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Flash From The Past - 1969
Oconto County Reporter
October 30, 1969
Contributed by Dave Cisler from the scrapbook of Miriam C. Barribeau CISLER
Transcribed by Diane Horn


A History of Oconto
By George E. Hall

The Roaring 20’s

about 1920

Between 1919 and 1929, after World War I, in Oconto, as elsewhere, so many things changed and the new way of life became so different it seemed only names and places remained the same.

Men returning home after serving in World War I had a different outlook on life than they had before.

The fast-changing times were reflected in the great changes that came about in women’s fashions, such as very short “sack” dresses of vivid colors, heavily decorated with beads and long fringe.  Silk stockings took the place of cotton.  Slippers with French heels instead of high-topped laced shoes were worn.  When worn, hats fit tight on the head and covered the ears and forehead.  Many women now frequented the barber shops for the first time where they had their hair “bobbed” in the latest styles of the day.  Many used rouge, lipstick and mascara.  Most churches and clergy spoke out against these styles and against women frequenting night clubs and dances.  All their speaking was to no avail for in the days of Flapper Fannie women felt free to do and think as they pleased more than ever before.

The “wet” or “dry” question for years back had been a big issue in Oconto.  Every election time, regardless of spirited campaigns on the part of the local prohibitionists, they lost out.  Oconto’s majority voted “wet” and remained wet until the 18th Amendment to the Constitution became law on January 16, 1919, after 36 states had ratified it.  Although Wisconsin was first to ratify this amendment, Oconto majority always voted “wet”.  By this amendment the manufacture or sale of intoxicating liquor was prohibited all over the United States.

Federal officials and local officers found it was impossible to effectively enforce the law on prohibition regardless of the heavy penalties offenders, at times, were forced to pay.

Saloons and dance halls were “padlocked” by government officers if keepers were caught handling any intoxicating beverages.  Nevertheless, some saloons and dance halls in and around Oconto flourished.  Some of the most popular places were the Swamp Hotel, Mama Blazy’s Hall, Cream City Dance Hall, Boots’ Danceland, Blue Goose and Blue Moon.

Before the war, dances were usually held at the Oconto Armory, the Turner Hall or in lodge rooms.  Now the dance halls were built at Oconto and out in the country.  Simon McTavish built a large dance hall east of his old three-story Richard House on West Main Street.

Taken at the time their first beer was sold after prohibition,
Friday, September 1, 1933.

When prohibition came to an end with the repeal of the 18th Amendment, taverns and night clubs took the place of the old-time saloons.  The South Side Palm Garden, The Pines, the Blue Goose and Housner’s Hall and Tavern booked dance bands and served food.  At one time during the great depression Housner’s served a chicken dinner with all the trimmings for 25 cents.

Some popular bands of the time were Jack and Buss Meyer’s and Gordon Hall’s bands.  Marcella Johnson played the accordion and Bill Schlader and his son Bootsy, Frenchy Barribeau and Raymond Cyr were among those who furnished music at night clubs and dance halls.

Like everywhere else, the old and young of Oconto began to “eat out” and revel in night life as never before.  Bright neon signs transformed many places with dart and dreary surroundings into glittering, attractive places of business.

Mr. Lloyd, a man from New York, came to Oconto to take over the former music store business of Oconto’s talented veteran musician and instructor, Claude Menkee.  Lloyd soon gave up the old traditional music store and business and declared in disgust, “The only kind of music the people of Oconto appreciate is jazz, jazz, jazz.”

Women, by virtue of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, had at last won the right to vote and the women of Oconto were taking full advantage of that right at every election.  They also began to serve on the election boards in all wards of the city.

A new road from Oconto to Oconto Falls was completed and graveled.  It became Highway 22.

Oconto musician and proprietor of popular Menkee Music House
There were two new gasoline filling stations erected at Oconto to take care of the great increase in the use of gasoline by new car owners.

The old state highway (Route 15) was greatly improved.  The first five-mile strip of concrete was laid between Oconto and Pensaukee.  Years later Brazeau Avenue was extended northerly from Main Street to connect with the old state highway near where it crossed the tracks in the Town of Little River.  It became the present U.S. Highway 41.

