Wisconsin Hometown Stories: La Crosse

Wisconsin Hometown Stories: La Crosse

Wisconsin Hometown Stories: La Crosse follows the evolution of the city at the junction of the Mississippi, Black and La Crosse Rivers from its earliest days to the present.

Premiere date: May 12, 2008

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TRANSCRIPT+

Intro

Announcer: 
This program is brought to you by the combined resources of the Wisconsin Historical Society and Wisconsin Public Television. 

Narrator:
On “Wisconsin Hometown Stories,” a town founded on the Mississippi river built up by the wealth of a great pine forest, and rebuilt after an economic collapse.  A city transformed by higher education, a medical revolution, and the rivers that run through it.  On “Wisconsin Hometown Stories: La Crosse.”

Announcer:
Principal funding was provided by Don and Roxanne Weber; Gail K. Cleary and the Cleary-Kumm Foundation; Charles and Sue Anne Gelatt; and continuing their rich history of community support, Kwik Trip, founded in La Crosse in 1965, and serving the needs of customers in neighborhood stores across Wisconsin and beyond.  Additional support by Gunderson Lutheran Health System; Dahl Automotive of La Crosse and Onalaska; Sigurd B. Gundersen, Jr.; Friends of Wisconsin Public Television; and the Wisconsin History Fund, supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Early History

Narrator:
In 1805, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, sent on an expedition to explore the Mississippi river, stopped at a sand prairie that French explorers called “Prairie la Crosse.” 

Man, as Zebulon Pike: 
Came up Prairie la Crosse, so named from the ball game played on it by the Sioux.  This prairie is very handsome.  It is bordered by hills similar to those of the Prairie du Chien. 

Narrator:
Climbing a tall bluff, Pike was overcome by what he saw. 

Man, as Zebulon Pike:
It is altogether a prospect so varied and romantic that man may scarcely expect to enjoy such a one, but twice or thrice in the course of a life. 

Narrator:
La Crosse, Wisconsin, the city that sprang up on that prairie, today retains the beauty that so struck Zebulon pike. 

Chuck Lee:
La crosse is situated on the banks of the Mississippi, and in the middle of the driftless region, the unglaciated region of southwestern Wisconsin, a topography created basically by erosion, as the glaciers retreated.  And so it is contrary to the Midwest’s image, much more rugged. 

Like practically every other river city, La Crosse sits on a sandy, alluvial plain formed by the juncture of the Mississippi, the Black River, and the La Crosse River. 

Narrator:
The confluence of the three rivers gave life to the city.  The Black River, its banks lined with valuable white pine, brought in great wealth.  The valley of the La Crosse provided a route through the hills for the railroads.  And the Mississippi brought commerce, a lifeline to the rest of the world, and gave the city its identity as a river town. 

In 1841, Nathan Myrick borrowed a government keel boat at Prairie du Chien, filled it with a stock of goods, and with three passengers, poled his way up the Mississippi to Prairie la Crosse. 

Ed Hill: 
He was a New Yorker, and came west.  He heard about this Prairie la Crosse site, thought it lent itself well to the kind of trade he wanted to get into. 

Narrator:
When he built a trading post, Myrick became the first European settler of Prairie la Crosse.  Myrick’s account books show that he was an Indian trader, exchanging goods for silver and furs with the Ho-Chunk who remained in the area. 

The settlement grew slowly.  After 10 years, La Crosse consisted of five houses, a warehouse and a long shed used as a bowling alley. 

But soon after, Frederika Levy, who lived in the little settlement, wrote that “settlers came in with a rush,” drawn by the prospects of the huge pine forests to the north. 

Ed Hill:
Some of the earliest lumber in this area was done by the Mormons.  And they were getting logs and lumber from farther up on the Black River, up toward Black River Falls.  And that lumber was to be used for the construction of buildings in Illinois.  Then, in 1852, the Federal Land Office moved from Mineral Point, and it was there because of the mines, to La Crosse, because of the timber.  So as soon as the government began opening these pine-lands, lumbering took off furiously.  Supplying of goods, and food, and everything else to the whole logging/lumbering operation was a huge business.

Narrator:
La Crosse became a busy steamboat port, taking in goods to haul up to the lumber camps and sawmills to the north. 

Ed Hill:
From the period 1840s up through the late ‘60s, maybe the ‘70s, I can hardly imagine a La Crosse without the steamboats.  And steamboats, let’s face it, have a romantic appeal that few other historical objects do.  They’re noisy.  They’re dramatic when they move.  The most popular type of boat was the packet.  This was the pickup truck on the river, a big pickup truck, because it carried passengers, but it would carry anything else that you wanted.  The passengers were primarily on one of the upper decks, there could be two or three of them.  But down on the main deck could be sacked wheat going downstream, it could be coal, it could be farm implements, hogs, cattle, hay, lead, anything at all that needed moving could be put onto a boat.  And they were the carrier of choice, almost of necessity for a long while.

