Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Oshkosh | Wisconsin Public Television

Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Oshkosh

Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Oshkosh

Find innovation and civic pride in this city on the Fox River and Lake Winnebago. Named for the Menominee Chief who worked to keep his people on their native lands, Oshkosh's history has been shaped by its industrial spirit, fierce battles for social justice and its citizens' creativity. Film, archival images, aerial footage and interviews tell the unique stories of Oshkosh and its people.

Premiere date: Apr 20, 2015

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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 city destined to be a woodworking power house, built up by its own brand of creative innovation. A city transformed by fire, battles for justice, and a high-flying reputation. On Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Oshkosh.

Announcer: Funding provided in part by the John E. Keunzl Foundation; Alberta S. Kimball, Mary L. Anhaltzer Foundation; Oshkosh Area Community Foundation; CastlePierce; Theta and Tamblin Clark Smith Family Foundation; with additional support from these funders: the Friends of Wisconsin Public Television; and the Wisconsin History Fund, supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Narrator: In a log cabin, in what would become downtown Oshkosh, local residents met to decide on a name for the future city. The meeting marked the end of an era and the end of a way of life on the ancient water route of the Fox River.

David Grignon: It was on Lake Winnebago, in what would be Oshkosh. The Menominees would have a fishing camp set up there during the winter, specifically to get sturgeon out of Lake Winnebago through the ice. Sturgeon is sacred to the Menominee people. It is in our creation story. It was also used as a wild rice camp, and that's what our name is. Menominee, or manoominii, "People of the wild rice."

Michael Goc: Well, Oshkosh, itself, of course, sits at what was a magnificent wetland. The people who lived there, lived in a pretty pleasant place. It was filled with water fowl, abundantly clear water, fur-bearing animals, which, of course, brought the Europeans there in the late 1600s. The Fox River, although it's a slow, meandering, narrow river, does connect across the portage, at Portage, the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. It was, throughout the late 1600s into the 1700s, the "Highway of Empire." The French Army in the Fox Wars came by there, the explorers, the missionaries came by there, and back and forth, this fur trade. First, of course, under the command of the French. Then, to the British, after they took over the area.

Narrator: As the As the Americans took control from the British, they began negotiating a series of treaties with the Menominee and Ho Chunk. And Yankee settlers began setting up farms.

Sott Cross: White settlers began coming in from New England. Yankees. There was quite a bit of a cultural clash. The French had blended in with the Menominee and Ho Chunk, and had even inter-married.

Michael Goc: The middle men in the fur trade were of French descent, French-Menominee descent, particularly at Oshkosh, the Grignon family. Augustin was the pater familias of the group, and Grignons called themselves "Wisconsin's first family." There were two sons there, Robert and Charles.

Scott Cross: In 1840, Winnebago County was set apart from Brown County. There were no villages or cities to speak of, except for a trading post that was at what's now the village of Butte Des Morts. But since it was a County, they needed a post office. So, one of the local farmhouses was going to be that post office. But, they needed a name for it.

Michael Goc: A meeting was called at the Wright House there in what is now downtown Oshkosh.

Scott Cross: About two dozen voting men of the County got together at that farmhouse. They put forth several names.

Michael Goc: The American contingent at Oshkosh decided to call the place "Athens."

Scott Cross: Several wanted to call it Stanford. Someone suggested Osceola.

Michael Goc: But the French and Menominee contingent, there was a group from Butte Des Morts, led by Robert Grignon. They were convinced this place should be named after Menominee Chief Oshkosh.

Scott Cross: He was the grandson of the "Old King," who was the head Chief of the Menominee tribe. He was mostly raised by famous Chief Tomah, and actually served with him during the War of 1812, with the British, against the Americans. He had seen firsthand the might and power of the United States Government.

Narrator: Oshkosh became Chief during negotiations for the 1827 Treaty at Butte Des Morts, one of several treaties that would force the Tribe to give up more than 10 million acres of their ancestral lands.

David Grignon: During these times of the treaties, he would meet with the other Chiefs of the tribe, but he was the main spokesman. I can only imagine how Chief Oshkosh felt. Carrying a lot on his shoulders, having to negotiate for lands and to sell land, which was a different concept that the Menominee people didn't know of.

