The city of Vilas was first surveyed for the Western Town Lot Company on August 29, 1883. In anticipation of rampant growth, as was the hope of many frontier towns, Vilas surveyed an addition to the city in December 1883 and once again in 1888.
Vilas received its name in likeness of Col. William F. Vilas, who, at the time, was a Civil War veteran and prominent Wisconsin attorney. W. F. Vilas was later appointed as Postmaster General of the United States in 1885, Secretary of the Interior in 1888, and served as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1891 to 1897.
Vilas was the only town in Miner County with two railway lines, being the junction of the Milwaukee and North Western railroads. This was perhaps Vilas’ greatest advantage over newly platted towns, as the presence of two railroads often led to a significantly higher rate of growth, with examples being Mitchell or Aberdeen.
Standing in the way of Vilas becoming a flourishing frontier city, however, was Howard. The city of Howard had been established in 1881, giving it a sufficient advantage against Vilas in that it already had established businesses and a growing population numbering over 350. Also on the side of Howard was its close proximity, with Howard being located three miles to the east of Vilas.
However, Vilas’ two railway lines and vast room for growth did provide ample enticement for Howard businesses to relocate, a sentiment that was further enforced by the constant efforts of Vilas' founders. This effort on the part of Vilas to compete with its neighbor to the east was put to an abrupt halt by J. D. Farmer, the founder of Howard. Farmer held multiple community meetings and convinced local businesses to stand by Howard, an effort that essentially sealed the fate of Vilas.
Despite major setbacks, Vilas still experienced growth to some degree. Its population peaked at 157 residents during the 1920s, a number that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, fell to 106 in 1930, 91 in 1940, and a mere 71 by 1950. Today, Vilas has an estimated 19 residents.
-Written by George Justice Forster, originally printed in the Miner County Pioneer.