Chippewa Falls [†] is located in the Chippewa Valley of northwestern Wisconsin. The area’s densely wooded terrain, fertile soil, and abundant water power have all played a role in the development of Chippewa Falls since its earliest settlement.
Native American cultures occupied the area south of Lake Superior for millennia before European settlers arrived. Prehistoric Paleo-Indians were present in the Upper Great Lakes region as early as 10,000 B.C., and the Aqua Plano culture emerged between 7000 B.C. and 4500 B.C. as the glaciers retreated. From about 5000 B.C. to 500 B.C., two unique prehistoric groups occupied the Upper Great Lakes region. The Old Copper group eventually migrated northward, while the Boreal Archaic group remained in its lands south of Lake Superior and transformed into the Early Woodland culture. The Early Woodland culture was replaced, in turn, by the Hopewell culture by 100 B.C. From about 700 A.D. to 1600 A.D., the last groups of prehistoric people occupied the area during the Late Woodland period. These groups, including the Lake Winnebago culture and the Effigy Mound People, relied heavily on hunting and agriculture for survival.
By the 1600s, Dakota and Ojibwe Indians occupied the Chippewa Valley (now part of the so-called Northwest Territory, named by Jesuit missionaries and European explorers and traders). Diverse tribal occupation of the Chippewa Valley reflected tribal migratory patterns. Ojibwe, with the approval of the Dakota, had often entered areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota to hunt and trade. In the mid-1700s, however, the Ojibwe and the Dakota became enemies, and the fertile hunting grounds between the dense forest and open prairie around present-day Chippewa Falls was claimed by both tribes but remained disputed territory. By 1825, the two tribes signed a treaty at Prairie du Chien that created a truce and drew boundaries; however, warring skirmishes between the Ojibwe and the Dakota continued well into the nineteenth century, even as European and American settlers began to move into the Chippewa Valley.
The first non-native settlers near Chippewa Falls were drawn to the abundant pine forests along the Chippewa River. In 1815, the British had abandoned Prairie du Chien and burned Fort McKay. American troops occupied Prairie du Chien a year later in an effort to establish their dominance in the Northwest Territory. American troops began building their own Fort Crawford on the same site as the former British fort. Beginning in the early 1820s, Lieutenant Jefferson Davis and a French-Canadian man named Jean Brunet travelled up the Mississippi River in search of timber to rebuild Fort Crawford. Brunet ascended further, into the Chippewa River, and identified the untapped timber resources of the Chippewa pinery and the waterpower potential of the river. The American Fur Trade Company had already established a trading post with Chippewa (Ojibwe) Indians at the site of present-day Chippewa Falls, and between 1836 and 1838, Hercules Dousman and other representatives of the American Fur Trade Company financed the construction of a sawmill, overseen by Brunet. Although the initial mill experienced its share of problems (floods, ice jams, debt, nationwide financial panics) lumber milling would be one of Chippewa Falls’ most significant industries for nearly three-quarters of a century.
The sawmill served as the impetus for the development of a small settlement, and when Chippewa Falls was selected as the county seat in 1854, the village was a bustling frontier community. The first school in the village was established in 1854, and a post office was opened the next year. The first mercantile store was opened in 1856. Religion and the press soon followed, with catholic and protestant churches built in 1856 and 1857 and the Chippewa Falls Pioneer starting publication in 1856. Other changes continued to come to the city after the Civil War: sidewalks were constructed along Bridge Street; the Chippewa Falls&Western Railroad arrived in 1875; gas street lights were installed in 1876; and telephone service to Eau Claire was installed in 1878.
The 1880s saw the emergence of the Chippewa pinery as the largest, best quality stand of white pine remaining in the upper Midwest. Lumber prices were profitable, and the Chippewa Lumber and Boom Company employed 400 people and estimated a cut of 61 million board feet of lumber for the year 1880 alone. In 1881, the company was purchased by lumber magnate Frederick Weyerhauser. The Chippewa Lumber and Boom company was expanded and reportedly became the largest sawmill under one roof in the world. The economic boom extended to other industries and commerce in the 1880s, including new flour mills, a brewery, ad a woolen mill. Cigar factories, a shoe factory, and a broom factory were opened in the 1890s.
In 1902, a group of Chippewa Falls business leaders recognized the declining lumber industry and formed the Progressive League to ensure the city’s economic future. By the time the Chippewa Lumber and Boom Company closed its sawmill in 1911, the Progressive League had successfully promoted a diversification of industry, including a beet sugar factory, three more shoe factories, and a glove factory. In the 1920s, a hydroelectric plant on the Chippewa River began supplying power for electric lighting. The Progressive League, now renamed the Commercial League, contained fifty manufacturers employing three thousand workers in 1920, confidently predicted a healthy economic future for Chippewa Falls which lasted well until after World War Two.
† Adapted from: Justin Miller, University of Wisonsin Milwaukee, West Hill Residential Historic District, nomination document. 2020, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, accessed October, 2021.