On a beautiful, warm afternoon, June 28, 1926, Oconto was shocked by a drowning accident that occurred about 5:30 on the waters of Green Bay.  Mrs. Tom (Harriett) McAllister, Mrs. Hunter (Lenora) Orr and Mrs. Jack (Inez) Reynolds, who had gone into the water arm in arm, apparently panicked when stepping into a deep hole off the shore and disappeared and drowned before others in the party who had stayed on shore missed them.  Mrs. McAllister was an Oconto teacher; Mrs. Orr was deputy court clerk, and Mrs. Reynolds was the wife of Sheriff Jack Reynolds.  She left a family of teen-age children.

The search for their bodies lasted for days.  Crowds of people came to the scene of the accident north of the river for weeks after.  Everyone was shocked and appalled over the drowning.  The last body was recovered in a reed bed on the north shore, several miles from the place where the drowning occurred.

It was during the 1920’s that the Oconto hospital came under the management of a newly formed organization, the Oconto County and City Hospital Board of Trustees, John Spies, H.F. (Dick) Muehrcke and Eldred Klauser were the original trustees.  Later Theodore Meeuwsen became a trustee.

According to records kept by Eldred Klauser at that time, Dr. Armstrong, Dr. Ouellette, Dr. Stoelting, Dr. Watkins, Dr. Minnie Hopkins and young Dr. Earl A. Linger were the Oconto doctors on the medical staff.  Then came Dr. Barr, followed by Dr. A.F. Slaney and Dr. A.F. Tousignant.

The timber industries were still in regular operation.  Crews went “up north to the woods”.  The woodsmen were housed in pre-fabricated frame lumber camps that were made in sections in Oconto and taken to the woods by train.  The camps were outfitted with iron beds.  Some camps had a crude bath hut equipped with a stove and wash tub for crew members who wished to make use of it.  The men worked from daylight to dark daily except Sunday.  The crews went to camp the first of September and remained until the last of March.

Labor unrest flared up in Oconto, too.  After a local labor union was organized, trouble between the mill workers and the mill owners arose and a bitter strike too place.  It brought practically all business in Oconto to a standstill for a big part of one summer.

Later, a state-wide dairymen’s milk pool strike, which also affected Oconto, took place.  It was of shorter duration than the lumber mill strike, but more violent.

At the mills in Oconto, crews were kept busy part of each year until November 15, 1938, when – after almost a century of lumbering enterprise – the whistle of the Holt sawmill blew for the last time.  Two years later the Oconto Company terminated its operation.

While the two lumber companies once described as “colossal” declined in Oconto, the Holt Hardwood Company greatly increased its production of choice hardwood flooring, mostly maple and oak.  At one time W.L. DeWitt was its president.

The American Veneer Company on East Main Street maintained a new, up-to-date plant.  J.O. Atwater was superintendent.  Employees from both of the old lumber mill crews found new employment at the hardwood mill and veneer plant.

It was Oconto’s good fortune at this time that the Bond brothers’ pickle factory had expanded to become a major source of employment.  The five brothers were Edward, Clarence, Truman, Leon and Arthur, the sons of George Bond of Oconto.  They had formed the Bond Pickle Company before 1920 and purchased the former Pea Factory property on West Main Street.  Soon they outgrew the original building (which remained but a small part of the factory).  By 1938 it had grown into the largest pickle processing plant in the country.  Here, too, both men and women were happy to find employment.


About 1935
As if heeding the old Bible scriptual passage "Remove not the landmarks which your fathers before you have set", the horse watering trough has been retained and converted into a flower urn since horse and buggy days were not more.

Days of the Great Depression

Following the Wall Street stock market crash on Tuesday, October 29, 1929 (still called “the Black Tuesday crash”) the worst “depression” our nation ever suffered took place.  Felt immediately in New York and the Eastern states, it took almost a year to bring industries to a halt in some sections of our country.  Then all over America people were out of work and sometimes out of food.  There was great tension in every city and village.  Factories were shut down and people were desperate.  In the presidential election in 1932, the incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first Democratic president to be elected since Wilson’s administration.  There were bread lines and relief stations throughout the country.  Then things changed.  WPA crews were given tasks and jobs.  The pay was low but people were glad to have a job and the promise of pay.  In Oconto Holtwood Park was developed, the retaining wall at the hospital was built and roads were repaired under federal WPA projects. 