Narrator:
On the Black River, lumbermen floated whole logs through the river’s sharp turns and rapids.  They began to build steam-powered mills in La Crosse and nearby Onalaska to turn the logs into lumber.  Raftsmen would then ride the wood to market, steering rafts of boards with the current, down the Mississippi. 

Oneota

Narrator:
As the city of La Crosse developed, builders ran into evidence of earlier residents. 

Robert Boszhardt:
Almost immediately as people begin to build buildings and dig into the riverfront, the soils on the riverfront to build basements, they begin to find artifacts from people who have been here before.  They don’t really know what they are, and have no idea how old they are. 

Narrator:
Tracings of images from the walls of rock shelters provide early signs of a people now known as the Oneota, who made their homes on the river terraces of the La Crosse area. 

Robert Boszhardt:
From 1300AD 1600AD, La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Onalaska, Wisconsin, was the most densely populated place on the entire upper Mississippi river.  There were more people here than anywhere from St. Louis up to Minneapolis St. Paul and beyond. 

Narrator:
In the 1920s and 30s, archaeologists from the Milwaukee Public Museum explored sites in western Wisconsin, and found artifacts that began to define the Oneota culture.  But astounding discoveries about the Oneota were uncovered in 1978, with the construction of the Valley View Mall in La Crosse.  The Dayton- Hudson Corporation agreed to let archaeologists salvage what they could of a site that local collectors knew to be rich in artifacts. 

Round stains indicated the location of pits used first by the Oneota to store their food, and afterwards,  their garbage. 

Robert Boszhardt:
Each pit is like a time capsule.  So it has pottery and stone arrowheads and charcoal and bone tools, and things like that.  We could do radiocarbon dates from those pits and begin to reconstruct the life ways, and the chronology, and all sorts of things about the Oneota culture that we never knew before. 

Jim Gallagher:
They had a very sophisticated culture.  They were very productive farmers in the truest sense of the word, not just having little gardens, but large agricultural fields.  They were involved in trade networks that stretched just about all over the continental United States.  Had large populations, large villages of a hundred, two hundred acres. 

Narrator:
The richness of the finds at valley view led to the formation of the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at UW-La Crosse, to document the archaeology of the area before it was destroyed by development. 

Jim Gallagher:
The Oneota, just like us, you know, knew where are good places are to live.  So that every time a new highway was going in, or a new school, or any kind of development, that’s where there’d be another site. 

Robert Boszhardt:
You put them all together and you try to trace the boundaries of these things and they just all tied together.  The Oneota occupy from the south end of La Crosse all the way up to the city of Onalaska, which is in the north, and then extended all the way up to Trempealeau, which is 15 miles from here. 

Chloris Lowe:
These are my ancestors.  These are the people that preceded me.  My family is tied to that area.  I have aunts and uncles and cousins that still live in La Crosse and in the surrounding area.  And we’ve had people there for untold generations.  My great-grandfather was with me until I was a sophomore in high school.  And he related stories that his grandfather had told him about the La Crosse area, that as they used to travel in those valleys, especially in the evenings when they were on the river, that they would look up the river and there was smoke coming down from all of, what we now call Coulees, the valleys.  The reason that smoke was there wasn’t fog, it was actually smoke from all the villages.  That was the concentration that was there of people. 

You stand on the bluffs above La Crosse, hundreds of feet above what is now the city of La Crosse.  That’s one of the most beautiful areas in the United States, I would argue in the world.  It’s bountiful.  It’s rich.  It’s green.  It’s clean.  It just reinforces what has been going on there for hundreds and thousands of years. 

It’s not just “Indian” history.  It’s not just Ho-Chunk history, but it becomes a part of who we are as a community.  This is part of the history of the people of La Crosse.  And that the people of La Crosse are not just the people that are standing vertical today.  The people of La Crosse are the people that have been there for thousands and thousands of years.  Oneota culture, and yes, even before that. 

Steam

Narrator:
Steam engines still pass through La Crosse a few times a year, a reminder of an time when steamboats, steam engines and steam-powered sawmills drove the economy.  In 1858, the Milwaukee and La Crosse railroad tunneled through the hills near Tomah.  And following the La Crosse river valley, reached the newly- incorporated city of La Crosse. 

The impact of the railroads would be profound.  They would challenge the steamboat for control of shipping, trigger a radical reshaping of the Mississippi river, and lay the groundwork for an economic boom. 

Chuck Lee:
The railroad was what truly opened up this region to many more people logging. 

Narrator:
After the civil war, a surge of immigrants arrived, drawn by the lure of jobs in the lumber industry. 

Ed Hill:
It just expanded so rapidly and hired so many people.  And the lumber companies moved in, they saw this as a good way to get rich quick.  And it was.  And they began advertising, sending broadsides to European countries, especially Scandinavia, indicating that there were great jobs here, and work that they knew how to do, so that was not only a major economic force locally, but it was a major immigration force, as well. 

Chuck Lee:
An awful lot of trees were floating by this place and floating down to this place.  At one point in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were, I believe, 33 sawmills in La Crosse, stretching along the Black River and along the Mississippi. 

