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Flash From The Past - 1969
June 5

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

contributed by Dave Cisler
transcribed by Cathy Ziereis


Oconto County is Organized

The first election at what is now Oconto took place on November 4, 1851. It was held to form and name a new county out of the north part of Brown County. The boundaries were set and the Oconto mills settlement was decided on as the county seat. Oconto County came into being.

In June of 1852, the voters assembled at the home of David Jones to organize and elect officers for Oconto County under an act of the Wisconsin Legislature passed in April 1852. At sundown the polls closed and the votes were counted. Seventy-three votes had been cast electing Jonathan S.Hale, Charles Windross and Phillip Frank supervisors of the newly founded county.
Rufus Hubbard was named County treasurer and William Delano of Brookside was elected County Surveyor.

Some of these men, however, did not meet the qualifications and a new election was held July 21 of the same year at the home of Thomas Lindsey. Edwin Hart was elected County Treasurer and register of Deeds and William Delano was re-elected as county Surveyor.

The day before Christmas 1852 the first taxes were levied in the village and the county road was ordered to be laid out from Oconto village to Oconto Falls, where John Volk was living at the time. In the same year Mr. Hart took the census of Oconto County. The number of inhabitants was 415. (In the U. S. census of 1850 the settlers on the Oconto River were counted as "wilderness dwellers".) Although Mr. Hart's census did not include the Indians, the first true natives of Oconto, the community was very much aware of their existence and their numbers.

The Price of Infidelity

It was usual then when the white settlers took over an Indian settlement for their use to expect the Indians to remain, rather than attempting to buy them out. As a result, in time the Indians forgot many of their old customs, their moral code changed, and some became degenerate through the unwise use of whiskey and other intoxicants sold them by the white man. The Indians at Oconto were no exception. Occasionally when they sold sugar or venison for white man's silver money, they traded the silver for whiskey and some Indians in the Oconto village by the river got out of hand.

In one instant, two braves in happy spirits struck up a flirtation with a couple of Indian maids. The affair was soon discovered by the wives of the faithless braves. One of them took a maple paddle from a canoe at the landing and, creeping quietly behind her husband, struck him a blow across the top of his head which split his skull open and caused instant death. Nothing more was heard of the incident in a court of law, however and it is presumed the tribe recognized her right to act under the unwritten law.

The wife of the other brave was more diplomatic; she inflicted a different kind of punishment upon her husband. Going to him with an injured air, she threw her arms about him as though to win him away from his dusky charmer. Unsuspecting, her husband inclined his head to receive her kiss and as he did so she seized his nose in her teeth and bit the end off close to his face. Tearing herself away, she threw the piece of her husband’s nose in the river.

In pain and desperation, the mutilated Indian ran from the camp to the Arnold home. He knocked at the door and, holding his hand over his bleeding face, asked for a cloth to stop the bleeding. Mrs. Arnold quickly got some bandages and asked to see what happened to his face, thinking she could dress it for him. When he drew his hand away, disclosing his noseless, bleeding face, she witnessed a sight she never forgot.

The Indian, once a handsome fellow, tall and straight, was now disfigured for life. His wife had made sure he would never stray from her side again to charm another Indian maid. The medicine man of the tribe doctored the would, and after it healed the Indian always wore a buckskin patch where the nose had been. The patch was fastened by strings passed over his ears and tied at the back of his head. Thereafter, he always went by the name of "Old Patch-Nose". He had learned his lesson. He quit drinking and became an industrious Indian and a mighty hunter, skilled in 

CHIEF YELLOW DOG - Well known Indian of Oconto and Marinette. (note: the Chief is seen here during spring planting. He carries a grub hoe for soil cultivation, a hand ax for chopping brush and roots, and a white seed bag, possibly filled with potato eyes, used to plant as the ground is prepared by hand. Early settlers to the county used the same methods).

It was during those days the Indians of Oconto took the names of pioneer white men for themselves. Some Indians of the area who became well known were Marinette, Chief Oshkosh, John and Susie Mechquette, David Kikatosh, Yellow Dog and Chief Machicknee. Most of them in the Indian settlement here and all were more or less nomadic.

The first store in Oconto (Edwin Hart refers to it as his trading post) was established in a building located at the north end of the present Park Avenue bridge at the corner of Lemke Street. The main business districts of the little village the rapidly grew on what is now South Park Avenue and Collins Avenue.