CCC camps were set up by federal governments in forest areas in many places across the country, including northern Wisconsin and Oconto County.  Young, unemployed men from cities, large and small, and recent high school graduates filled the camps which were under the supervision of Army officers.  The men were not trained for military service but worked in crews that planted seedlings and small trees in reforestation programs.  Two CCC camps were located in Oconto County – one near Mountain and the other near Lakewood.

Welfare offices were set up at county seats all over the United States.  Miss Ellen B. McDonald became the first welfare administrator for Oconto County.  She was chosen because of her ability as an administrator in the Oconto County school system.

During some of the darkest days of the Depression in Oconto, Marvin Wilkins, public school music instructor and band leader, together with Hattie Porter Orendorff, Oconto’s first prima donna, and Clinton DeWitt, Presbyterian church organist, organized a community chorus.  Maude Perry was leading soprano and Ralph Flanders leading bass.  Over fifty others sang in the chorus.

The Oconto Gun Club, venerable sportsman’s club of Oconto, first had its shooting range on the north side of East Main Street.  Later it moved to the west side of the Pensaukee road.  At present it is located south of town on the east side of the road, now designated as County Trunk S.

Oconto Smelt Runs

The “Smelt Capital of Wisconsin” was the title Dewey Rosenfeldt gave to Oconto when he was crowned king of Oconto’s first annual smelt carnival on April 6, 1936.  At that time Oconto was the first place on the bay to have a “smelt run”.  Between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds of smelt were taken each night from the Oconto River while other towns nearby were still watching and waiting for the run to commence.
of the pioneer, Robert Ellis. The upstairs room above the set of three windows housed Oconto's first telephone switchboard and office where Jennie Herald (later to become Mrs. John Noonan) was main operator.

The Oconto Gun Club, venerable sportsman’s club of Oconto, first had its shooting range on the north side of East Main Street.  Later it moved to the west side of the Pensaukee road.  At present it is located south of town on the east side of the road, now designated as County Trunk S.

Oconto Smelt Runs

The “Smelt Capital of Wisconsin” was the title Dewey Rosenfeldt gave to Oconto when he was crowned king of Oconto’s first annual smelt carnival on April 6, 1936.  At that time Oconto was the first place on the bay to have a “smelt run”.  Between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds of smelt were taken each night from the Oconto River while other towns nearby were still watching and waiting for the run to commence.

One early spring day several years before Jack Kumhala had discovered the silvery smelt entering and swimming up the Oconto River in unbelievable large schools to spawn.  It was learned that the small, edible salt water fish had been “planted” in Green Bay and Great Lakes waters to provide food for salmon that had also been planted by the government as an experiment to introduce another desirable species of fish in waters that were gradually yielding less fish each year.  The salmon soon disappeared entirely and the smelt seemed to be taking over the bay.

A Smelt Carnival King was selected at Oconto instead of a queen because smelting was considered a man’s game until it was found that Seward Haskins’ daughter did her bit when she and her father each took out a ton of smelt in one night that year. 

Each successive spring bigger smelt carnivals took place at Oconto.  In 1940, Eldred Robinson, a native of Oconto who was the advertising manager of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, became advisor for the Oconto Smelt Carnival.  The carnival that ensued turned out to be one of the greatest celebrations ever held at Oconto.  It was climaxed by a big parade of historic nature including 60 Menominee Indians in traditional garb and their Indian band.  Over 24 horse-drawn vehicles, numerous marching bands, and floats with a smelt carnival theme and advertising made up the parade that began at the armory and made its way up Main Street, then south on Brazeau Avenue and east on McDonald Street to disband north of the Park Avenue bridge.  It was about a four-mile march and was witnessed by extremely large crowds.  Traffic was jammed on Highway 41 from Abrams Corners on the south to a point several miles north of the city.
A special passenger train came into Oconto with coaches filled to capacity with sportsmen and fishermen from Milwaukee and Chicago to fish and celebrate in old Oconto.  Instead of stopping at the C&NW depot, the special train was run down the old Lake Shore & Western tracks and stopped in back of the armory at the former depot and Alphonse Pierre elevator, which is now owned by Lane & Son.  Here the passengers were unloaded.