Narrator:
Steamboats lost a lot of business to the railroads, and began to specialize.  Many became raft-boats, pushing the ever-growing rafts of logs and lumber to market. 

Chuck Lee:
To see the photos of these log rafts coming down either the Black River or the Mississippi River, it’s just unbelievable the amount of lumber that was being moved at the time.  If you look to our west, to Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, the barns there were built with Wisconsin trees and Wisconsin lumber. 

Narrator:
The lumber industry produced great fortunes, and a number of large homes still maintained today display the wealth generated by the lumber barons.  In the 1850s, lumberman Gideon Hixon built what is now called the Hixon House, a museum maintained by the La Crosse County Historical society. 

Charles Haas:
Gideon Hixon was one of the early settlers in La Crosse, came here in 1856.  And when Hixon came to La Crosse he went into the lumber business and made his money in white pine.  

Narrator:
The house is a step back in the life of a prominent early family, authentically restored, with original furnishings. 

Charles Haas:
When the society was given the house in the early 1960s, it came with the furniture. 

Narrator:
For years, lumber barons fought the building of a railroad bridge across the Black and Mississippi Rivers, because it would block the movement of their lumber rafts. 

Ed Hill:
That didn’t stop the railroads, however, from going across.  There were railroad ferries.  You could take two or three railroad cars across and put them on their way.  In the wintertime, if the ice was thick enough, you laid tracks on the ice and ran the railroad, not the full length of the train by any means, but several cars at a time. 

Narrator:
Because white pine logs floated, pushing them down-river was relatively easy.  Steamboats had a much harder time carrying grain and other heavy freight on the free-flowing and often shallow Mississippi. 

Chuck Lee:
The earliest descriptions of the upper Mississippi, unlike anything you would see today, it was a river that had rapids in it.  It was a river that if you were in a boat in it, you couldn’t see the bluffs most of the time.  You knew they were there, but you couldn’t see them, because the river was so choked with islands.  And those islands were covered with trees.  And there was so many different channels, some of them dead-end and some of them blocked by sandbars, others open. 

Ed Hill:
You had a huge range of a river that might be 10, 12, 15 feet deep at some point, to a river you could wade across without getting your knees wet.  And then in those low drought periods, low water periods, steamboats traffic didn’t move, and you took your chances out there.  A lot of boats were wrecked.  If they hit a log or a stump in the water and punctured the hull, there would be the end of that trip right there.  In the early years, in the 1830s and ‘40s, a boat might live three or four years on average, but with each passing decade, boat life got longer.  And it’s because very quickly the steamboat companies were lobbying Congress to improve the harbors and improve the river. 

John Anfinson:
In 1866, Congress authorizes the first project to begin reshaping the Mississippi river.  It’s called the four foot channel project.  What the Congress wanted the Corps of Engineers to do was create a continuous deep channel all the way from St. Paul to St. Louis.  And they were going to do that by dredging out the sandbars and trying to pull out all the snags in the Mississippi river. 

Narrator:
While river traffic struggled, the railroads finally succeeded in building a bridge across the Mississippi, a symbol of the growing power of the railroads.  Trains now shipped even heavy and bulky freight, like farmers’ crops. 

John Anfinson:
The river has a hard time competing with railroads, because farmers’ crops become ripe in the fall just when the river goes to its lowest stage.  So, farmers are kind of stuck going with railroads, even if they charge more.  They really become the primary proponents of another project that’s finally authorized in 1878, called the four and a half foot channel.  That sounds not a lot different than the four foot channel, it’s only a half-foot more, what’s the big deal.  Well, the big deal is that this is going to be the first project to fundamentally transform the Mississippi River.  This project will change the river like no force since the glaciers. 

What the corps of engineers start to do is they start building these wing dams in the river.  They’re long, narrow piers of rock and brush, layer upon layer, that stick out into the river.  They work like nozzle of a garden hose that’s being tightened down.  The tighter you turn down the nozzle on the hose the faster the water moves.  So as the wing dams narrow the river, they cut through those sandbars. 

Narrator:
River improvements, the railroads, and the booming lumber business drove other industrial development in La Crosse, based on processing the area’s rich natural resources.  Boatyards used the plentiful wood supplies to build and maintain La Crosse’s fleet of steamboats, the biggest on the upper Mississippi. 

Gathering the harvest of the area’s farms, La Crosse became a flour milling and grain shipping center.  Early breweries also processed grain, and stored the beer in caves like this one, carved into a bluff in 1864. 

Chuck Lee:
Harvesting natural resources and then processing them, that was the nature of La Crosse’s economy into the 1890s.  So long as the resources held out, that was the business of the community, and that’s how the city grew.

Medicine Men

Narrator:
As the city grew, its prospects attracted a young doctor from Norway, named Adolf Gundersen.  And medical care in the city would soon undergo a revolution. 

Erik Gundersen:
The story goes that he saw an ad in a medical journal put there by a man he knew in medical school named Christian Christiansen.  And Christianson was looking for a partner, because he got too busy.  And Christianson was in La Crosse. 

