Folklore Profile: The Secret Grave of O.M.L.
When most people think of Wisconsin, typically one of the first things that pop into their mind is of course cheese. And honestly, that’s fine, ‘Sconsin is the undisputed leading producer of cheese in the United States after all. Anyone who has ever visited can surely agree that we Sconnie’s take our cheese seriously. So much so that in 2018, Wisconsinites produced over 3.42 BILLION pounds of cheese alone. That is crazy when you think about it because, in 2017, the state produced 3.37 billion pounds and at that time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that Wisconsin attributed about 26% of the total 12.7 billion pounds produced throughout the entire United States that year. That is wild.
In addition to all the numbers and stats, pop culture and the media have consistently put it front and center in everyone’s minds that Wisconsin and cheese go hand in hand like peas and carrots. Simply Google ‘Packer fan’ and you will see what we mean. But did you know that agricultural dairy production wasn’t always what Wisconsin was known for? It's true, cheesemaking in Wisconsin didn’t start to get recognized for its place at the top until the early 20th century. So what was the state recognized for before nearly everyone’s favorite food came along and knocked it out of the top spot? The answer is simple, logging.
By the mid to late 19th century, Wisconsin was one of the biggest lumber producing states within all of America, but that didn’t just happen overnight. It is recognized that the growth of the lumber industry within the state didn’t start to significantly climb the ranks until the mid-1830s, while WI was still just a territory. But when the 1840s arrived, as well as the railroad (and statehood in 1848), the entire industry was completely transformed and the Badger State flew to the top of the list.
The arrival of the railroad meant that timber collected by hardened lumberjacks didn’t need to be exclusively floated downriver and the harsh winters no longer decided when the product was able to be transported (frozen rivers don’t make for good transportation). Because of this, lumber camps were now able to operate all year long and since they no longer needed to be tied close to the rivers of the area, they were able to move deeper into the dense forests and drastically increase in size. It is believed that at the height of its prime in the 19th century, Wisconsin had in operation nearly 450+ lumber camps and around 1,000 fully functioning sawmills.
Since logging was such a hot commodity at this point in history, it is easy to understand why multiple businesses and groups began to form in order to purchase and take ownership of large parcels of land which contained prime virgin forests. A majority of the time, the groups and companies which bought these parcels did so for the fact that they knew the logging industry would eventually make its way towards their borders and would have no choice but to make a deal and buy the timber rights from them or halt their operation completely until they could figure out how to get around and resume cutting. One such company that did this was The Stark Land Company of Madison (still in operation today, albeit with a different name), and it is on one of their pieces of land where our story officially takes place.
In 1922, Burton Montreville Apker, who went by both B.M. and Bert, was (at the time) a bank cashier at Chetek State Bank, a private land surveyor, and a former timber estimator from Chetek, Wisconsin, a small city located within the borders of Barron County. Along with these titles, Bert was also a relative of Paul E. Stark, the owner of The Stark Land Company. These family ties in addition to his qualifications and experience designated Bert as the first choice when it came to needing someone to gather all necessary information on a specific piece of land before its eventual sale. So, when Stark needed a section of land within Section 33-50-5 in Bayfield County surveyed to determine how much timber resided within it, Bert received the call.
The specific location in which Bert was to travel to was located roughly ten miles northwest of the city of Washburn, WI. The city, which is located within the very top half of the state, sits alongside Chequamegon Bay within Lake Superior and was founded in 1883 due to its naturally protected harbor, readily available sandstone, and of course, its proximity to vast expanses of untouched virgin forest which covered much of the northern part of the state. After arriving sometime within the last week of August, Bert and a surveying companion packed their gear and headed out into the dense Jack Pine in order to reach the Stark owned land and begin their work.
As they progressed farther into the sea of trees, completely alone and miles away from any area of habitation, Bert caught sight of an odd-looking spot beneath a lone hemlock tree in the middle of nowhere. Unknown to them at the time, this spot which they had come across and noticed completely by chance, would soon be responsible for a mystery neither of them saw coming.
Making his way over the unbroken layer of pine needles resting on top of the dry, sandy soil, Bert approached the tree and stopped at the edge of a large mound of piled dirt. Clearly man-made, the mound had the general shape of a rectangle which measured 3 feet wide and nearly 7 feet long. All traces of pine needles had been cleared away from the edges and great care was taken in packing the dirt back into its current formation. Having spent a vast amount of time in the woods for his career, Bert had come across numerous scenes such as this and immediately recognized that this was a grave. This assumption was only solidified after the discovery of blaze which had carved deeply within it the initials “O.M.L.”. Beneath these expertly carved letters was a simple date carved at the same depth and with the same precision, “1920.”
Realizing just how deep they were in this dense forest and how far away from any areas of civilization this spot was located, Bert felt as if this mystery grave was the result of some sort of violent crime. Not wanting to disturb the area any further in case this did turn out to be some sort of crime scene, Bert and his companion noted the area on their maps, gathered up their supplies, and headed back towards their vehicle to make the authorities aware of their discovery. After hiking for a few hours and then driving a few miles, the pair arrived at the Washburn courthouse but could find nobody in which to relate their discovery. Not wanting the potential crime to go unresolved, Bert wrote a letter describing the situation and asked for it to be passed on to the local authorities.