The First "Schoolhouse"

In one end of the building where Hart kept his store school was taught by a man named Squires who employed the old-fashioned methods of installing knowledge into the mind by sometimes applying the switch to the legs. The school had an enrollment of about fifteen. Desks were boards nailed to each side of the wall at a proper angle and the seats consisted of two stationary benches in front of the rough board desks. The pupils sat facing the walls. Before that, James A. Glynn taught children in his home. A Sabbath or Sunday School also was organized and taught at the Hart home, then on the banks of the river.

First Circular Saw in the West

In 1853, Samuel B. Gilkey purchased some of the land occupied by the Indians and opened up a lodging house and tavern. Mr. Lindsey already had a log hotel, or stopping-off place, erected nearby. In 1854, Gilkey erected a steam mill on another part of the Indian village, which he soon sold to R. M. Norton. This mill, which stood until 1942, had the first circular saw in the west. George Farnsworth was superintendent then and mill men from all over the surrounding country came to see the saw in operation. This introduction of the circular saw in 1856 gave the lumber industry its first great impetus. Later this mill came into the hands of the Holt & Balcom Lumber Company who added to the structure and created what was then a very up-to-date lumber plant.

On the same day that Norton took over the mill property, Samuel Gilkey took out a deed on land on the southeast corner of what is now Park Avenue and Main Street and erected the "Empire House". Here the travelling public was long entertained. Swampland sales were held and balls, public dances, political gatherings and conventions. Here, also, several Oconto churches and church societies organized. Later, Civil War veterans on veteran furloughs were welcomed. The first sidewalk in Oconto was built between the Empire House and Link's Saloon and the Empire House continued to be a favorite resort until its more pretentious neighbor the first Richard House (which advertised as being "complete throughout") was built just a little closer to the river on Park Avenue.

Steamboats Appear on Oconto River

The first steamboat, the "Pioneer", came to Oconto in 1854 and about this time Edwin Hart began to transport passengers to and from Oconto and to different villages on the bay. There were no bridges across the river at the time so Mr. Hart's son, Cyrus Hart, then sixteen years of age, established to toll ferry. He used small skiffs to transfer passengers from one side to other and charged a fare of five cents, 20 cents for a team and 30 cents for a double team. He operated this ferry for three or four years at the river crossing now spanned by the Park Avenue bridge. He was given permission by the proper authorities "to run from sunrise to sunset of each day..... Sunday excepted."

It was during the year 1855 that Peter Pecor sold most of his property to Morrill and St. Ores, and on this land another steam mill was built. A few years later the mill's principal owner was George Farnsworth, who later donated the public library to Oconto. He had the mill greatly enlarged and improved. Twelve years later the whole property was deeded to the Oconto Company and that concern grew to "colossal proportions".

Roads Replace Forest Trails

THE EMPIRE HOUSE was built by Samuel Gilkey on the southeast corner of Main Street and Park Avenue and served in the mid-1800's as a meeting place and stage coach stop.
In the spring of 1855, the first state road from Fort Howard to Menominee was laid out. Prior to that time there was no road and the Indians followed the trails, which seemed to lead "from nowhere to nowhere". An early settler of those day’s states: "We traveled in boats in the summer and in the winter the ice was our highway".

About this time Richard Hall established a land office and began to survey in the village. In 1855 he was commissioned by the federal government to survey and stake out the road from the Menominee River south through Oconto and Pensaukee to Walnut Street in Green Bay. With the help of Mr. Jacobs, Mr. Royce and the Indian scout Dave Kikatosh, the surveying was accomplished within that year. This road from Green Bay or Fort Howard, was called the Fort Howard - Menominee State Road. This winding road was built so as to be on the highest Indian trails. Part of it is traveled today as present U.S. Highway 41.

The following advertisement appeared in the Green Bay Advocate: " A stage coach line put on by R. J. Bogart is to run between Green Bay, Oconto and Stiles shortly".

The Hazards of Stage Travel

In the newly established paper, Oconto Lumberman, which published by Joseph Hall, an advertisement speaks for itself: "The subscriber has made arrangements to fit up the State Line, between Green Bay and Menominee, with a complete stock of spring wagons, sleighs, robes, good teams and accommodating drivers and pledges himself to make connections with the cars at Green Bay without exacting any bonus or special charges. In fact, everything about his line will be conducted upon a broad, fair and liberal basis, and by so
doing  he hopes to meet the wants and favor of the traveling public. The line will be under the sole charge of Sylvester Welsch, a gentleman of experience in the business. Further particulars will be given in programs and posters. T. T. Hurley, Green Bay and Menominee."