Narrator:
The frontier city Gundersen found was much rougher than the one he left. 

Erik Gundersen:
He was used to Oslo, which is, after all, a capital city, and La Crosse, was not.  La Crosse was known for saw mills.  And there were about an equal number of hotels that were of dubious reputation, some of them.  And there were about five breweries.  So the culture here was pretty rough. 

Narrator:
Lumberjacks, steamboat workers, lumber raftsmen, railroadmen, hard working and tough men, often with time on their hands and money in their pockets, frequented the waterfront. 

Erik Gundersen:
It was a rowdy town.  The jails were busy, a lot of brawling down on the waterfront. 

Narrator:
Adding to social friction was the mix of nationalities.  The largest immigrant groups, the Germans and Norwegians, lived and worked with Yankee settlers, African Americans, Bohemians, Syrians, Lebanese, Greeks, Irish, British, French, and others. 

Ed Hill:
You have this mix of people, all being thrown together, sometimes with intense rivalry for jobs, and a lot of alcohol consumed in those days. 

Narrator:
Despite extensive training in Norwegian medical school, Gundersen received little respect from La Crosse citizens. 

Erik Gundersen:
They had little regard for doctors.  So they had little regard for him. 

Narrator:
Gundersen complained in letters home that he received no more respect than a doctor two blocks away who called himself “White Beaver,” and spent part of his time performing in wild west shows.  It was true.  At a time when Americans were fascinated by tales of the Wild West, Buffalo Bill Dody brought his melodrama “Prairie Waif” to the La Crosse opera house.  And his good friend White Beaver Powell performed in the cast. 

Frank Powell learned herbal medicine from his mother, the grandaughter of a Seneca Indian Chief, and attended two years of medical college at a time when no license was required to practice medicine. 

When white beaver moved to La Crosse in 1881, his adventures as an Army doctor with Buffalo Bill were already part of dime novels and plays. 

John Satory:
In the dime novels, and things, he was written up as a frontiersman.  He was supposed to have been involved with the capture of Sitting Bull. 

Narrator:
The flamboyant doctor added to his own legend by fabricating stories about himself.  He paid newspapers fifty cents a line to run news stories he had written about the success of his cures and surgeries.  Powell became the most famous man in town.  And his practice, due to his heavy self-promotion and advertising, thrived. 

John Satory:
There were a lot of people that said he was an outstanding doctor.  He was able to cure things that no one else was able to cure.  Some people thought he had magical powers.  But then again, Frank Powell was a person who liked to embellish himself.  So it’s not always known, really, the whole truth about the stories of Frank Powell. 

Narrator:
White Beaver transferred his popularity to the political arena, and easily won election as the mayor of La Crosse-and served four terms. 

Mayor Powell threw a Fourth of July picnic for all the city’s children, and welcomed the visits of his friend Buffalo Bill, who brought his Wild West show to town.  

John Satory:
Buffalo Bill would come to La Crosse and do a few shows.  They were very good friends.  And that’s when Buffalo Bill invested into Frank Powell’s medicine company here.  So then they were both really marketing these medicines. 

Narrator:
White Beaver manufactured his own patent medicines, combinations of different herbal treatments. 

John Satory:
He practiced with herbs.  He would put on the bottle, like, take so many drops.  And if it didn’t work, take so many more.  Problem is that most of the mixture was either alcohol or opium and alcohol, and so course after awhile it always made you feel good. 

Narrator:
In Norway, Adolf Gundersen studied for seven years at a university medical school.  After that, he spent additional time observing prominent European surgeons of the day, acquiring the knowledge and skills to carry out the latest innovations in surgery. 

Erik Gundersen:
Other doctors elsewhere, pioneers, were figuring out that there was such a thing as appendicitis, and that this abscess which formed down in the lower right abdomen was due to an inflamed appendix.  That was a revelation.  And Adolf latched on to this pretty fast.  He knew that was true. 

Ronald Numbers:
He was reputed to have had a hundred or more successful appendectomies in a row, which made him something of a legend out there.  If you’re going to have a surgeon cut into your body, which was still a fairly novel idea, and he has a 100 percent success, that’s very good.  And a ruptured appendix, not only was it painful but it could kill you. 

Erik Gundersen: 
The train that would deliver patients right to the Lutheran Hospital came right to the back door.  So that they called that “appendicitis express.” 

Narrator:
In La Crosse, A. Gundersen, as he was called, found the freedom to advance far beyond what he could have done in Norway. 

Erik Gundersen:
In Europe, the young men didn’t have much freedom, and where here he had a lot of freedom.  He liked that.  He also was a pioneer in other things here, in prostate surgery, in surgery for ectopic pregnancy.  He was agressive, he was an agressive surgeon.  He believed in doing. 

Sigurd Gundersen:
And technically extremely capable.  I have a great picture of a man who had a big parotid tumor on the side of his head.  And he went down to Chicago to see some people down there who were great surgeons.  And they said, “Well, if we operate on that you’ll bleed to death.”  He came back here and A. Gundersen took it off, and this guy lived for a long time after that.  And the family, when he died sent me this picture to record what he had done. 