Scott Cross: Probably the worst Treaty that was ever made was in 1848 at Poygan. Oshkosh refused to sign it. Basically, what that Treaty did was it took all Menominee lands and was going to transfer the Menominee from Wisconsin to Minnesota.

David Grignon: Oshkosh and the Delegation of Chiefs went over there to inspect the land, and when they got there, all they saw was two warring tribes on both sides of this land, and the resources that they had promised weren't there. So, Oshkosh came back and spoke to the people first and said that he wanted to go to Washington and negotiate with President Fillmore to see if the Tribe could stay in Wisconsin in their ancestral lands.

Scott Cross: Through a translator, he spoke for almost an hour to the President. Winfield Scott, who was a General in the US Army said that he was just overwhelmed by the Chief's eloquence and his power of speech. And it made a very big impression on the President and those who were present listening to him.

David Grignon: Oshkosh said that there was a piece of land in the Ancestral Territory of the Wolf River that no one wanted, considering it to be a wilderness. Oshkosh said, "Let me move my people there. We know these lands. We've lived here for centuries. Let me move my people there, and let us have this as a home." The 1854 Treaty was signed at Keshena Falls, and it was here that Oshkosh and other Chiefs signed this treaty that enabled us to stay in our ancestral home through the Treaty Era when a lot of tribes were being removed.

Michael Goc: As the story goes, they packed the house. The votes are taken, and the place is named Oshkosh, overwhelmingly.

Scott Cross: There was only four votes for Athens, only two votes for Stanford, only one vote for Osceola. There were fifteen votes for Oshkosh as the name.

Michael Goc: It's important, I think, for the point of view of appropriateness because it is a Native American place. Menominees were there at the time. Oshkosh was their leader. But it's also important because every state in the Union probably has an Athens, every state in the Union probably has a Stanford somewhere. But from early on here, 1839, this spot has what we now call a brand. It is Oshkosh. From early on, it's a special place.

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Narrator: The first photos of Oshkosh show a young and growing city, on the banks of the Fox River.

Michael Goc: We think of Oshkosh on the Fox. It is on the Fox, but more importantly for its birth as an industrial city, it's on the Wolf.

Narrator: The Wolf river and its tributaries form an immense watershed, draining thousands of square miles of land, all flowing toward Oshkosh. Early lumbermen found that thick stands of giant white pine covered much of the area.

Michael Goc: Joseph Schaefer, who was a Wisconsin historian from the 1900s, said of the place where Oshkosh was located that, "There probably was no better place to site a lumber-industry city than where Oshkosh was."

Brad Larson: Its location was absolutely perfect. You couldn't ask for a better location.

Narrator: Log drivers found the lower Wolf to be an excellent driving stream, with few rapids or obstructions. As the wolf flows toward Oshkosh, it empties into a series of broad lakes.

Brad Larson: All those logs could come down to those up-river lakes, and they could go into holding pens, where they would be sorted according to the company. You can imagine, looking at the map, at the size of those lakes, you can see how many tens of thousands of logs could be held. And those rafts of logs could be, from there, brought down by steamboats to the sawmills in Oshkosh. § §

Narrator: Mill owners in Oshkosh overcame a lack of water power by installing steam engines in all of their mills.

Michael Goc: They had a lemon site, in terms of water power, so they made lemonade with steam. And mill after mill after mill is able to be built there.

Narrator: Located at a water crossroads of the Wolf, the Fox, and Lake Winnebago, Oshkosh schooners and steamers could deliver wood products to other settlements in the area.

Brad Larson: But what set Oshkosh apart, what really made Oshkosh the "Sawdust City of Wisconsin" is the fact that the railroad came early. And it was the railroad that transformed Oshkosh more than anything else because the railroad came to Oshkosh before the Civil War.

Michael Goc: That gives Oshkosh a head-start on other cities in the state, and opens it up to the huge lumber market centered in Chicago.

Narrator: Now connected to the largest lumber market in the world, Oshkosh's growth exploded during the Civil War. Sawing railroad ties, bridge timbers, and other wood for the war effort, Oshkosh's mills also moved beyond rough cut lumber, and found a ready market for other kinds of building materials.

