For many year-round and summer residents, all trails in Langlade County lead north — to North Trail Store in Elcho.
The iconic structure, first built as part of lumber baron C.W. Fish’s Tudor fantasy in 1923, welcomed new owners in June, with Joel Labute and fiancée Lauren Haiduk accepting the keys from Karen and Dennis O’Neil.
“We hope to carry on the traditions Karen and Dennis have established,” Labute said. “They did a great job and this store is a staple of the community. It is a great investment.”
The O’Neils closed the sale on their 48th wedding anniversary, coming full circle with the business they owned for 45 years.
“I’m going to miss the people and the store,” O’Neil said, adding he will continue to work part-time in the meat department, known throughout the area for its homemade brats. “I’d like to enjoy time with my family and do some traveling. We’ve basically worked every weekend for nearly 50 years. It’s time to move on.”
“I want to thank the people I grew old with in this town,” he said, “especially the kids I’ve teased and tormented over the years. Those memories will never be forgotten, and my weird sense of humor won’t dwindle either.”
Labute and Haiduk have a long familiarity with the community and the store. Haiduk’s family has roots in Langlade County and has had a cabin on Upper Post Lake for half-a-century.
Labute’s main business is Star Coach Race Tours, which delivers all-inclusive tour packages for NASCAR, IndyCar, and other race fans. That keeps him on the road much of the year but the couple recently purchased a yearround home on Lower Post Lake and hope to spend more of their time there.
The store will continue to be managed by Sandy Reynolds, Karen O’Neil’s sister. There are no plans to change the employees, including “Miss Sharon (Frederick),” a cashier who was key to the purchase.
“I was in here one day buying groceries and got talking to Miss Sharon,” Labute said. “I all of the sudden thought this would be just a great place to buy. That’s when the light bulb went off in my head.”
It came at a perfect time for the O’Neils.
“I’ve been very particular in selecting someone to purchase the store,” O’Neil said. “I didn’t want to see it go to just anyone. I wanted to make sure the owners would continue to serve the community the way we always did.”
North Trail dates to 1923, part of the Tudor 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 the 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. It included the Elcho 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 once 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,checkout lanes and coolers.
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 turned it into a popular gift shop annex. The original vault is still in place, housing gifts rather than safety deposit boxes and rolls of nickels and quarters.
The O’Neil’s final major project came in 2015, when they restored the exterior, adding some shamrocks in a nod to their Irish heritage.
Fish went bankrupt and left Elcho three years after his fantasy village was constructed. 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.