Erik Gundersen:
He was known as an aggressive, authoritarian man.  The nurses just ran when they saw him coming, if they felt everything wasn’t just perfect on their floors.  They would hide in the closet, for instance, because you know, you get the picture.  He was so tough on everybody, and on patients, too.  If they didn’t do what he told them, what he wanted them to do or told them to do, then he would just dismiss them.

Narrator:
Soon after he arrived in La Crosse, Adolf returned to Norway to marry his childhood sweetheart, Helga. 

Erik Gundersen:
And then he talked her into coming back to La Crosse.  Amazing, because she was a teacher, and she really loved Norway.  Then they had this big family beginning right away.  You know they had eight children, and all boys except at last the girl. 

Sigurd Gundersen:
But she was energetic as a devil.  And my father would tell you that she had more energy than any of her children.  She would wear them all out by doing what she did.  A phenomenal person. 

Narrator:
Of the family’s seven sons, six became physicians. 

Erik Gundersen:
They all went off to good medical schools, Colombia, Harvard, then headed back here after that.  There were two that didn’t come back.  Four that did. 

Narrator:
His sons convinced Adolf to move out of his crowded second-floor office downtown. 

Erik Gundersen:
And finally, he agreed to move and build a new clinic.  And they built right next to the hospital.  And they moved in in 1930, right in the beginning of the Depression. 

Sigurde Gunderson:
And in the cornerstone out there, the paper talks about the crash of the stock market.  And so, they used to put their cars out in front so it looked like they were busy. 

Narrator:
After weathering the hard times, the family went on to form one of the first group practices.  And the multi-specialty clinic would continue to grow, eventually becoming a regional medical center. 

In the years since he arrived in the rough lumber town, Adolf Gundersen helped to bring revolutionary advances in medical care to La Crosse.  And during that time, the city would undergo equally profound changes. 

 

Reinvention

Narrator:
In the 1880s, mills in La Crosse and Onalaska churned out what seemed to be unlimited amounts of lumber. 

Ed Hill:
The peak point of lumber production in La Crosse was 1892. 

Narrator:
In that peak year, La Crosse sawmills cut 242 million board feet, the equivalent of a 12-inch wide board, 45,000 miles long.  It was a rate of harvest that would soon destroy the resource. 

Ed Hill:
The pineries became pretty much exhausted.  And that rollover period was very abrupt. 

Chuck Lee:
The age of lumbering really ended quickly, to the point where the industry itself literally crashed. 

Narrator:
As La Crosse headed into the 20th century without the industry that built it, the city searched for ways to reinvent itself. 

Charles Gelatt:
Well, I like to think of it as adaptation.  And my definition of being alive is being able to adapt. 

Narrator:
In the decades to come, the city of La Crosse would become more industrial, creating large manufacturing businesses.  It would establish new educational institutions, and become a college town.  And new, conflicting visions of the Mississippi would both restore and radically reshape the river. 

The city’s rebuilding began with the industries that grew up with the frontier economy.  The railroads became the city’s largest employers.  There were now five rail lines in town, two of them with division headquarters and repair shops.

Charles Gelatt:
We had over 4,000 railroad employees.  And we had manufacturing, in part, because of the railroads.  And we had some big businesses for the early part of the 20th century. 

Narrator:
Manufacturers like the La Crosse Plow Company continued to grow, turning out an assortment of farm implements.

Charles Gelatt:
They shipped their plows west of the Mississippi.  And the railroads west of the Mississippi were essential to their success. 

Narrator:
In 1929, the La Crosse plow company merged with a national corporation, Allis Chalmers, and would build implements for their popular line of tractors for the next 40 years. 

In 1884, the city’s five breweries produced as much beer as Milwaukee, and brewing grew into a major industry.

When the John Gund Brewery burned down, Gund rebuilt a huge facility, the biggest in the city. 

Charles Gelatt:
It was reputed to be larger than Anheuser-Busch at the end of World War I.  It owned and controlled more saloon sites than Anheuser-Busch.  And saloon sites were the unfilling stations of the brewery industry. 

Narrator:
Nearby, the City Brewery was run by the widow of Gottlieb Heileman. 

Susan T. Hessel:
Johanna Heileman was one of the first, if not the first, female CEO in the country.  And after he died, instead of turning the company over to someone else, she ran it.  And she ran it very well. 

Narrator:
From the Heileman home and office, Johanna incorporated the business as the G. Heileman Brewing Company.  And soon, her sons-in-law developed a new brand of beer they called “Old Style.” 

To start a new industry, a group of city investors pooled their resources to build the La Crosse Rubber Mills, which manufactured raincoats, sneakers and rubber boots.  After several expansions, the large plant employed a thousand people, and was capable of producing 30,000 pairs of shoes and overshoes a day. 

Charles Gelatt:
Walking to school, I had overshoes.  They were difficult to put on, almost as hard to put on as long underwear. 

Narrator:
Like many cities, La Crosse hitched its fortunes to the emerging automobile industry, and developed some large, local companies. 

