Transcribed by Diane Horn
A page in Oconto
County history 1900-1909
A New Century – A New Chance at Greatness
And now began that period referred to with numbing redundancy at “the turn of the century” – the 1900’s. The end of the age of innocence.
In the first decade of this remarkable time, the Wright brothers would lift their “flying machine” off the floor of a pasture in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and then, a few years later, complete a round trip from Governor’s Island to Grant’s tomb. It was a startling invention to the local people, most of whom could still remember when the ox cart and canoe were the main modes of travel. But even though planes were accepted by the French and American governments as part of their flying force, most people were still skeptical that they were here to stay, as witness this item which appeared in a 1909 Reporter, quoting the famous astronomist, Professor Pickering:
is doubtful if aeroplanes will ever cross
and in spite of the recent success of the Wright brothers,
they offer little menace to an army in time of war. People
have pictures of themselves sailing through the air at a
rate of hundreds of miles an hour. They imagine that in
another generation they can fly over to London in a day.
This is impossible because every time you double the speed
Of an object passing through the air you have to overcome
A resistance four times greater than that which it has been
There were other incredible things that happened in the first years of the twentieth century. Marconi’s “wireless telegraphy” became a reality when a message was passed over 2,300 miles of air space – from Nova Scotia to Cornwall, England; Madame Curie was honored for the discovery of radium, and Santa Claus came to town in a Model T.
It was a decade when a young girl named Ethel Barrymore became the new sensation of the theatre; Calamity Jane died of inflammation of the bowels at Deadwood, S.D.; Carrie Nation took her fight against the “devil drink” to the White House (only to be seized by Secret Service men and dumped unceremoniously on the lawn), and everywhere people were singing “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven”, “’Tis Not Always Bullets that Kill”, “Goodbye Dolly”, and “Just Because She Made Dem Goo-Goo Eyes”.
The September 6, 1901 issue of the Reporter carried a bulletin on the shooting of President McKinley by an anarchist at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. Two weeks later a black-bordered front page story announced the President’s death, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt moved up to the nation’s highest office.
And in December 1903, the paper carried the headlines – “GREATEST HORROR OF A CENTURY” – followed by the story of the death of 589 people in a fire at Chicago’s Iroquois theatre. The account was a graphic description of the panic that prevailed after the audience noticed smoke coming from the back of the curtains and their rush to the exits, despite Eddie Foy’s attempts from the stage to calm them by announcing it was “just a little stage fire.”
* * *
Only the most optimistic were still looking for the city’s population to grow to 30,000. That dream had gone with the stands of pine that once seemed destined to last forever. Lumber was still king, but it was the hardwood that was being harvested now. For anyone who wanted to see the future of the territory as primarily a farming community was already evident. In the first ten years of the 1900’s, the number of farms in the county increased by 621, compared to an average over the rest of the state of ten to a county increase.
The decade was a combination of the old and the new. In 1900 the first concrete sidewalks were laid in front of two homes on East Main street – a sure indication of progress – while at the same time stage lines were still running in parts of the county not connected by railroads. Periodically the Reporter carried an account of a stage being held up and the mail pouch stolen. More frequently, however, there were reports of safe cracking – the new thing in the crime field – and Brazeau’s store in Frenchtown was among the many victimized in the area.
The women, whose job opportunities up to this time had been mostly as school teachers or “hired girls” were now branching out into the business world, and a group in town formed an organization called “The Typewriters’ Club”. (It was not until 1907, however, that typing and shorthand became part of the high school curriculum.)
The businessmen of the town banded together in the Oconto Businessmen’s Association, and were also active. With George Bond as their president, they set up club rooms in the Campbell Block. The rooms, outfitted with pool tables, were open from 11 to 11. In 1900 the association succeeded in getting the Alart & McGuire Company of Green Bay to locate a branch here, and Bond’s young son, Clarence, went to work at the pickle station near the city docks. The businessmen also continued to push for the long talked of harbor and sent a resolution to their Ninth District congressman asking him to seek the necessary appropriation needed for dredging.
The renewed prosperity that existed throughout the country was pointed up in the delinquent tax rolls. In 1897 there had been 16,500 unpaid accounts; In 1900 the number was less than half that.
But in the spring of the year the homesteaders were again dealt another heavy blow. Forest fires swept from Oconto to the shores of Lake Superior, burning over almost the entire county again, but causing the greatest destruction in the townships of Armstrong, Brazeau, Maple Valley, and How where farmers lost buildings, fences and timber.
* * *
HUMMER OF A FAIR
The biggest event of the year for the
The action is inside the race track in this 1912 picture of the fairgrounds. In the background is the exhibition building near Park Avenue.
At the fair of 1901 a crowd of 10,000 watched the young rider, Blanche Cook, run her horse, Molly, to win the county’s running race by half a neck. (The racing purses ran as high as $2,000.) A few years later, in 1905, Miss Cook was to win the world’s championship as a relay rider at the State Fair.
The stellar attraction the following year – outdrawing even the trained lions, baseball games, and acrobats – was an automobile of the Lucia Cycle Company which ran in exhibition mile during intermission in the horse racing events.