Practically all smelt fishing was done at night.  Hundreds of lanterns lined the banks of the river.  The reflection of the lighted lanterns and the bonfires with the fishermen hovering around was truly picturesque.  Over 300,000 pounds of smelt were taken from the Oconto River that season.

In an effort to advertise Oconto’s potential as a recreation and summer home center, the Oconto Civic Club sponsored an annual water carnival.  The big show took place on the river at the dock.  Log rolling, swimming and pleasure craft entertainment and races were the chief attractions.  Highlights of the celebration were the river parade and the fireworks.  Large crowds visited Oconto during the celebration.

Several years later, when better times had come about all over the nation, another of Oconto’s daughters, Kathryn Harvey, became an important figure in grand opera.  On the evening of President Franklin Roosevelt’s third inauguration she sang in Washington D.C., taking the part of Fransquito in the opera “Carmen”.

V.J. O’Kelliher of Oconto was promoted to the rank of colonel in Washington, D.C., by the War Department in special recognition of his work in laying the foundation for the Selective Service system.  Since 1937 he had been serving at National Selective Service System Headquarters in Washington in full-time duty.

World War II

In the late 1930’s when all America was slowly recovering from the throes of the Great Depression, Adolph Hitler and the Nazi movement was looming up in Germany.  Much of Europe was at war.

Finally on December 7, 1941, in a surprise attach, the Japanese (allies of Nazi Germany) bombed the American fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the whole nation by radio.  All America listened, stunned and spellbound, realizing we were to be at war again.  This time in the Orient and in Europe.

For the men of Oconto’s Company C of the 27th Infantry of the National Guard, the war had actually started a year earlier when they were called to active duty October 22, 1940

As they marched down to the depot that October evening, people thronged Main Street to cheer them on and the city band played martial music.  None of the company’s 84 men guessed that the end of that march lay in a jungle swamp on the other side of the world.  They only knew they were on their way to Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, for maneuvers.

The train that carried them out of the C&NW depot was the last troop train to leave Oconto.  Future enlistees and draftees left the city by bus.

Strange places never before heard of by many were to become as familiar sounding to Oconto families as the names of the towns nearby.  Before the conflict was over, many of Oconto’s sons lay fatally wounded in jungles and deserts, aboard ships, and in cities and countrysides all over the world.  It is doubtful if there was any family in town not touched by the tragedy of war.  Over 88 Oconto County boys died in defense of their country.

After over four years of combat on water, land and in the air all over the world, the fighting stopped in Europe May 8, 1945, with the fall of Berlin.  The war finally came to an end when President Harry F. Truman decided to use the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.  The bombing of that city on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, brought the Japanese emperor to sue for peace over the radio August 15.  On September 15, 1945, aboard the battleship Missouri, General Douglas MacArthur accepted the unconditional surrender of the Japanese.  World War II was ended.