The Northern Engraving Company, a metal decorating firm, took over White Beaver Powell’s former medical office, and began to make dial faces for another La Crosse business, the National Gauge Company,  which became a leading maker of gauges for cars. 

National Gauge eventually merged with Electric Autolite, a national maker of auto parts, though it was still known locally as “the gauge plant.” 

Man:
Heat and pressure indicators, instruments for the control panels of modern motor cars.

Narrator:
The biggest company in La Crosse grew from a small plumbing supply business run by Norwegian immigrant James Trane.  When Trane’s son Reuben returned from engineering school, they formed the Trane Company, to market a steam heating system, which included Reuben’s design for a new kind of steam trap. 

Charles Gelatt:
And he told me that in 1916, he traveled the country by rail and visited a hundred towns.  And he was a congenial gentleman and a good salesman, as well as an engineer.  He sold them on his trap.  He began manufacturing it.  He hired friends of his. 

Narrator:
The company’s breakthrough came when Reuben invented a convector radiator, which distributed heat through coils of copper tubes and thin metal fins. 

Charles Gelatt:
And it was useful, particularly when the hot summers of the ‘30s came along, because they converted it to air conditioning. 

Narrator:
Trane soon became a leading manufacturer of heating and cooling systems, and eventually grew to be the largest builder of central air conditioning systems in the world. 

The collapse of the lumber industry highlighted the need to conserve local resources, like Grandad Bluff, a towering local landmark.  A stone-mining company, chipping away at the bluff, was about to expand its operations. 

Ellen Hixon, the widow of lumberman Gideon Hixon, led a campaign to purchase the bluff and preserve its sweeping view for future generations. 

Other lumbermen and their families had already donated land along the river, and where abandoned sawmills still stood.  The city commissioned noted landscape architect John Nolen to design a park system for the city.  He began with what is now called Riverside Park, guaranteeing that the area where Nathan Myrick built his cabin, would continue to serve as the city’s front door. 

But as parks developed along the water, the Mississippi faced new threats from drainage of wetlands for farming, and pollution of the water.

John Anfinson:
Pollution in the Mississippi has become so horrendous, from garbage, from human waste.  In fact, a young boy from La Crosse dies as a result, they say, of exposure to the Mississippi River, from swimming in the river.  So conservationists start saying, you know, its time to think about this river differently. 

Narrator:
In 1921, a group of anglers from the Isaac Walton league , an early conservation group, went fishing on the Mississippi, where the group’s leader, a Chicago advertising man named Will Dilg, was trying to figure out a way to stop a huge wetland drainage project south of La Crosse.

John Anfinson:
One day he was fishing off a wing dam, and he turned to the person next to him and said, “You know, we can make this whole dang thing into a fish and wildlife refuge and save the fish and the wildlife in the Mississippi.”  So Dilg starts one of the first powerful environmental campaigns in America.  And by 1924, he succeeds when Congress creates the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish refuge.  That’s going to be 261 miles long, basically from Wabasha all the way to Rock Island, Illinois.  And La Crosse is right in the heart of that. 

Narrator:
Creation of the refuge was an early success in a long effort to clean up and protect the Mississippi, and came at a time when it seemed the river would never again become a major shipping channel. 

John Anfinson:
The wingdams really failed to bring commerce back to the Mississippi.  The river just gets too low in the fall.  There are too many drought years and it just doesn’t work.  There’s no through-commerce.  There are no boats that go from St. Louis to St. Paul.  And the Midwest faces a pretty important decision.  And the decision is do we want to be connected to the world through the Mississippi River or not?

Narrator:
Navigation boosters said yes, and pushed to bring shipping back.  This time, by building a series of locks and dams that would hold water back to create a nine- foot-deep channel.  The massive public works project would, once again, radically alter the Mississippi, and create the multi-purpose river we know today.  Now used as a major shipping channel, the river also serves as a recreation area.  And as a wildlife refuge, the river provides a major bird migration route, and a home for hundreds of species of fish and wildlife. 

College Town

Narrator:
New institutions of higher education played a huge part in the reinvention of La Crosse, as the city became a college town. 

The La Crosse Continuation and Adult School started in 1912, part of Wisconsin’s pioneering system of technical and vocational schools, the first in the nation.  With free tuition for city residents, the school met the needs of new businesses and industries, providing workers with the skills needed to adapt to the post-lumber economy. 

The director, John B. Coleman, packed the school with students of all ages by responding quickly to requests, organizing a class or finding tutors for anyone who needed them. 

Susan T. Hessel:
In the ‘40s there was a national magazine, “The Commonweal,” that did a story about La Crosse as the “city that went to school.” There were so many adults going to school at night to improve their skills, improve their knowledge.  

Narrator:
The article reported that 9,000 students of all ages, one out of five city residents,  attended the school that would go on to become Western Technical College.  Across town, Viterbo University was one of several institutions established by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. 

In 1865, mother Antonia Herb, of the Franciscan Sisters, made a vow to establish the practice of never-ending prayer. 