Brad Larson: So they were making windows, and they were making doors, and they were making shingles. In one year, they made 80 million shingles.

Narrator: A match company set up shop, along with several furniture makers, and other wood products companies.

Michael Goc: Just about everything that could be made of wood is made in Oshkosh. Wagon wheels, wagons themselves, buckets, tubs. They even ground the wood up for packing material. And from Chicago, their goods went west, went east; went everywhere lumber could be sold. Where wood products could be sold, they went through Chicago and out.

Brad Larson: Altogether, they built over forty steamboats here, along with anything that could sail on the lake. Because they built boats, and because they had steam-powered mills, there was also a great population of skilled mechanics: people who were skilled at running milling machines and building boilers. So there was a diversification of the economy pretty early on, so the Oshkosh Logging Tool Company started. They made peaveys and axes, and all sorts of things.

Narrator: The hum of dozens of mills mixed with the clatter of the railroads running day and night, and everywhere, the air smelled of fresh-cut pine and wood smoke.

Brad Larson: Oshkosh grew economically. It grew socially. Its political power was growing.

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Narrator: Oshkosh quickly became the second largest city in Wisconsin, but time and again catastrophic fires would devastate the city and test its spirit.

James Metz: Many cities had huge fires, but normally it was just once. Oshkosh had five of them. The first great fire wiped out the entire business district in Oshkosh. Every person in town who owned a business was destroyed. The second fire, it burned out almost everything that hadn't been burned out in the first fire.

Narrator: As the city rebuilt again, architect William Waters arrived in Oshkosh.

Terry Laib: He received commissions as soon as he got here, one for an elaborate fire house which stands today in its original form.

Narrator: Despite the fires, Oshkosh continued to grow rapidly, and Waters found plenty of work designing schools, supervising construction of what would be the Winnebago County Mental Health Institute, and another fire station, which burned down in one of the two great fires of 1874.

Terry Laib: We had one devastating fire in May, and a second one in July.

Julie Krysiak Johnson: By 1875, they experienced their last great conflagration here.

James Metz: It wiped out a great deal of the factory areas, got to Main Street, again, and into residential areas east of Main Street. Several thousand people were out of their houses that time.

Julie Krysiak Johnson: You have horses running down Main Street on fire, people jumping out of buildings, people trying to save what they could from their businesses, from their homes. Then they realized that they could not save much of anything, and the main purpose was just to get safe themselves. That they were going to lose everything.

James Metz: A few people were burned out in a given fire, and throw in the towel, but by and large, people generally felt that Oshkosh was destined to be second only to Milwaukee. It was the motivation, I believe that helped people decide, "We're going to re-do the town because our destiny is there."

Narrator: William Waters joined in a manic effort to rebuild the city, bigger and better, as quickly as possible.

Terry Laib: Waters had, by December, in five or six months, twenty buildings all in masonry on Main Street, which is incredible.

Narrator: That year, the North Woods yielded up almost a hundred million logs for Oshkosh mills, and Waters could continue a building spree, that would last for the next forty years. He designed large homes, in the latest fashions, for the business elite.

Terry Laib: The commissions just came flying in. They could finance any project that he could dream up.

Narrator: His work reflected Oshkosh's growing affluence and power, and a desire to move beyond its frontier roots.

Terry Laib: We have a lot of churches in Oshkosh that he constructed. And we have several churches that are made out of his favorite material which is blue limestone, which came out of the local quarry. They talk about his buildings being handsome and imposing. Regardless of the architectural style, that seemed to be what people were looking for at the time.

Narrator: Waters designed the new State Teachers College, a massive city hall, a substantial post office and later, a permanent home for the Oshkosh Public Library. But it was his Grand Opera House that would showcase the Sawdust City's drive to become a cultural center. Built by local subscriptions, and dedicated solely to the performing arts, the opera house was big enough and opulent enough to draw the finest talent.

Julie Krysiak Johnson: The men that were very involved in building this Opera House and getting it started were also men who were here as young men in the 1850s and the 1860s. Nothing brings in more pride than what they are trying to accomplish here in Oshkosh. Building it together, and the fires destroying them, and they're building it again together. You can understand what this meant to these people to have this.

