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Flash From The Past - 1969
June 12

Oconto County Reporter       A History of Oconto County
by: George Hall

contributed by Dave Cisler
transcribed by Cathe Ziereis

 

(This is the ninth article of a weekly series on Oconto's early History, researched, compiled and written by George E. Hall, president of the Oconto County Historical Society and county historian. The articles, which will appear later in book form, are the result of an effort which began thirty years ago.)

 "God Bless You, Soldier"

Oconto citizens have always been patriotic and loyal to their country. At the outbreak of the Civil War, at a time when there was but a small population here, Oconto raised three military companies and enlisted many men in outside companies. No other place shows a better record in Wisconsin. 

One company was known as the Oconto River Drivers. They had no guns and were drilled with handspikes called pike poles presented to them by Colonel Balcom. The handspikes were painted red and were carried to Madison when the company moved there. Later they were returned to Oconto and stored in the present courthouse where most of them were destroyed in a fire. Some were removed by members of the company, were later returned, and are now in the Oconto County Historical Museum. The Oconto River Drivers were in various engagements and battles and mustered out at Fort Leavenworth September 29, 1865, The Oconto River Drivers were also known as Company H of the Fourth Cavalry.

Men from all over Oconto County made up the company and were transported by boat to the present city of Green Bay. There in 1861, on the day the troops were to depart for the war, a great crowd gathered to bid them farewell. The soldiers were presented with articles and tokens to be used while serving their country.

Mrs. M, L. Martin, a relative of Mrs. Huff Jones, then delivered this address:
"In presenting to you these few articles necessary for camp life, permit us also, soldiers, to thank you, in the name of every mother, wife and daughter throughout our land, that you are ready to stand forth in this time of dark adversity is your nation's safeguard and defense - not esteeming your awn lives dear unto yourselves, except as a shield to the loved ones who cluster about your own hearthstones, as a defender of all that is pure, noble and good in the land that gave you birth, or which, as your adopted home, is equally precious.

"You have been called into a most unnatural, yet now: irrepressible, conflict; let us, however, beseech that you enter it not with spirit of blood-thirsty revenge or diabolical hatred, out simply as the guardian of your country's honor, Our Union has been harassed, goaded, driven to desperation by the scrupulous ambition and black-hearted aggression of Southern despots, yet are we well assured that God will still in mercy remember this Northern land of freedom. He will never forget he 'love of her espousals', when far more than any others, d id she forsake principalities and power, cast off her purple and fine linen, deserting kings' palaces where she had been so luxuriously and delicately reared, to free herself from the rod of a soul oppressor; following the guidance of her Heaven Master- not where a way was opened in the deep that she might pass over dry shod, but through perils untold over a stormy sea. Not murmuring, as did. God's ancient people, the Jews, even with the promised land of plenty in full view, neither fed with manna from heaven, but amid danger and suffering unparalleled, they wandered to and through a wilderness with only wild beasts and blood-thirsty heathens as their companionship.

'Fainting, bleeding, dying, they still set to their seal that God was true and, wrapping the mantle of Christ's salvation closely about them as a glorious winding sheet and shouting freedom as their password into heaven, laid them down to die on the hard, sterile coast of stormy New England as content as if, indeed, the promised land were not far ahead.

"As long as a dust of Plymouth Rock remains, or the name of Sumter stands engraved upon a Northern heart, so long will these hearts cry out for Justice, union, the Constitution and liberty.
'God bless you, soldiers And may the consecrated Stars and Stripes be folded about you as a safeguard and shield. Heaven grant that the eyes of the rebel host may be opened wide that they may see, as did a company of treacherous men in the olden times, these legions in chariots of fire composed of every nation under the sun yet coursing their way as brothers over every mountain and pleasant hilltop, winding through every gentle valley and dark ravine of your own Wisconsin pineries to meet a swarming crowd amid the thoroughfares of Eastern cities an unbroken line of well-trained warriors, reaching from the broad Atlantic to the mightier Pacific, holding back in mercy, but ready to hurl a flaming sword of Justice against all rebels and unrighteous traitors.
Whether, therefore, soldiers, you live to wear the victor's crown or die as martyrs on the battlefield, let this be your motto: 'In God is our trust', praying, also, even with your last breath, that the flag of the Union may soon wave as triumphantly over the palmetto and orange tree of the far South as over our own sturdy, generous, free North!"

