EAU CLAIRE — Opportunity during the lumber boom of the mid-19th century brought people in droves to a cluster of communities found where two rivers meet in west-central Wisconsin.
Entrepreneurs from afar came to harvest the bounty of white pine found in the Chippewa Valley to make lumber for new buildings in the developing US Merchants, farmers and immigrant workers likewise were drawn to the area for the prospect of providing for the lumbering community, staking their claim to a part of the Midwest or simply finding work.
By the late 1860s, there were two villages and a town grouped around the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. Their combined population was 1,590 in 1860, but that grew to 5,110 by 1870 — the year the railroad arrived here.
“The area had become fairly populous,” local historian Brian Blakeley said in an interview with the Leader-Telegram. “But they lacked a lot of what you would regard as essential services.”
Residents had problems including fire-prone buildings, crimes handled by a sheriff’s department stretched thin, streets and sidewalks of varying quality, and other issues that required more than their existing local governments could deal with.
“You needed a municipal city government if you were ever going to provide services,” said Blakeley, an Eau Claire native who has authored three books on the city’s history.
Growing its status to a city also became critical in local lumber barons’ quest to put a dam on the Chippewa River to create a holding pond for their logs.
In March 1872, the separate east, west and north parts of Eau Claire became unified as a city.
To mark the city’s sesquicentennial, the city and community organizations are planning numerous ways to mark the milestone, starting with a 150th birthday party on March 19 at the Chippewa Valley Museum.
“It’s good to reflect on where we began and where we are now and how we’ve evolved from a small logging community to this great city,” said Terry Weld, Eau Claire City Council president.
On Tuesday the council will vote on proclaiming March 19 as “Eau Claire Day” in recognition of the day the city was officially incorporated.
People who took part in the early days of the city’s formation are long gone, but some of the places they lived and their ancestors remain a part of Eau Claire today.
Like other people who adopted a new hobby when the COVID-19 pandemic began, Dani Graham of Eau Claire took an interest in researching her own family tree.
Aided by some documents handed down by her great grandma, Graham began to go back through the generations on Ancestry.com.
When tracing back her mother’s side, it eventually reached the Eau Claire area — a surprise to Graham, who grew up in Minneapolis and didn’t know her ancestors had ever lived in the Chippewa Valley.
“Once I found out, it was surprising,” she said. “But it also felt nice to know there was a piece of me that belongs here.”
That branch of her family tree included Daniel McCann Sr., a colorful character who lived in the area during the 1800s. McCann’s place in Eau Claire history is that he was the man who raised a pet bald eagle that he sold in 1861 to soldiers in Eau Claire who then carried it into battle during the Civil War.
“Old Abe” became famous as a symbol for the Wisconsin soldiers fighting for the Union. The bird retired to the state Capitol after his three-year tour of duty was up so he could be present at ceremonial occasions until his death in 1881.
The image of the iconic eagle is still found throughout Eau Claire, memorialized in statues and as the mascot for Memorial High School.
Graham’s three teenage daughters have gone to the school and the fourth, currently a seventh grader at South Middle School, will attend there too.
In addition to the eagle statue perched atop Memorial High, Old Abe’s image can be found decorating numerous walls and floors inside the building.
Allison Graham, 16, a junior, said she didn’t think much about the mascot before, but after learning about her family’s connection to it and the eagle’s history, it has a lot more meaning.
“Now when I look at it, I can see much more,” she said.
One of the first to see potential for farming in Eau Claire, Rev. Thomas Barland resettled his family from Illinois to Eau Claire in 1854.
As the story passed down through his ancestors goes, Barland trekked around then-uninhabited lands where UW-Eau Claire and the Third Ward neighborhood are now and saw great potential.
“He was so enamored with the beauty of the country and the confluence of the two rivers that he stopped here thinking there would be a big city here someday,” said his great grandson, Thomas Barland, a retired judge who lives in Eau Claire.
At one point the Barlands had co-owned land where the rivers meet downtown, property where performing arts venue Pablo Center at the Confluence and the six-story Haymarket Landing building now stand.
Their farms took up a large swath of what is now a portion of the East Side Hill Neighborhood and the Eau Claire Country Club. Barland Street is a reminder of the farm that had been there following the Civil War.
“Their farm was the first milk-producing farm in Eau Claire County,” Thomas Barland recalled of his ancestors’ agriculture operation.
The family’s roots remained in Eau Claire with Barlands consistently living here. When Thomas Barland, then a young child, and his parents were living in Hawaii but had to relocate after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, they opted to return home.
“We felt pretty comfortable coming here,” Thomas Barland said.
His mother, Lois, also became a local historian who wrote two books — “Sawdust City” and “The Rivers Flow On” in the 1960s.
In one corner of a downtown block dominated by a parking lot and temporary city bus depot, a two-story brick home has stood for over 150 years.
Maintained by the Chippewa Valley Museum as a local landmark and used for special events, it was the former home of Herman Schlegelmilch, a German immigrant who became an Eau Claire merchant and civic leader.
“While they were solid middle-class, they were not a wealthy family,” said Diana Pederson, the museum’s curator of collections, while giving a tour of the house to the Leader-Telegram.
