Thanks for Asking | August 15, 2013

our local jack-of-all-facts tells you how it is

Frank Smoot |

How did Half Moon Lake get its name?

Thanks for asking. In one way it seems simple enough, doesn’t it? I mean, look at it. But then why not Horseshoe or Banana or Oxbow Lake? (Smart people keep telling me it’s an oxbow amputated from the Chippewa River long ago, and who am I to argue?) But I’m afraid the who, when, and why of the actual christening are lost to the mists of time.

The earliest maps actually showing the lake are 1848 survey maps. (There are much earlier maps of the general area.) In 1785, Thomas Jefferson established a regular method of surveying land into a grid so the federal government, which had no power to tax, could get cash by selling land. Crews started out on horseback in the “Old Northwest,” roughly Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and northeastern Minnesota. It took them 63 years to get to Carson Park’s Birch Pavilion.

These crews (usually a half-dozen wiry young men) always had one literate guy along. He wrote a description and made a rough sketch. I’m told those field notes were sent to Iowa, where draftsmen turned them into art. You can find the rough sketch of the lake online at the Wisconsin Commissioners of Public Lands site. Or you can just trust me.

That rough sketch marks it “Half Moon Lake.” But I think that’s a red herring. Clues? Not only does it look like it was written with a different pen (maybe much later?), but the actual 1848 plat (the fancy Iowa drawing) doesn’t call the lake anything.

The written record then? Eau Claire County was carved from Chippewa County in October 1856, eight years after our young survey crew came riding through. (We had just lately been the Town of Clearwater in Chippewa County.) The spanking new county had one eponymic town – we were the County of Eau Claire, and we were the Town of Eau Claire. At the very first meeting of the Eau Claire County Board, January 1857, our three supervisors – C. M. Seley, Wheeler Robbins, and Moses Page – set off the Town of Half Moon Lake: whatever lay west and north of the Chippewa River (basically the Town of Union and what’s now Eau Claire’s west side). That town shortly became just Half Moon, then West Eau Claire, then some other names, then Union, then Country Jam.

Those board minutes – which County Clerk Janet Loomis can still, in 2013, dig up while you’re on the phone with her – is the first mention of Half Moon Lake I’ve found. But those minutes themselves suggest that that’s what people had been calling the lake, right? That is, though they might have been PR rockstars, I don’t think Seley, Robbins, or Page hit that note right then.

Back to the shape, maybe? Hmm. In an aerial photo, it doesn’t actually look like a half moon. Much more like a kielbasa. Of course, not too many 1850s Eau Clairians had a way to go aerial or take photos, so maybe that’s not the thing. (For that matter, not too many 1850s Eau Clairians had kielbasa either, being mainly Canadians and Yankees.)

But maybe none of it is the thing. You’ll find countless Half Moon Lakes across America, a good number of them half-moon-shaped. You’ll find at least two others within a couple hours’ drive. Polk County’s Half Moon Lake, just northeast of Balsam Lake, looks like a half moon to me. Lincoln County’s Half Moon Lake, just northwest of Tomahawk, does not. To my eyes, as much as anything else, that one looks like Squidward, SpongeBob’s cartoon coworker.

Got a local question? Send it (205 N. Dewey St.) or email it ( and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 43 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.