Narrator: Businessman George Athearn rallied Oshkosh citizens to buy into another subscription drive that would hire William Waters to design a luxury hotel across the street.

Julie Krysiak Johnson: He publicly states that, "Everything to build this hotel is going to come from Oshkosh," and people go crazy. They want in. He builds a beautiful, beautiful hotel, kitty corner, across the street here from the Grand Opera House. The paper says, "Now we have the main center of our city." The Athearn Hotel was the last stamp on the whole thing. And I think finally they could sit back and say, "This is it. We've got it. We did it. Here it is."

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Narrator: As Oshkosh progressed as a city, some of its lumber mills grew much larger in size, specializing in making doors, windows and blinds.

Virginia Crane: They dominated the market for sash, doors and blinds in the U.S. and in England, and nobody could compete with them, because other people were not paying such low wages.

Narrator: Waves of immigrants from a wide array of countries made up most of the workforce, making barely enough to support their families.

Virginia Crane: The workers in the mills worked 6 days a week, 10 hours a day.

Clarence Jungwirth: Education of the immigrants was considered a waste of time. To give you an example: My dad went to work at the Paine Lumber Company at the age of 12. The people were so poor they couldn't afford to take the streetcar to work, and with the wooden sidewalks, with all these thousands and thousands of men, my mother tells me there would be just a roar in the city of the men's boots pounding that wooden sidewalk as they went to work. The fact was, that where I grew up in the 6th Ward, the women, generally speaking, had a kid every year if they were Catholic. The thing that saved the average working people that worked in the factories was the fact that they could raise their own crops. The lots were relatively large. I can remember this very clearly. Every square inch of that yard would be a vegetable garden. Also, by law, you could have a barn on your property. You could have chickens. You could have cows. Plus, this area around Oshkosh was full of wild animals. Deer and rabbits, ducks by the thousands upon thousands and thousands. We went out, and we shot. There were no regulations on how much you could take. The Fox River was teeming with fish. During the spring, you'd have what we called the "white bass run." There'd be millions of fish. There were no regulations on the amount of fish. I can remember my Dad bringing home tubs full of white bass.

Virginia Crane: Wages in Oshkosh the early 1890s apparently had been relatively comfortable for the new immigrants who were coming to town and building houses. They were able to function pretty well. That all began to change in 1893 when the "Panic of 1893" began. The mill owners cut wages 10 percent as soon as the bad times started. Then, they cut wages a second time and a third time. Then, in the Spring of 1898, the Spanish-American War came. There was suddenly a massive inflation of food prices, and rents, and everything that woodworkers had to pay for. And so people who had been making a comfortable income in the years of the early '90s, found themselves in dire straits.

Narrator: Facing destitution, Oshkosh woodworkers turned to Thomas Kidd, General Secretary of the Amalgamated Woodworkers Union in Chicago, who helped them organize local woodworkers unions. The workers voted to present a list of demands to the mill owners, including higher wages, and recognition of the Union.

Clarence Jungwirth: The mill owners in Oshkosh got together, and they rejected that. No Union. So in 1898, the lumber mill workers went out on strike.

Narrator: The wooden sidewalks now quiet, the mills kept running with skeleton crews of strikebreakers. And as the weeks dragged on, women relatives of the strikers got involved, organizing massive demonstrations to shut down the mills.

Clarence Jungwirth: People like my Grandma would fill their aprons with vinegar, salt, pepper, and all that stuff.

Virginia Crane: And they would embarrass the scabs, as they called them, the strikebreakers. They would throw rotten eggs at the scabs. They would throw salt and pepper into the eyes of the scabs, and make it as uncomfortable as possible when they came out of the factory.

Clarence Jungwirth: Now, you're talking about desperate people. They're on the verge of what they could eat, how much money they could make.

