birnamwood School District, the school and library serve the community in the same facility.
Built in 2012, the Matsche Community Center was added as a result of a generous donation from Norman and Alice Matsche. Norman was a graduate of Birnamwood High School Class of 1950. Their generosity was sparked by their love of the community and is reminiscent of the same spirit that raised the library. The building is designed after the depot that once stood on the same location.
As with many Wisconsin communities, outdoor recreation is ever present; Snowmobiling, fishing, and hunting among other sports, draws visitors. In and around the village, signs of the farming industry are strong reminders of the hard labor, past and present, that contributed to the growth of Birnamwood.
We encourage visitors to experience the place we call home. Welcome to Birnamwood.
Historical references from Birnamwood Centennial 1880 – 1980 by Ellen Lyons.