Finn Lawler, one of the best-known pioneers in Vilas County, was born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1849. He left Canada at the age of 18 and arrived in Wisconsin three years later. After a series of jobs in Oshkosh, Neenah, Portage and Shawano he set out for Muskequagamon, a small village on the Wolf River, where he began trading with the Indians. In the years he spent as a woodsman and trading, he learned the Chippewa language and developed knowledge of the customs and character of the Chippewa people.
In 1873, along with Charles Perry, Lawler arrived in the area that would become Vilas County. After a summer scouting the area, they returned to Shawano for supplies and spent the winter trapping. Traveling up the military road, they arrived at Virgin Lake, east of the present day Three Lakes, with a large log canoe and a smaller birch canoe. They put into the chain of lakes to Eagle River and went up Rice Creek to Pickerel Lake where they hid the large canoe and continued on foot, using the birch canoe when they could. They established a winter camp on Rock Lake (now Escanaba Lake) between Boulder Junction and Star Lake. They left camp a bit too late in the spring and, as a result of the soft snow, took ten days to travel about 20 miles to the Anvil Lake area.
In 1875, Lawler and Perry returned to Eagle River. They cleared four acres at the foot of Yellow Birch Lake and planted garden crops. At this time, Lawler was also involved in timber surveying and selling hardwood, pine and spruce on commission.
Lawler and Perry were among only a handful of settlers in Eagle River prior to 1883 when the railroad opened up the area. A year and a half later the legislature officially chartered the town of Eagle River. Originally, the town encompassed an area from St. Germain to Scattering Rice Lake and from the current Oneida County line to the Michigan border.
Finn Lawler was elected the first town chairman of Eagle River and was also the first school clerk. When Vilas County was formed a few years later, he served as assessor, deputy surveyor and county clerk. In 1901, while county clerk, he compiled a complete new abstract of title for Vilas County and organized the Vilas County Abstract Company. His father had been the registrar of deeds back in New Brunswick and young Finn had spent a good deal of time in his father’s office.
Later Finn’s abstract office was located in the Lawler Building, currently the location of the Country Candy Store on Wall Street. He was also involved in organizing the Farmers and Merchants Bank and served as its president until his death.
Shortly after developing the abstract business, Finn Lawler married Mary Elizabeth (Mae) Weigand, a school teacher in Eagle River. The couple had three children, two boys who died in infancy, and a girl, Ruth, who lived in Eagle River and died in 1998 at the age of 86.
After Finn Lawler’s death in 1927, his wife and daughter managed the abstract business.
Recent research has turned up information about Mr. Lawler that was previously unknown to the Historical Society. On March 15, 1892, the Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper published the following: “Finn Lawler, a once-prominent citizen and town chairman of Eagle River, is lying in the county jail with a ghastly cut in his abdomen and numerous wounds in his neck. He was found over in Forest County in that condition and as he is demented it is believed the wounds were self-inflicted. There is no hope for his recovery.” Clearly, the dismal prognosis was not correct. Several other papers, including the Rhinelander newspaper, carried the same story. There is no mention of this incident in any more modern recounts of his life, nor has it ever been explained.
Because of his association with every phase of the development of our area Finn Lawler has been called the Father of Eagle River. And, as it is said he walked every square foot of the county, he is also known as the Grandfather of Vilas County.