Gayda Hollnagel:
She prayed to god that if he blessed their ministry, she and the community would build a chapel, the biggest and best that their means could afford. 

Narrator:
In 1901, the Franciscan Sisters began construction of a masterpiece of church architecture, Mary of the Angels Chapel. 

The skilled craftsmen of the Hackner Altar Company of La Crosse built the altars, and provided stone carving and woodworking. 

Gayda Hollnagel:
Doing the cabinet work, the altars, the pews, the detail is just astonishing. 

Narrator:
A teaching order, the Franciscan Sisters also built the city’s first school of higher education, the St. Rose Normal Institute, for training Catholic schoolteachers.  After years of growth and improvement, St. Rose became Viterbo College in 1939, offering a four-year degree in teaching. 

Gayda Hollnagel:
The sisters also started the first hospital here.  And in connection with that, in 1901, began the St. Francis School of Nursing primarily to teach their own Sisters how to be nurses. 

Narrator:
The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse traces its roots back to 1909, when the La Crosse Normal School stood at the edge of town, the result of a long effort by the city to bring a state teachers’ college to town. 

Susan T. Hessel: 
Every city was vying for a normal school, because they realized, like the railroads, that would bring important economic development opportunities, of just plain education for its citizens, it would be considered a college city.  

Narrator:
A second building would improve the facilities for what had already become its specialty, the training of physical education teachers. 

Charles Gelatt: 
It was known around town as “muscle tech.” 

Narrator:
The school soon grew to become a four-year college, and its physical education program would go on to receive national recognition, setting the stage for helping the city through some hard times ahead. 

Ebb & Flow

Narrator:
In April of 1965, after a fire destroyed the facilities of WKBT-TV, the station reported from a makeshift studio the news of the day, a record-high flood of the Mississippi River. 

John Medinger:
Inundated a great portion of the city of La Crosse, particularly the low lying area between the north and the south sides, and a lot of businesses, a lot of old warehouses had a lot of water standing in them.  I don’t think anybody thought about it at the time but it was kind of a seminal event in the sense that the city fathers, the Chamber of Commerce, those types of folks, decided they wanted to rebuild La Crosse, and rebuild it into something different. 

Narrator:
The move to rebuild came at a time when bad economic news was also flooding in, as many of the industries that defined the city’s identity were closing. 

John Medinger:
My father was a tool and die maker at Allis Chalmers.  They made farm machinery.  They closed in ‘68-‘69.  We used to have Northern Engraving on the northside.  Autolite Company, they closed.  And several other places.  Rubber Mills had employed a thousand people making boots.  They’re gone now.  So we’ve lost a lot of our big manufacturers. 

Narrator:
But one city industry, the G. Heileman Brewing Company, continued to grow.  Company president Roy Kumm devised a strategy to compete with the big, national brewers by acquiring small, local brands. 

David Delano:
Roy started by purchasing a small brewery in the eastern side of Wisconsin called Kingsbury.   Kingsbury, at the time, was a very popular-priced, meaning cheap, beer which gave Heileman a different segment of the market.  That was just the start of what was to come, because there many, many more acquisitions over the next couple of decades. 

Narrator:
As it acquired small breweries nationwide, Heileman’s continued to brew those local beers, holding on to each brand’s loyal customers. 

As its fortunes grew, Heileman helped to establish a new Fall Festival in La Crosse called Oktoberfest.  The event was an immediate success, and soon became a major attraction for the city.  And as the festival grew, so did the Heileman brewery. 

David Delano:
In 1971, Russ Cleary took over the business.  And Russ had much the same inclination to acquire breweries.  Heileman grew steadily, and actually meteorically. 

Susan T. Hessel: 
And I think that was so interesting about that era is that it was almost like notches in the city’s psyche as Heileman moved up from, I think it was like from 37, to 17, and all the way up to 4th.

David Delano:
Not all of the growth was with acquisitions, either.  Old Style became a very, very formidable brand. 

Advertisement:
Pure brewed in God’s country. 

Narrator:
Heileman developed the theme of “God’s country,” with ads connecting the beauty of the La Crosse area and the purity of its water, with the quality of its product. 

David Delano:
A lot of Chicago people looked at this mystical product coming from somewhere in the Wisconsin woods, and the Old Style brand really took off. 

Advertisement:
If you lived here, wouldn’t you brew the best beer possible, just so you could stay? 

David Delano:
By the 1980s, however, there was a problem.  And that was there just weren’t any more little breweries around to pick up.  The business was over $1 billion in sales at that time, so it was large, but it had also become a target for acquisition. 

Narrator:
Alan Bond, an Australian entrepreneur, announced that he was buying up Heileman stock, taking control of the company, and adding it to his worldwide business empire.  But overextended with debt, the Bond corporation soon collapsed, and brought the G. Heileman Brewing Company down with it.  Eventually, with local backing, the facility restarted with its original name, City Brewery, continuing an industry as old as the city itself. 

In 1965, while the flood crested at nearly 18 feet, WKBT also reported on the demolition of an old landmark,  the County Court House, built in 1903. 