The Oconto County Historical Society now has the original address in Mrs. Martin's own handwriting at the museum.

Oconto Becomes A City

Oconto was chartered and became a city by an Act of the Legislature of the State of Wisconsin March 11, 1869.

George Smith, prominent lumber baron, was elected the first mayor. His beautiful home with a front portico of four stately pillars is located on the south side of McDonald Street. Across the street was once a lumber mill owned by him.

At that time Oconto was, for the most part, made up of a number of mill settlements located along the river. Among the largest, in order of their founding, were the old Jones' Water Mill and dam, acquired by William Brunquest, located at Susie's Hill at the west end of the city and the Jones' Steam Mill settlement near the east end of the city on the present site of the Oconto Yacht Club, later the Jacob Spies’ mill property. Between these two settlements, on the north side of the river was Charles Norton's mill, which became the Holt and Balcom Lumber Company property. To the west, on the north bank of the river, were the Oconto Company lumber mills and a flourmill.
 

George Farnsworth, the son of Queen Marinette, was a Civil War veteran, Oconto county Judge, sheriff.

 
The Oconto Company was founded by George Farnsworth who formerly was superintendent of the Holt and Balcom plant.

         A road, that was filled up in the many low places with sawdust and slabs, extended from the east to the west end of the town and connected all the settlements on the north side of the river. Parts of the road were built on an Indian trail. That road, which for years was called 'Mill Road", is Oconto's Main Street today.

On the south side of the river much of Oconto was high, level and sandy. It was unlike the swampy north side with its spotty, high knolls. From pioneer days, a footpath or trail extended from the Lindsey home in Lindsey Field to the Dunton log house on the south bank of the river. This trail connected with the old winding Indian trail that led out of Oconto toward Oconto Falls and Shawano. Here and there along this widened trail were huts, cabins and small frame houses from pioneer days. Before 1869, the trail was widened into a road, which comprises First Street and McDonald Street today.

The original "plat of the City of Oconto", which had been laid out by David Jones over a decade before, was now mostly filled with neat rows of homes. The original court house with a belfry all built of pine and painted white stood highest of all at the southeast corner of Collins Avenue and First Street. The sheriff's quarters and jail were to the east of it.

Across the road from the court house and jail, between the river and First Street, the brick "fireproof* County Building housed the offices of the county clerk, register of deeds, county treasurer, county surveyor and the probate court of the county judge. That building is now the center part of Oconto Memorial Hospital.

On the southwest corner of Collins Avenue and Third Street was the Baptist Church. On the west side of Collins, south of the river, the Hunter, Orr, Newell and Company mill was located. In later years it was the site of the Holt Shingle Mill. West of Scherer Avenue was Richard Hall's Planing Mill, Sash and Door Factory and further west 'was the George Smith, England and Winslow Lumber Mill establishment. West of that was a small home that served as a mail depot at one time.

England, prominent early lumberman, and his wife, May. May was the daughter of Oconto's first mayor, George Smith, whose old home is still standing on McDonald-st Just east of the Jefferson school. It is now owned by Norman Exferd, a distant relative of Thomas Lindsey who was Oconto's first permanent white settler

The first bridge across the Oconto River in Frenchtown was called the Patterson Bridge after Mr. Patterson who had a store at the southwest corner of the bridge. In later years this store became the Riverside Tavern, or the Bert and Milton Cain property, and then just the Riverside Tavern.
Most of the French-Canadian families settled along both sides of the river in the vicinity of the bridge, St. Peter's Catholic Church and the Oconto Company Flour Mill. Among the early settlers there were Constant Noel, millwright for the Oconto Company mills, and Peter Pecor and the Samuel Brazeau, Xavier Brazeau and F. X. Brazeau families who had considerable land holdings in the French settlement.

"The   "State Road” from   Menominee, Michigan, to Walnut Street   in Green Bay now ran through town on Superior Avenue across   the   Superior • Avenue   Bridge, down Scherer Avenue, McDonald Street and Smith Avenue onto present Highway 41 - 

     A pier (now called the Old Norwegian Pier) and steamboat landing jetted out into the bay at the northeast edge of the city. A small pioneer Scandinavian settlement of commercial fishermen and boat builders had settled on Oconto's sandy shore.