Adams, George H. 
Bartz, Delbert L. 
Baumgartner, G.M. 
Bednarik, George J.
Behnke, Alfred J.
Bennett, Robert E.
Blank, Ralph G.
Borchert, Freeman
Carey, Anthony A.
Clausen, Gordon C.
Collins, Boyd G.
Darow, Donald A. 
Depner, Orville
Dryja, Roman R.
Dudas, Andrew J.
Felix, John F.
Frost, Lyle L. 
Grych, Roman F.
Gunderson, Delbert
Gutowski, Leo A.
Hanson, Stanley E.
Hatfield, Dale W.
Heisel, Herman
Heller, Ralph
Heroux, Robert C.
Hooten, Edward W.
Hostak, Quirin
Hyland, Kenneth G.
Jameson, George B.
Jensen, Chester W.
Johnson, Allen W.
Kerker, Walter A.
Kimpel, George 
Klover, George
Kosikowski, Bernard J.
Tachick, Dennis
Krueger, William C.
Kuhlmann, Orville T.
Kust, Wencel
Lazansky, Floyd D.
Lepecier, Alex J.
Longard, Harvey H.
Luebke, Arthur W. 
Madsen, Walter G.
Mastalski, Frank
McAllen, Edward C.
McKeever, Bernard E.
McMahon, Eugene J.
Meyet, Ervin H.
Miller, Harold E.
Miller, Royal J.
Modrow, Donald M.
Mork, Frederick
Nelson, Kenneth E.
Nelson, Ralph E.
O’Neil, Arthur J., Jr.
Pansier, Norbert W.Peshek, John O.
Peterson, Lyle L.
Peterson, Marvin M.
Richards, Roland C.
Riewe, Arnold P.
Robinson, Walter W.
Sandberg, Richard R.
Sankey, George W.
Sargent, Joseph C.
Schlag, Alfred
Schroeder, Edmund R.
Schroeder, Russell F. Schuettpelz, Burton W.
Schumann, Wesley A.
Seidel, Gordon J.
Shipla, Sterling V.
Simpson, Jay
Smedley, F.C.
Sorenson, Millard H.
Spice, Clarence H.
Stephenson, G.G.
Stuewer, Harold H.
Tappa, Alex L.
Tousignant, A.N.
Vandornich, Henry A.
 Verhagen, Elmer H.
Wachal, George J.
Wegrzyn, Adam A.
Wiedenhaft, H.L.
Wilde, Ellsworth A.
Wusterbarth, D.E.
Wyss, Herbert P.
Zitske, Albert A.



Although even the happenings of yesterday are history, every writing effort has to end at some point and it seemed to me the end of World War II was the logical time to end “A History of Oconto”.  It is difficult to give a true perspective of more recent times as professional historians have agreed.  However, a brief resume of events since that great war may be in order.

After World War II ended, returning veterans found job opportunities in the city limited due largely to the demise of Oconto’s main industry – its lumber mills.  A decade was to pass before diversified industry was to be attracted to our town creating new job opportunities, and by that time many of its young people had settled elsewhere.

That decade also saw old establishments on Main Street close and new shop owners move in.  For many years few, if any, new homes were built in Oconto.  With new industry, the picture changed and in one year alone 34 new buildings, mostly homes, were built in the city.  A large addition was also added to the hospital, the court house was extensively remodeled and a new jail built adjoining it, and a new city hall was erected.  Beautiful Aageson Memorial Lake, man-made, was constructed in Holtwood Park to provide swimming and bathing facilities.

Four of Oconto’s thirteen church congregations have built new buildings – the Oconto Gospel Chapel, the Methodist, the Presbyterian and the Zion Lutheran.  St. Joseph’s Catholic congregation has a new parish hall and St. Peter’s Catholic parish built a new school.  The American Lutheran Church is at present building a modern educational unit and meeting hall.

Since World War II, our nation has been at war in Korea, and at present is engaged in the Vietnam War.  Though far from here, these hard-fought wars have affected, and are affecting, the lives of many Ocontoans this very day.

This brings us to the year this book was completed – 1969.  In years to come someone picking up this book may be interested in knowing this was the year Oconto celebrated its Tri-Centennial.  It was 300 years since the first white man came here and 100 years since the city received its charter.  The occasion was marked by a week’s celebration, culminating in a two-hour parade that drew 30,000 spectators.  It is also the year Oconto completed its new high school at a cost of $1,800,000 and erected an 82-unit low-rent housing project for the elderly at a cost of $1,500,000.  More attractive new homes appeared on vacant lots in all parts of the city and numerous older homes were restored and/or remodeled.

There are now over 25 diversified industries in Oconto. 

The city that some thought at one time might bow out as so many others had when the industry that fostered it ended is at this writing an attractive and progressive community.

I have tried to make this book as accurate a reflection of the conditions and the spirit of the times past as I could.  I am aware, however, that I may have over-emphasized some events and failed to mention other events and people.  I hope the reader will overlook the shortcomings of an amateur historian and will receive some pleasure in reading what I have purposely called not “The’ but “A” History of Oconto.