Virginia Crane: Then, the next morning, they were prepared to go to the McMillen Mill. That was when the great demonstration occurred that resulted in the death of one of the strikers. Jimmy Morris and a friend of his-- he was a 16-year old painter at Paine -- was really excited about the demonstration. They went to the front of the line, in front of the women protesters, and were hanging on to the fence. At about that time, Ed Casey, who was an engineer at McMillen, came out with a fire hose and tried to keep the demonstrators from breaking down the fence by turning the hose on them. That infuriated the people behind him. That was the surge that pushed them to push so hard against the fence that they broke the fence down. Jimmy and his friend were propelled into the yard. The first person who Jimmy encountered was Ed Casey, who had been holding the fire hose. But when the fence fell down, he dropped the fire hose and picked up a stick. He hit Jimmy Morris in the head with this club. It was probably a two-by-four. Jimmy Morris died that night. Thomas Kidd arranged a massive funeral-- the biggest funeral in Oshkosh history -- for him at St. Peter's Catholic Church. The whole procession walked to Riverside Cemetery, where he was buried. His grave is there, but there's no marker for Jimmy Morris.

Narrator: The Governor called out units of the National Guard to quell the disturbances.

Clarence Jungwirth: They set up machine guns on every corner of 6th and Oregon Street, and around the factories.

Virginia Crane: The occupation lasted for a week. When the National Guard went home, lo and behold, the strikers went back to picketing. They took a vote that they were not going to cave, they were not going to give in, they were not going to end the strike. They were going to keep up as usual.

Narrator: To break the strike, George Paine, owner of the biggest sash and door plant, decided to press criminal charges against Thomas Kidd, and two of the strikers.

Virginia Crane: He argued that a union and a picketer and a striker, by their very nature, are conspiracies. People get together in secret and decide to attack a corporation. If they were accused and convicted of criminal conspiracy, if Kidd were convicted of criminal conspiracy, the danger that Kidd recognized immediately and that his friend in Chicago, Clarence Darrow, recognized immediately was that this could be the end of the labor unions. This could be the end of strikes. This could be the end of collective bargaining. This could be the end of picketing. So when the attack on Thomas Kidd began, he decided that it's absolutely essential to settle this strike because the Union is going to have to provide all of this legal effort for his trial.

Narrator: Workers negotiated with each of the mills to end to the strike. And strikers went back to work, without winning a union contract.

Clarence Jungwirth: What else were you gonna do? You were stuck. You were stuck here.

Virginia Crane: In October, the trial began. Kidd had a couple of local lawyers and Clarence Darrow. He was probably the most well-versed lawyer in the country, about conspiracy charges against union organizers. His questioning of hostile witnesses was ferocious. He tore the people apart who came on as witnesses against Thomas Kidd. He shredded their arguments. He's constantly building up these suspicions in the minds of his jury, that he had picked so carefully, about the real nature of the deceit. The real nature of the conspiracy in this case is not a conspiracy that Kidd organized. It was a conspiracy that George Paine organized. He was the great conspirator in the Oshkosh trial. When the Jury went out in the Kidd conspiracy case, the verdict was "Not guilty." Unions were safe. Strikes were safe. Pickets were safe. Darrow and Kidd had the feeling it was a tremendous victory because they had saved the union movement in America.

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Narrator: In 1871, Oshkosh landed the bid to build one of Wisconsin's eight teachers colleges, which would help cope with a flood of immigrant children into area schools.

Richard Wells: The country was growing rapidly. The birth rate was high, a lot of immigrants coming from around the world. There was a huge need for public school teachers.

Narrator: With the goal of establishing statewide teaching standards, then called "Norms", these colleges were first called "Normal Schools.

Richard Wells: Their function and their mission, that whole movement nationally, was to teach teachers for the public schools. The interesting thing too, historically, is because there weren't a lot of avenues for women who were exceptionally bright and talented, most or many of them ended up going in and being schoolteachers. The Normal Schools were wonderfully successful. They gave some exceptionally talented women from working class and middle class families a good career and helped a lot of immigrants acculturate or assimilate into our state.

Narrator: In addition to the Normal School bringing new opportunities for women, Oshkosh's 20th Century Club became a place where prominent women not only studied literature and the arts, but engaged in public service. A charter member of the Club, Jessie Jack Hooper, would go on to achieve national recognition for her work for women's rights and world peace.