And in the years after the flood, the La Crosse Redevelopment Authority began to buy up and tear down the old industrial buildings of the waterfront, eventually making way for a convention center and motel that would bring new life to the old downtown. 

Medinger:
We rediscovered the Mississippi river about 40 years ago, we took the opportunity to demolish, revitalize, tear down, renew.  And that gave us a tremendous kick start in revitalizing our downtown area and our waterfront.  A lot of things spun off of that. 

Narrator:
But when the 1903 city hall was taken down, the pendulum of the wrecking ball began to swing the other way.  Preservationists began organizing to save the next target of demolition, the old post office. 

Susan T. Hessel:
People woke up and said, “Wow, this is the last really major building in the old civic center.”   They wanted to fight for this building. 

Narrator:
It was not to be.  Despite strong efforts to save it, the old Romanesque landmark met with the wrecking ball.  Though replaced with a much more efficient building, remnants of the old building remain, marking the beginning of a preservation movement that would save much of the old downtown business district. 

Susan T. Hessel:
Even though that post office was not saved, there came out of it something very important, which I think is a respect for preserving history, for saving buildings. 

Medinger:
We have to make La Crosse into what is unique and what is special.  It makes us a tourist destination.  We have thousands of jobs in the tourist industry in this area that brings in tens of millions of dollars from outside visitors who come here.  But it also makes us people who live here proud of La Crosse.  That we are preserving the best of our past, but we are not living in the past.  And I think that is what I really like about La Crosse is that we are preserving the past, but we actually preparing ourselves for the future. 

Well, I think when you think about La Crosse today, you think about higher education, we have three wonderful institutions here, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University, and Western Technical College, which bring about 15,000 students into this area each year.  In a city of 53,000 that obviously has a dramatic impact.  And then healthcare, Gundersen Lutheran is our number one employer with 6,000 employees.  St. Francis Hospital is around 3,000 employees. 

Narrator:
The Health Science Center, a joint project of the city’s three colleges and two healthcare centers, now serves as a state-of-the-art research and teaching facility. 

Medinger:
Dramatic changes.  So we’ve gone from a manufacturing area, to today, to a high-tech healthcare higher education. 

Narrator:
Narrator:
And La Crosse continues to grow in other ways, as new immigrant groups take their place among the old. 

Medinger:
The La Crosse that I grew up in is dead and gone.  That La Crosse of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s is gone.  It’s history.  It doesn’t exist anymore.  We are no longer just Germans, and Norwegians, and Lutherans, and Catholics, any more.  We’re much more than that.  We have become part of the bigger world.  And for that, we ought to rejoice and celebrate. 

Narrator:
But for all of its growth, the City of La Crosse still draws inspiration from the river . 

Ed Hill:
We see ourselves as a river town, and I don’t think that will ever change, because here we are nestled in this beautiful valley.  People feel kind of a home here.  It’s historically rooted.  And even if they just moved here three years ago, they become historically rooted.  I think anybody who spends much time in La Crosse as a resident has a kind of connection to the river that they’re not even aware of most of the time.  They go out and look over that river.  It’s a powerful instinct.  One of the things that’s been pointed out many times is when some of the businesses closed here, the big industries, almost all of those people, even if they got offers to move elsewhere to a similar job, chose to stay.  They could not imagine leaving.

Funding

Narrator:
Principal funding was provided by Don and Roxanne Weber; Gail K. Cleary and the Cleary-Kumm Foundation; Charles and Sue Anne Gelatt; and continuing their rich history of community support, Kwik Trip, founded in La Crosse in 1965, and serving the needs of customers in neighborhood stores across Wisconsin and beyond. Additional support by Gunderson Lutheran Health System; Dahl Automotive of La Crosse and Onalaska; Sigurd B. Gundersen, Jr.; Friends of Wisconsin Public Television; and the Wisconsin History Fund, supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

* Teachers *

La Crosse: Teacher Resources

Hometown Stories La Crosse Teacher Resources were developed to meet the needs of Wisconsin teachers by a team of teachers and curriculum specialists.

Essay

La Crosse - The River City

Historian Michael Goc provides insight into the geographical and sociological factors that led to La Crosse's historical development.

Galleries

A Journey Through Time & Architecture

Take a virtual walking tour of the historic downtown La Crosse commercial district with historical and current photographs, architectural and historical analysis of 30 sites.

Historic Views of La Crosse

Over the last two years, the Wisconsin Historical Society has been scanning and cataloging its collection of images of Wisconsin places. Consisting of over 10,000 items, the collection highlights main street views, prominent buildings in each community, local monuments and other features of interest.

Wisconsin Bird's-eye Maps

Over 200 panoramic drawings of Wisconsin cities and towns from the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society are now available to browse and purchase. Known as bird’s eye views, panoramas, or perspective maps, these detailed illustrations were very popular with inhabitants of proud and growing communities during the latter half of the 19th century.

Resources

La Crosse: Online Resources

Explore books, manuscripts, video, virtual walking tours and Web sites related to La Crosse.