They were not wanting by any means, she added, but put more value on education, travel and experiences over accumulating material possessions.
The house is currently arranged with furniture and other items to reflect how it would’ve looked around the time of a 1906 renovation.
Photos of the family hang above the mantel of a fireplace in a parlor. Souvenirs from a daughter’s time spent as a nurse in Siam (now known as Thailand) are displayed in a case on the staircase landing. Each bedroom is set up with the furniture, accessories and even some clothing the family would have used in their daily lives.
The museum’s collection also includes personal diaries, the house’s blueprints and other historical documents from the Schlegelmilch family to maintain their story for future generations.
“Preserving their stories is just as important as preserving this house,” Pederson said.
Originally a frame house, Schlegelmilch bought 517 S. Farwell St. in 1869 and added onto it in 1871. As he did with his new shop, Schlegelmilch built with brick, Pederson noted. His original store was made of wood and was destroyed by a fire that devastated many downtown businesses a couple of years prior. The house was passed down through the family until a descendant donated it to the museum in the late 1970s.
It is among several houses built at or around Eau Claire’s incorporation that are still standing, according to a booklet the city produced on Eau Claire landmarks. However, they’ve had additions, renovations and some were entirely rebuilt due to fires, the booklet noted.
Once just another bend in the Chippewa River, the large pond on the north side is one of the byproducts of Eau Claire becoming a city.
Local lumber barons had been trying since 1857 to get a dam built on the river to create a holding pond for logs with more capacity than Half Moon Lake. For years attempts to get the state’s consent had been stymied by the impending Civil War, financial panic and opposition from Chippewa Falls, according to Blakeley’s book, “A History of Eau Claire, Wisconsin Volume 1: The Lumbering Era.”
Establishing Eau Claire as a city in 1872 added political clout and a rationale that dam proponents used to sway the state’s mind.
“They had the power of the city of Eau Claire to get approval for building that dam,” Blakeley said.
Under the pretense the dam would help the newly-christened city with its water supply, the dam won the state’s approval in 1876, leading to the creation of Dells Pond. Of course, the dam’s design did include a flume for transporting logs as well as a seldom-used lock system for allowing steamboats upriver — a concession to a Chippewa Falls objection to the project.
City voters had approved spending $100,000 to help fund construction, but the newly formed Eau Claire Dells Improvement Co. was responsible for selling the bonds for that. With lumber barons providing their own funding as well, the dam cost a total of $300,000 to build and was completed in March 1878, according to Blakeley’s book.
An 1876 plat map in the Chippewa Valley Museum’s collection shows the Chippewa River following its natural course. An 1878 map has a swollen section of the waterway where the dam created the pond for logs. New lots and streets also indicate the arrival of more and more people as Eau Claire continued to prosper.
Establishing a city waterworks — the justification used to clinch the dam’s future — had been plagued by problems and remained incomplete until 1885, according to “Settlement & Survival,” a book the local museum produced on Chippewa Valley history from 1850 and 1925.
But the desire people of Eau Claire had to become a city wasn’t based on scoring an economic win for the local lumber mills.
“In the 1870s, the residents of Eau Claire recognized that they no longer lived on the frontier and that they needed to accept the complexities of urban life and to embrace change,” Blakeley wrote.
Building fires were a persistent problem in the mid-1800s in Eau Claire. Wood commonly used in construction easily caught fire and it would spread to buildings made from the same materials.
A May 5, 1869 fire destroyed five city blocks containing 26 business buildings, which prompted ordinances forbidding new frame houses on main streets.
The western side of Eau Claire had been leading the area in firefighting technology by acquiring a modern steam fire engine in 1871 to pump water. With a thousand feet of hose, the west side also helped fight fires across the Chippewa River on the city’s east side, which did not have that level of firefighting equipment, according to Blakely’s book.
Eau Claire’s 1872 charter includes the creation of a municipal fire department, but it still took years for service to improve.
In March 1874, the mayors office burned down as a team of men struggled to push a portable fire engine through deep snow, taking them a half-hour to arrive at the scene, Blakeley’s wrote.
Later that year, the city approved the establishment of a hook-and-ladder truck and a team of horses to pull the firefighting equipment.
Fire protection was just one of the duties the newly christened city took on. Other responsibilities from the 1872 charter that continue today include law enforcement, building roads and sidewalks, running public works, holding elections and issuing licenses to businesses.
Some things have gone away during the past 150 years, though.
A $1.50 annual poll tax charged to men 21 and older (women couldn’t vote at the time) is no longer collected. The city had originally been in charge of standardizing weights and measures — including regulating the size of bread and seizing contraband loaves — but that is no longer a duty of local government. Originally established with a common council along with a mayor, Eau Claire dropped the latter position in 1949 in exchange for an appointed city manager.
In a speech he delivered last month on the State of the City, Weld reflected on how challenges faced by the burgeoning city 150 years ago have led to what Eau Claire is today.
At the same time, he remarked that many of the things people valued back then — housing, transportation, public health, economic growth, and enjoying the waterways and parks — still hold true.
“All of those things were important back then and are still important today,” Weld said.