Helen Bannan: She was born in 1864 in Northeastern Iowa. A lumber salesman from Oshkosh married her sister. On when of her trips visiting, Jessie met Ben Hooper. They liked each other and got married in 1888. Shortly after Ben and Jessie got married, Ben brought up the idea that he was willing to share his vote with her. That he thought the two of them were equally interested in politics and knowledgeable about it. He didn't think it was fair that he was the only one who could vote. So, in alternate elections, she would give him her ticket of how she wanted him to vote, and he would vote it. I think that she understood that her privilege of having the vote depended on her husband's benevolence. It didn't acknowledge her real right to have a vote. Over the years, while she appreciated it, it just wasn't enough. I started to talk to women's clubs as Jessie, explaining that I had somehow come back to see what was going on with the causes that I was interested in: Women's rights and world peace. I thought, "Well, this is one way to bring her message to people who wouldn't otherwise have known about her. I think women, as the people who bring all the people into the world, have a unique voice and perspective that the world needs to hear and that needs to be part of our government.

Narrator: Hooper went public with her frustration with politics, as many of her efforts to improve Oshkosh's schools and public health failed.

Helen Bannan: (As Hooper) "I noticed that when we would go to Madison to talk to Legislators about making changes, they would listen to the men in our group much more that they would listen to me and the other women. I realized that those men could vote. We women were trying to dig a hole with a teaspoon, when what we needed was a steam shovel. We needed to vote." The Wisconsin Legislature passed a Bill in 1911 calling for a referendum to be held in Wisconsin where all the men voters of Wisconsin would get to vote on the question of whether women should be allowed the vote.

Narrator: Oshkosh activists joined a new organization, called the Political Equality League, and took to the streets, in what was then an astonishing manner-- boldly asking men to share power, and give them the right to vote.

Helen Bannan: Jessie was one of a number of Oshkosh of women who went down to Milwaukee to organize the Political Equality League. Sophie Gooden went down to Milwaukee. She was an immigrant from Germany who had been very highly educated in Germany and was a very forceful speaker. Rose Swort was another pro-suffrage person who was very active. She was a faculty member at the Normal School. Sara James had taught at the high school. She really devoted her life to the suffrage cause. So there were several key people who were strong and well-connected in Oshkosh. They were very prominent in that referendum campaign.

Narrator: The Oshkosh women organized parades. They embarked on speaking tours up and down the Wolf River. But the opposition also campaigned, persuading men to vote "No" on the suffrage ballot, which was to be printed on pink paper.

Helen Bannan: The vote was almost two-to-one against women's suffrage. But the women were not demoralized. They were sad and frustrated, but they felt that they needed to keep on.

Narrator: Carrie Chapman Catt, who headed up a national suffrage organization, called on Mrs. Hooper to come to Washington and lobby Congress to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Helen Bannan: Jessie was known as a very tactful person. She had very good social skills. She had good argumentative skills. She could frame an argument in a way that made it convincing to the person she was talking to. She had a sense of humor. That always helps. She could really deliver a speech because she always made it speaking from the heart. She spoke about what she believed in, and had very good success.

Narrator: Two votes shy of passage in the House, Hooper returned to Wisconsin to lobby the prominent men in her area.

Helen Bannan: Speaking to lawyers, speaking to storekeepers, and begging them to send telegrams. We got those two votes. The House, for the first time, on January 1918 actually voted in favor of women's suffrage.

Narrator: When the amendment passed Congress, Hooper convinced the Wisconsin Legislature to quickly approve it. And Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to ratify the women's suffrage amendment. Jessie Jack Hooper went on to become the first president of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters, and in 1922, she became the first woman in Wisconsin to run for U.S. Senate.

Helen Bannan: Jessie was really rooted in her community. I think that she was more typical of the kind of local leader whose foundation of her political strength is in her family and her town, her city and her community. I think that's an important perspective because those grassroots women were the ones who got the Suffrage Amendment ratified.