It was considered impossible for a number of years to stage a successful fair without including balloon ascensions on the program. Most of these events went off without incident – the balloon soaring up above the fairgrounds, and the aeronauts parachuting safely into Grandpa Rhode’s pasture across the street. But the ascension at the fair of 1906 proved somewhat more spectacular.
The Chicago aeronaut, William Mattery, was scheduled to go up about 5:30 in the afternoon. But when it came time for the ascension it was found that the surging of the crowd around the balloon had disarranged the apparatus and the steering gear would not respond. Mattery would have preferred not to take his airship up in this condition, but the crowd became threatening, calling him a fake and demanding he take it up as he had advertised.
The aeronaut decided the best thing to do to appease the onlookers was to take the balloon up a short distance, let some of the gas out of the bag, and drift back to ground again. He accordingly crawled into his frail craft of light rods and braces, suspended underneath a monster silk gas bag 70 feet long and 20 feet in diameter, and gave the word to let go.
The balloon rose slowly above the fairgrounds but, when Mattery tried to open the valves to come back to earth, it began acting like a creature demented. It shot high into the air and began soaring over toward the bay, while the crowd on the fairgrounds stood craning their necks to look at the sky, waiting for Mattery to return.
He never did, in fact, come back. The fair-goers learned later that the balloon had carried him over the bay, dunking him once or twice in the waves, and then shooting up so high that his clothes froze to his body. Throughout the night, on a lonely and terrible ride, the balloon carried him back and forth along the bay, only to dump him in the tree tops of a thick woods near Wolverine, Mich., the next morning. After hours of trying to track his way out, he finally came on a lumber camp. The balloon, meanwhile, cut itself loose and was found on the shores of Lake Huron.
* * *
There were 80
telephones in the Oconto of 1900, and
the lines had been extended to Oconto Falls, Gillett, Pulcifer and
It was even possible to get a call through during the night now
young Eddie Davis manning the switchboard from dusk to dawn.
The second big fire of the year occurred in December. One of the town’s major hotels, the Roth House located north of the bridge on Park avenue and operated by the Muerke brothers, was forever removed from the landscape. As the fire raged through he wooden building, 22-year-old Edward C. Kimball finding himself trapped in his room, sought safety from the flames by crawling under a bed. He was found there later, burned to death.
Also in the year 1900 the Reporter chronicled the opening of a big, new department store in the Funke Block, “Heymans”; the arrival of Dr. Minnie Hopkins, osteopathic physician and surgeon; and printed in serial form the year’s best seller, “In His Steps”, written by clergyman Charles Sheldon. And on November 16 it printed a salutatory from the paper’s new owners, W.M. Comstock and E.J. McCall.
In 1901 St. Mark’s Episcopal congregation began building the impressive grey stone sanctuary at the corner of Park avenue and Congress street that is still their church, and the Presbyterian parish had grown to where they had mission churches at Couillardville, Oak Orchard, Little River and Stiles.
The year marked the beginning of the LaFollettes in the state house, and Governor and Mrs. Scofield returned to their home in Oconto. On entering they found that someone had been “living in” during their absence and had made off with their linens, silverware, clothing and numerous mementos collected over the years.
Although Scofield’s name was prominently discussed as a vice presidential candidate in the 1904 elections, his return to Oconto marked the end of his political career, and also his gradual retirement from the lumbering business. His mill at Superior burned in the spring of 1903, a loss estimated at $75,000.
At about the same time, something happened that almost made the ex-governor give up his ideas of retirement. As the story was told in a 1903 issue of the Reporter, Scofield’s son, George, had gone west for his health a few years previous, and while tramping around Idaho had come across a stand of pine that “set his blood tingling with visions of lumber.”
George hurried back to Oconto to tell his father of his discover, but the ex-governor scoffed at his description of the stand of yellow pin, claiming he must be exaggerating. This made George mad and he immediately returned to Idaho where he hired a couple of men and went into the woods and cut a sample log, shipping it home to his dad.
When the log arrived, Ex-Governor Scofield became so excited he hardly waited for his grip to be packed before he started out for Idaho. George met him at the station and together they took a tramp through George’s discovery that resulted in the ex-governor buying a ten square mile section. George wanted to erect a mill on the site then and there, but his father thought he was too old to become a pioneer lumberman again.
* * *
Phil Lingerbach came to Oconto from Sheboygan in 1899 to take over the Oconto Brewery.
In 1902, two new stores made their appearance on Main Street. Goodrich and Martineau built a dry goods emporium on the corner of Main and Superior, and M. M. MacQueen opened a furniture and undertaking business on the west end of Main street in a two-story brick building that still stands and now houses Greg Engebos & Sons appliance store.
In May of that year the businessmen’s association interested 40 farmers in the county to try experimenting in the raising of sugar beets. A sugar company agreed to build a beet sugar factory here if enough acres were grown to supply it.