In the same issue of the paper appeared another interesting advertisement, that of the Lake Superior Stage Company which among other things, advertised it would run a daily line of stages between the booming town of Escanaba on the north end of the bay and Green Bay...."during the winter leaving Escanaba every morning at sic o'clock. Having a full stock of good horses, 83 coaches, and sleighs, the company is prepared to carry passengers, WITH REGULARITY and at prices lower than by any other line. Mark English, Superintendent."

From the Escanaba Tribune the following clipping advertising the Oconto Empire House as the stopping off place of stage travelers is quoted in part: " Empire House, New and Elegantly furnished. A. B. Weelock, Prop. Oconto, Wis. Good Stabling and Attentive Hostlers. Lake Superior Stages makes this their stopping place."

Other stopping-off places were the Jueanu House at Marinette, the Deer Creek House, which advertised "plenty of hay and water for cattle, situated on Deer Creek, six miles from Cedar River, and ranks equal to any on the route in accommodations," There was the Marquette House at Negaunee, Michigan, and the Gaynor House at Escanaba advertised for horses and claimed to set a god table prepared for either transient or steady. The Escanaba House bragged in print - "his bar is furnished with the best of all kinds of liquor - good stabling and good beds." At Green Bay, the "long established" Beaumont House said - " the proprietor will spare no pains or expense to make it pleasant for their guests." All these at one time were hosteiries on the stage route. They all were called "houses" not "hotels" or "hostelries" until recent years.

The lodging places retained the name "House" in Oconto, too. reminders of the days of the lumberjack in northern Wisconsin. After the stagecoach line and hostelries, or stopping off places, were established, many travelers took the stage in preference to bay boats. It was reported that wolves along the stage road were to plentiful for comfort at that time, and must have given stage drivers and travelers alike starts and thrills when at night packs of wolves followed the scent of the stage teams on these rough, dark roads. Part of these roads are now Highway 41 going north and the old so-called Pensaukee (recently paved) road going south.

After arriving at Green Bay, passengers could take the "cars". A railway had been established between Appleton and the two thriving lake towns of Milwaukee and Chicago. Once a passenger from the "Bay Wilderness" reached Chicago, he could take a train from Chicago to New York or Boston.

In the time elapsed between the staking out the Fort Howard - Menominee Road and the establishment of the regular stage coach line, hardly a year elapsed but some great stride was made in the building up of Oconto.

A City Takes Form

Along with the lumber mills and logging operations, fur trade, although diminishing, continued to be a big business here as the following report indicates; 
"In 1860 the fur trade in Oconto amounted to $75,000. Following are the prices:

Muskrat .10 to .20
Mink $1.25 to $2.00
Otter $4.00 to $6.00
Marten $1.50 to $2.50
Fox $1.00 to $1.50
Beaver $1.00
Fischer $4.00 to $6.00
Raccoon .62
Wolf $1.00 to $1.50
Bear $6.00 to $9.00
Deer, undressed, .25 to .30
Deer, dressed, $1.50 to $2.00

According to the census of the 1860, Oconto had a population of 889 Caucasians, about twice that of Marinette at the time. The city had it's own post office with Otto Block the postmaster. His salary depended on the amount of mail he handled for the first year.

A courthouse and jail were erected on the site of the present old brick jail lots in 1856. In 1857 the streets, lots and blocks east of Collins Avenue between First and Fourth Streets were laid out. A public square (still used as such) was set in the center and is now used for baseball and ice-skating. One street was named in honor of Judge S. R. Cotton who presided at the first two terms of court held in 1857 in Hart's building before the courthouse was erected.

The first Methodist church was built on Section Street (Park Ave.) across from McGoff's Livery 

St. Peter's Catholic church, built in Frenchtown in 1857, was the worship place of all the earliest pioneers of Oconto of the Catholic faith.
Stable. That building stands today in a new location. It is St. Mark's Guild Hall. The first St. Peter's Catholic Church, made of logs, was replaced in the early 1860's by a white frame building on the present site of St. Peter's in Frenchtown. The First Presbyterian Church, a wooden structure, was erected on Oconto's new Main Street in 1864 on the corner of Main Street and Ellis Avenue.