     A road called the Pier Road led westward through a big marshy lowland and connected with the old Mill Road which had become downtown Main Street, The Pier Road, too, was mostly built up in the low places with sawdust, slabs, bark and other waste from the sawmills.

     In a March 1869 issue of the Green Bay Gazette appeared this complimentary news item:

*OCONTO is a city now - a real, live city.
Why   it is only a few years since she boasted
But   a few   mills and a handful of inhabitants.
We rejoice in her prosperity."
 

Pioneer Fishermen

The beautiful west shore of Green Bay - Oconto's front door - had in succession been a favorite fresh water fishing area for the Indians, the buckskin-clad explorers and voyagers. French missionaries, Creole settlers, and Yankee, German and Scandinavian commercial fishermen.
When a great part of northeastern Wisconsin was still a dense forest wilderness untouched by lumberjacks, commercial fishermen were settling on and near Oconto's shores. Cyrus and Samuel Thomas, Gust and Herman Rohrlock, John Olsen and Peter Christiansen established homes on the north shore and are considered Oconto's pioneer fishermen.
 
 

Antone Conrad, one of the first commercial fishermen to settle along the bay shore.
From available records it appears John Stein was the first commercial fisherman situated on the Oconto River. Hans Knutson, Antone Conrad and John Mosling, a boat builder, also lived at Oconto, as did George Hart. On the south shore adjacent to Oconto, Louis Reed, Charles Zippel and the Bostedt and Gumach families were early settlers.

Farther south along the bay, but still connected with Inhabitants of other communities, were fishermen John Wensing and Joseph LaVelle at Pensaukee, John, Charles and William Windross and Henry Plucker at Oak Orchard. Still farther south at Suamico were John, Charles, August and George Grosse.

In the early days of commercial fishing here, white fish, trout and herring were the most marketable. The "catch" was salted, packed in kegs and shipped by water to large shipping centers in the east. Sturgeons were plentiful but considered a nuisance because they tore the fishermen's nets. 'Taken in by the ton", they were piled on the shore like cordwood. Later some were used for garden fertilizer. There was no market for perch in the 1850's,

One Lone Swede

Sometime after, fishermen from Norway began settling with their families along the shore at Oconto. At one time the whole west shore was inhabited entirely by Norwegians with the exception of Fred Wickenberg, the "lone Swede", Among the Norwegians here were the families of Sander Anderson, Peter Benson, Ole Gabrlelson, Jens Hagsfors, Conrad Johnson, Ed Johnson, Peter Laxfors, John Lundemo, Charles Skog and Michel Valrvg, It was a familiar sight in those days to see the fishermen's stakes where their nets were set off shore. Other fishermen in the Green Bay area also came here to fish.

Numerous fishing boats of different kinds and sizes dotted the bay. When not in use, the boats were moored along the banks of the river and other outlets on the bay next to the fish houses where the catch was processed and packed for shipping. Fishing nets were dried and repaired on big reels.

In the winter, the bay scene changed to fisherman’s canvas covered huts on runners.

Sail sleighs – sleighs fitted with sails and sometimes referred to as ice boats- were used by the American – Norwegians to bring in the “catch” from their fish shanties on the ice. Conrad Johnson remembers when fishermen used them a great deal each winter. In the right wind they attained speeds of 40 miles per hour. It took considerable skill to handle an ice boat. If the wind failed before they got back from their fish shanty, they had to pull the sleigh full of fish. The use of horses and sleighs came later.

The fishermen also cut and stored bay ice to be used for packing their fish for shipping in the summer. Some areas of clear ice on the bat were taken over by crews from commercial ice houses who sawed the ice in heavy square blocks. Teams of horses hauled the heavy loads of ice on sleighs from the bay to the roofless, frame ice houses on the river banks. There the chunks were stacked and packed in sawdust from the mills to be sold in the summer for packing, butcher ships, and the forerunner of the refrigerator, the “ice box”.

Some ice was also harvested on the Oconto River, but not by the fishermen who cut their ice only on the bay.
 

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