The biggest story of 1903 was the dedication of the Farnsworth Public Library. The library – still one of the most pleasing buildings on the main thoroughfare – was the gift of George Farnsworth, owner of the Oconto Company. Although Farnsworth lived in Chicago, he returned to this city for the occasion and gave the key address at the dedication, recalling the steps along the way that had brought him to his present position and wealth, after staring out on his own as a penniless youth of 13, and also telling how much of his success he owed to this community.
In December of 1903 a contract was given to W. H. Small to fill in the frog pond around the courthouse to the level of the surrounding streets.
Another new industry got a start in 1904 when the foundations were laid for buildings to house the Wisconsin Pail Company, a business that included George Beyer, T. A. Pamperin and E. G. Mullen as its officers.
Meanwhile, one of the older industries, the Holt Lumber Company, was being given some grief by Wal Phillips. Phillips sued the company, asking $1,000 damages for the “emission of cinders, smoke, soot and gases escaping from the mill and landing on his property”, and sought an injunction to close it down. Arthur Holt replied that his mill, as all others, were doing everything possible to minimize the problem.
Said a Reporter editorial: “Pollution must be regarded as a necessary evil accompanying all manufacturing. A still greater evil would be the arbitrary shutting down of such an institution employing such a large number of men.”
Not long after, Holt installed two hogs to grind the lumber refuse that had previously been burned.
The gypsies continued to come to town periodically, sending businessmen and homeowners alike to locking their doors while the camp was in town. A Reporter item of 1904 carried an account of an auto being attached by gypsies just outside of town, the tribe protesting the machine had scared off their horses.
Perhaps the most eventful year of the decade was 1907. Early in the year the city got its first “movie pitcher” house, opened by the Idea Motion Picture Company in a building near the present Telford car wash on Main street, and in November, Otto Hass opened the Bijou Theatre on Superior avenue.
But “live entertainment” continued to draw crowds to the Turner opera house, managed by Albert Hidde, and among those making an appearance there in 1907 was William Jennings Bryan, he of the famed Scopes “monkey trail” and three times a presidential candidate.
In that year, also, the present Lincoln school was built at a cost of $15,710. (The budget for operation of all the city’s schools for the year was $13,700.)
But the big news of the year – as in most years – was heralded by the ringing of fire bells. On April 13, Goodrich and Martineau’s manager, A. M. Merline, came to work to find the store on fire. The flames swept through the draperies, hanging crepe paper and bolts of gauzy material, and within an hour only the outside walls remained. The loss was $88,000, but by October of that year a new brick store had been built – bigger and better than the old – with mahogany fixtures, plate glass counters, and a carrier system for taking cash and packages up to the wrapping department.
On September 6 a crowd gathered on the court house lawn after a cloud of black smoke was discovered pouring up through the roof of the county building. The flames raged through the bell tower, and the 800-pound bell crashed through to the second floor. Before firemen succeeded in putting out the blaze, the entire upper floor was a blackened shell. It is believed that the fire started in the clock tower where a jeweler had been working with a lamp, fixing the clock.
In the renovation that followed, the square tower was replaced with the present round cupola. The trees that still line the walks were planted in the spring of 1908.
And then, shortly before Christmas, the Oconto Falls Paper Mill burned. A call was put in to the Oconto fire department, whose men loaded their apparatus onto the train and rushed to the scene, with Robert Koch at the throttle. A victim of that fire was Henry Hartwig, mill engineer, who volunteered to go into the engine room to shut down the engine and was trapped there by the flames.
In 1907 Richard Hall submitted a scheme for numbering and naming the city’s streets to the common council. The system was adopted and installed – just in time for the city’s first free mail delivery which took place August 1, 1908. Charles Vogel, Peter Heller, George Perdzock and Ray Klass were hired by Postmaster George Hall to make the twice daily rounds.
In March of that year, George Beyer had signed a contract with the government to erect and rent a building to be used as the post office. It was located east of the Oconto National Bank building, now The Spa.
Also on the postal scene, an organization of rural letter carriers of the county was organized in February 1907 with the following members: L. A. Clark, Oconto; P. W. Heller, Oconto; T. A. Couillard, Oconto; Charles F. O’Neil, Oconto Falls; F. Kruawe, Sobieski; J. Donald, Suring; Charles Chesley, Lena; Charles Robbins, Lena; A. P. Nelson, Suring, and Isaac Brault, Coleman.
* * *
A few automobiles were beginning to be seen parked alongside the buggies hitched on Main street as the decade neared an end. District Attorney John B. Chase received space in the paper when he bought his Model T, 20 h.p., pearl grey roadster; and so did Dr. Atwood when he fractured his arm while cranking his car.
Reporter files, however, the first motorist
to end up in traffic court was a woman. Her name was Irene
and she went to Milwaukee in July 1905 to pick out a 10 h.p. Model E
She soon had established a local reputation as “the
automobilist who has
thrown Oconto into a fever of excitement.” A month
after she began
driving she was arrested by the chief of police for speeding on the
streets. Determined to have the last word, Miss McAllister
suit against the new city marshal, L. C. Smith, and Justice Lacourciere
on the charge that they had offended her with abusive