A new community had to have a voice and newspapers began to appear. The first paper was established by George C. Ginty and was called the "Oconto Pioneer". It was printed on the second floor of the Holt Lumber Company office on Superior Ave, now the office of "The Reminder" at the Superior Ave. bridge. Ginty later enlisted in the Civil War, "distinguished himself" and became a general. His paper was purchased by Cyrus Hart, who later edited the Oconto County Reporter. "The Oconto Lumberman", which succeeded "The Oconto Pioneer" was another of Oconto's early papers, first put out by Joseph Hall in 1861.

As the village became ever more settled the citizens looked

The original Music Hall, built by Charles Hall on the northeast corner of Main Street and Park Avenue. The auditorium was upstairs and was for some time the cultural center where dramas, balls, and musicals were held. Charles Hall had a store on the first floor and his brother Joseph had a printing office on where he turned out the "Oconto Pioneer" - later changed the newspaper's name to the "Oconto Lumberman".
    The triangular frames hanging from the store front are hoop skirts frames. A corner of the Empire House can be see on the opposite corner (note: upper right corner of the photo). In the foreground is the town pump (note: right center front). The lamp below the window is now in the Oconto County Historic Museum.  
 toward bringing "culture" to their town and the
first Music Hall, or opera house, was built by Charles Hall, brother of the newspaper editor, Joseph Hall. Oconto's main business district now took in the new Min Street as well as South Park Avenue and over the bridge, Collins Avenue. More people were buying plots of ground and building their own homes on both sides of the river, first on the platted parts and higher plots and later on the swamp areas, rapidly being filled in with sawdust, bark, slabs and shavings from the mills. At that time a slimy slough ran through the middle of the site of the present Oconto County Court House. Indians were still seen in large numbers on the streets.

Most families of Oconto were now building on the "Oconto City Plat" south of the river east of Collins Avenue. A number of interesting old homes still stand on these streets and can be readily picked out. Most of them have shuttered windows and many panes of glass and the front entrances had doors with side lights which have passed in and out of style several times since they were first enjoyed by the original home owners. Some still retain a little of the "gingerbread" trimming, which was coming in style then. All were frame buildings made of white pine. Some still have the original finish on parts of the interior woodwork.

Life moved fast in Oconto in the late 1860's. Hardly a week passed without some notable change in the community's appearance. Newcomers arrived almost daily, including Civil War soldiers mustered out of the service and looking for a place to settle. More lumbermen came, new mills were erected and the input of pine lumber and pine ;umber products increased. Buildings on Main Street and through out the town went up one after the other on what had recently been a tamarack swamp. Over night stores, boarding houses, churches, saloons, homes, blacksmith shops, livery stables and other concerns seemed to spring into being, turning the sawdust village into a rough, boom lumber town.

James A. DonLevy erected the first brick store building in this city in what was known as the Flat Iron Block. Some original buildings still stand in Oconto, but at the time of this writing only one section of the original DonLevy block is left.

The rapid advance toward more civilized living is illustrated in this interesting description of Mr. Conniff's home as it appeared in Joseph Hall's paper. Upon a visit to Mr. Conniff's new residence one-day this week, we were more than agreeably surprised by the appearance of the residence. On entering the hall one is immediately struck with that beautiful imitation of ancient frescoing. The work is in cement, giving scenes of birds, flowers and fruit. The reception room presents the same class of workmanship and must be pronounced perfect in itself. The parlor is frescoed in architecture columns, the sleeping apartments are also frescoed, with furniture painted to correspond. The woodwork throughout the home is grained to represent walnut, English oak, black ash, maple and chestnut and the whole gives evidence of taste and refinement. The work has been accomplished under the supervision of Mr. Charles Norton of this city." Mr. Norton was an early owner of the Holt sawmill. The old Conniff home now stands at the northeast corner of Jones Avenue and Madison Street and is owned by Joseph Schuh.

Nearby, Henry Palmer, a timber cruiser, and his wife Lucy Palmer, had built and were settled in a big new home in the East Ward at the northeast corner of Jones Avenue and Adams Street. The Palmers named their home Elmwood Manor.

Edwin Hart and his wife, Eliza J. Hart, had platted (that is sub-divided) a portion of their land in the north part of town into large lots and blocks. The sub-division was named Eliza J. Hart's Addition to Oconto. Edwin and his son, George (who had become a prosperous commercial fisherman) built two large attractive homes on what was to become Park Avenue and soon after Captain Cyrus Hart, brother of George, built a red brick Georgian style mansion on the same street for his intended bride, Kitty Snover. Edwin Hart's home burned many years ago. George's home, now the Hall house, was acquired later by Richard L. Hall, Sr.