The next day the letter was passed on to the Sheriff’s office and into the hands of one Sheriff Murray. After contacting Bert for more information, Murray felt it was necessary to get a team together to go out and investigate exactly what was located beneath the hemlock tree in the middle of nowhere. Sheriff Murray selected two men to accompany him; Undersheriff Long and another man by the name of Monroe Sprague. The gear was packed up, the route was planned, and on September 8th, 1922, the three men went off in search of the mystery grave of O.M.L.
Packed into the police vehicle between stacks of gear and limited leg space, the three men made their way down Four Mile Creek Road, out past the Westling’s farm, and over the hills surrounding the Hanson house. When the road came to its eventual end, the men unloaded with packs, axes, and shovels in hand and made the few hour hike towards the area in which Bert said the grave could be found. Spreading out to cover more area, the grave was eventually spotted by Undersheriff Long, and soon after its discovery work began to investigate the area.
Right away the area was treated as a crime scene and was investigated to the best of the three men’s abilities. A wide area around the grave was searched for possible other graves or any indication that people had been in the area recently or possibly even quite some time ago. But even after a good amount of time spent looking around the dense trees, nothing was found. The location was just as Bert had stated, empty and void of all signs of humanity except for the grave. Satisfied that nothing else was out there, the three men turned their attention to the grave itself and the carving located above it.
The blaze (example for visual reference) was noted as being seven inches wide and nearly twenty inches long. Within this area of removed bark were letters carved with a steady hand and an eye with attention to detail. This wasn’t some quick trail marker as possibly theorized by the sheriff’s office, this was truly meant to mark the final resting place of some mystery person of the woods. Below the blaze, just as Bert described in his letter, was the shape of grave 3ft wide and 7ft long. The mound was comprised of loose dirt and it is this observation that set off a few alarms for Sheriff Murray. If the area is a true grave and the date of 1920 carved above it is an indicator of the date of death, then the dirt covering the body should not have been as loose as it was nearly two years later. This made it seem as if the grave was only recently dug and could have even been done so within the last few days. Sheriff Murray, wanting to know exactly what was going on, called for Mr. Sprague to bring the shovels and the three men started digging. If there truly was a body in this mound, Murray was determined to find it.
As the three men began to slowly and gently remove the loose dirt, a definite outline made up of solid earth began to show the classic form of an open grave. As inch after inch was removed from the grave with every scoop of the shovels, the men grew more focused, anxious for a human form to appear within the dirt. Eventually, the accumulated inches turned into feet and before long, the three men found themselves standing around a five-foot deep grave still filled with loose dirt. Realizing that the body within must be close, Sheriff Murray gently pushed the shovel tip down into the dirt and began sifting back and forth in hopes of making contact with something solid. And it wasn’t long before he did.
Hoping for a body, Sheriff Murray was both upset and confused when the shovel made contact with the hardpan soil below. They had reached the bottom and no corpse or even remnants of skeletal remains were located. But just because the grave was empty didn’t mean the mystery was over, not by a long shot. In examining the now fully open grave, the men noticed that the tree in which the grave was dug below, had its roots growing outward into the same location in which the grave was dug. At some point though, all these roots had been cut so as not to grow into the actual grave itself. Some of these roots were reported to have been over six inches in diameter. Cutting these would have been no easy task, so for someone to take the time to do this and do it with such care, it only further solidified the belief that this truly was a grave. But again, where was the body?
As stated above, the location in which this mystery grave was found was located miles from any road or trail and hours away from any area of civilization. This place, by all intents and purposes, was the middle of nowhere. Because of this, Sheriff Murray didn’t personally believe that anyone would have done this as a joke. There was no reason for it and the chance of anyone actually discovering it was incredibly slim. It was only by chance and a quick glance in the right direction that Bert Apker even noticed it, and that was only because he was trained to look for anomalies in a timber setting. So if this grave was meant to be a joke, whoever set it up was playing the long game.
One question that plagued Sheriff Murray and his two men was why was the dirt recently disturbed and loosened? From the overall dimensions of the grave itself, this would not have been dug for a child, this was clearly intended to hold the body of an adult. So if there was actually a body within it at one point, did someone possibly dig it up and remove it only a few days before its discovery by Apker? If so, why would they then go to the trouble of filling it back in with such care to make it look as if nothing was removed? Again, this is in the middle of nowhere. Nobody was going to find out, and if someone did, the culprit(s) would have been long gone anyway.
Ultimately though, the biggest question that stayed with everyone who came across the grave was, who or what exactly was O.M.L.? Were these initials even for a name at all? At the time of the discovery, there were no missing persons from any of the surrounding areas or counties with Wisconsin’s Northwoods. The untouched Northwoods timber area was big, yes, and people did go missing quite often either due to accidents created by man or nature, but never under circumstances such as this. This grave and everything about it was an anomaly and appeared to go against every attempt to solve its mysteries. The only thing that was “known” was that someone made this grave for a specific purpose and only the gravedigger knew exactly what was kept inside. But whoever this person was, they chose to remain silent and never came forward.
Slowly time passed and eventually the case grew as cold as the dirt filling the grave itself. Unsurprisingly, as with most one-off mysteries found within the woods, the case of O.M.L was never solved and ended up fading into obscurity. The numerous land and timber companies continued operating as usual, areas of forest were sold and resold, and countless trees were harvested and replanted. The industry continued its advancement forward all the while leaving the forgotten memory of O.M.L. buried in the sandy soil below. A true enigma of the woods, unknown for nearly 100 years.
So, the next time you find yourself in an area of dense forest, hours from civilization and far from the beaten path, keep your eyes open and really look at the land around you. Because you never know what secrets are buried just below your feet.
-The Pine Barrens Institute
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