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Narrator: Once a year, members of the Oshkosh Memorabilia Club put their collections on display. While providing a trip down memory lane, the items also showcase a long tradition of turning the city's memorable name into a brand. The Oshkosh Brewing Company took the image of the city's namesake, Chief Oshkosh, as an emblem for its beer. A mythical image of the Chief helped the Oshkosh Trunk Company market their top-of-the-line travel trunks, built for those embarking on an extended voyage. But with a skilled work force, innovative entrepreneurs, and local investors to back them, there also developed an Oshkosh brand of innovation.

Brad Larson: Oshkosh is a city that embraced creativity and inventiveness. People had ideas, and people were willing to embrace those ideas. They were willing to say, "Give it a shot. Let's see what happens!"

Narrator: In 1878, boiler makers, machinists, and lumbermen teamed up to build a steam-powered car, named "the Oshkosh," and entered a race from Green Bay to Madison. Averaging six miles an hour, the Oshkosh outlasted the competition, and took the prize. 20 years later, Oshkosh metalworkers crafted one of America's first submarines. Designed by Richard Raddatz, a graduate of the Oshkosh Teacher's College, the 31-ton sub successfully dove, and drove, up and down the Fox River. One of the founders of Rockwell International, the giant company that built the test model of the space shuttle, first began building his business in Oshkosh. Engineer Willard Rockwell took over a factory that made woodworking machines, and re-tooled it to make axles for cars and trucks. He patented an improved heavy-duty truck axle, with gearing that delivered more power to the wheels, making possible bigger wheels and bigger trucks. Willard Rockwell went on to buy many more companies, building one of the world's largest corporations. And Wisconsin Axle, or "the Axle," as it was known locally, became an industry leader, and one of Oshkosh's biggest employers. Many of the axles went into heavy-duty trucks built right across town, at Oshkosh Truck. Oshkosh Truck--which would become Oshkosh Corporation -- began in a modest factory, building grocery stores on wheels that could reach farm families on rough country roads. Then, making use of the power-boosting Rockwell Axles, the Company would go on to build ever bigger and more capable trucks. Road crews found the four-wheel-drive trucks not only had the power to build Wisconsin's early roads, but could also clear them of snow. Even with a heavy plow attached, there was plenty of horsepower to bust through the deepest snowdrifts.

Narrator: During the Cold War, strategic Air Command Bases remained on high alert for a Soviet sneak attack. Airmen trained with B-52 Aircraft that could launch a nuclear strike at a moment's notice. But on Northern Air Bases, snowplows were unable to clear the long runways fast enough. Oshkosh Truck won a bid to build five snowplows to see if they could handle the job.

Clarence Jungwirth: So what Oshkosh Truck did, we developed the largest truck, I believe, ever developed in the United States for snowplow trucks. We could clear those runways so the B-52 bombers could take off to meet the Russian threat, if it ever occurred. When we showed the military that those five trucks could do the job, we eventually got an order. I believe it was for 900 trucks. This place, Oshkosh Truck, exploded with joy, because that's the biggest contract the Company ever got. That truck was built in the '50s, and today, as a consultant engineer, I still get calls from people that own those trucks that are still running after 50, 60 years.

Narrator: In 1895, James Clark partnered with James Howard Jenkins, a Civil War veteran who helped write the popular marching song "John Brown's Body," which provided the inspiration for "the Battle Hymn of the Republic." They decided to form a company to manufacture overalls. They marketed their J&C brand to railroad and construction workers, factory workers and farmers. The Company was soon taken over by William Pollock, shown here giving a prize to the first person to swim across Lake Winnebago. Pollock dreamed up the novel idea, inspired either by seeing a vaudeville show or an ad for razor blades on the wall of a lunch counter, of calling his overalls, "Oshkosh B'gosh."

Thomas Wyman: Nobody knows for sure how it started.

Narrator: The catchy name stuck. Business doubled, and then doubled again, providing steady work for hundreds of women, even through the years of the Great Depression. And like its heavy duty and high quality overalls, Oshkosh B'gosh became one of the most durable brands in American history.

Recording: Let your Oshkosh B'gosh dealer get out that tape measure and fit you up right. Then you won't forever be pulling and hitching up your clothes. No, Sirree! You'll be enjoying comfort with a capital 'O'. 'O' for Oshkosh, that is. So, take my advice: let your dealer measure you up for the comfort ablest, best-looking overalls that ever was. Oshkosh B'gosh.