Cyrus Hart's brick mansion, the first brick home to be erected in Oconto County, was acquired by George Beyer who remodeled it extensively. He refinished the exterior and interior and later added stained glass windows and some wrought iron decorations. The home is now the Oconto County Historical Society museum.

In the northern part of the village, Herman Rhode, Frank and Maria Bitters, Louis Pahl, James and Edward Fitzgerald and Mr. Russell built homes. Peter Vanderhyden built a square brick house fashioned after an old country home of his native Holland.

Early picture of Oconto's downtown section at the corner of Main Street and Superior Avenue. The photo is believed to show the first funeral cortege in Oconto and was presumably taken between 1850 and 1855. The procession was heading north from Holt's mill and is turning west on Main Street. 
Frank Bitters, Peter VanGaal and Vanderwahl families settled on north Park Avenue. The James DonLevy home on the hill was built and is occupied today by two of his granddaughters, Gertrude and Helen DonLevy. Louis Pahl had a beautiful home on State Road next to the brewery he established.

In other parts of town, notably on Mill Road, which had been renamed Main Street, Huff Jones and his brother Robert, Colonel Uri Balcom, Joseph and George Hall, Henry Tourtillott, Timothy Goodrich and the Sargent brothers, Henry and James, built large frame homes. The Augustus Cole and William B. Mitchell homes were also built during this period. Blair MacQueen, grandson of William B. Mitchell, and his family live today in the Mitchell home.

The Rev. Seth Ford, Dr. Bentz, Dr. Paramour and Rodney Gillett were some of their neighbors. The Ernst Funke Hotel and first Richard House were in business on downtown Main Street. William Brunquest's mansion, successively owned by Governor Edward Schofield, Mrs. Gertrude Schofield, Dr. Raymond Rogers, Dr. Ben Harper and Dr. Michael Barton.

As newcomers from Europe began coming to Oconto, each nationality settled in their "own neighborhood". Peter Pecor's big house in Frenchtown and the "carpenter gothic" Milbury home were two show places on Pecor Street in the old days. The Joseph Hoeffel home was located on State Street, now called Brazeau Avenue. It was later that Samuel Brazeau home is now the home of Paul O'Neil.

Constant Noel, who was a native of France, later lived in Belgium and then came to America and settled in Oconto, was an architect and draftsman by trade and was the millwright who built the first Oconto Company mills for George Farnsworth. He had the Noel home built on Brazeau Avenue and it remained the Noel family home for over 75 years.

The Montreal House in Frenchtown was an old Canadian stopping-off place for food and lodging. Eusebe Allard and his wife, Louise, were the proprietors. Gust LaComte of Belgium was proprietor of the LaComte House, well known for its fine food. It had a big dance hall upstairs.

Steamer "Northwest" of Oconto and Green bay Line, Captain Edwin Hart was the owner. His sons, Henry and Clifford, operated the Hart Steamboat Line on Green Bay and Lake Michigan for many years. The little "Northwest", a "sidewheeler", was one of the earliest steamers on "the lakes and carried mail, freight and passengers. The boats are moored at the Hart docks just east of the Park Avenue bridge. The tug "Queen" was owned by early lumber companies. The houses are present day homes of Gerald Jarvis, Helen Neumier and Clarence LaViolette. The "Northwest" burned and sank many years later and formed the west end Ajax Island which was formed when Spies' Cut made by the Jacobs Spies Lumber Company.
It is certain that there are a number of homes older than those mentioned still standing in present day Oconto. A few may still be occupied by descendents of the original owners. It is said that several log houses, sheathed over with mill siding long years ago, are still standing in Oconto-perhaps unknown to the present occupants.

About this time the James Housner Brotherhood Hall and boarding house complex was a social community center in the Bohemian settlement.

Many German families began building in the northeast part of Oconto. The first Turner Hall was located on Superior Avenue on the second floor of the Klaas Building, last known as Frank's Blacksmith Shop. A park with a bowling alley and dance hall was located at the west end of town. It was developed by some of the early German settlers here and was always called Dutchman's Park. The whole town enjoyed and used this park which was very popular, as was the German Brass Band of Oconto.

Danish newcomers making Oconto their home had as their main settlement part of McDonald Street and Elm Avenue. Much of their social life was centered at their attractive little Emmanuel Lutheran Church on Elm Street, now gone, and the Danish Hall, which is now Seventh Day Adventist Church on McDonald Street. James Hemmingsen, Mrs. Fred H.
Rasmussen and Nels Johnsen were among the founders of the church.