Narrator: After World War II, sales of overalls declined, as America's jobs got cleaner.

Thomas Wyman: Railroad man wasn't shoveling coal anymore. The farm machinery has been cleaned up. In automotive garages, people were wearing shirts and pants, and things like that to work. We knew we had to change. Oddly enough, at that same time, we were told by several marketing consultants, "Get rid of that name. The name Oshkosh is corn." So, we came up with this new line. We called it The Guys. That was gaining, but it was disappointing. Well, the small overall had always been in the line. Little kids size two. We hated the thing. It was a pain in the neck in the production department. It was a problem in inventory. We had to buy different size hardware. That was hard to get. It was just a nuisance, that little bib overall. We were halfway tempted to drop it.

Narrator: The little overall caught the attention of Alberta Kimball, president of the Miles Kimball Company, a highly successful Oshkosh mail order firm, featuring distinctive specialty items. When she placed them in the catalog, they sold by the thousands.

Thomas Wyman: And because of that, we published our own catalog and sent it out to potential customers.

Narrator: The highest of the high end stores -- Niemen Marcus, Sak's Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, and Marshall Field's -- all placed orders, which led to sales all over the country.

Thomas Wyman: All of a sudden the children's bib overalls, is 90% of our business.

Narrator: As sales continued to grow by leaps and bounds, the company developed a full line of children's clothing, and Oshkosh B'gosh became a global brand.

Thomas Wyman: Oshkosh B'gosh was just a natural for the kids. Thank God we didn't change the name.

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Narrator: In the 1950s, Oshkosh residents carried on with life, much as they had for decades. At Morgan Doors, woodworkers still crafted doors made of solid wood. The Paine Lumber Company continued to produce doors by the thousands. Most of them built using a hollow-core framework, covered with a hardwood veneer for added beauty. Workers at Dunphy Boat still built wooden boats, with the addition of modern materials and methods. While many things remained the same, the city of Oshkosh was about to undergo massive changes. In ten years, enrollment at the State Teacher's College would grow from 700 students to over 3,000.

Recording: From Madison, here is the Governor of the State of Wisconsin, the honorable John W. Reynolds: "How do you do?"

Narrator: In 1963, Governor John Reynolds described a State College System about to be further swamped by the coming baby boom generation.

Recording: (Gov. John Reynolds) "Every year, we'll have 6,000 more students in our State Colleges and Universities. 6,000 more-- I want to repeat that-- than we had the previous year. At the Wisconsin State College at Oshkosh, we have an example of one of our institutions of higher learning where we are preparing for a great surge of students that will double enrollment in ten years. At the State College of Oshkosh, however, the enrollment will double in five years."

Narrator: The school's explosive growth, never imagined by the college founders, would create headaches for the city and take down much of the historic neighborhood around it. But in the process, UW-Oshkosh would add nearly 13,000 students, develop many new fields of study, and create a new and powerful engine of growth for the city.

Narrator: In the 1950s, Main Street continued to serve as the vital business and retail center of town, drawing shoppers the way it always had. But the downtown began to lose its luster with the construction of a freeway on the edge of the city which started to draw new business development. At the same time, the Fox River waterfront, still lined with historic industries, began showing signs of decay. The blight spread to adjoining properties on Main Street, many of them built after the last of Oshkosh's great fires. In 1966, the Miles Kimball Company launched an ambitious urban renewal project called "Park Plaza." It bought up 16 acres of land from riverfront industries and businesses. The Company convinced three railroads to tear up tracks that snaked around town blocking traffic. It cleared the riverfront, and broke ground on a state-of-the-art indoor shopping area with rooftop parking that would breathe new life into the old Downtown. Later, entire blocks of buildings, were taken down, making way for a waterfront convention center and hotel. These projects revitalized the downtown area, and provided a new vision for the future of the waterfront.

Narrator: Despite the best efforts to keep shoppers downtown, the draw of the freeway proved to be irresistible. Many businesses left the city center, and set up shop along the frontage roads. And like most manufacturing centers in Wisconsin, Oshkosh's economy changed rapidly when it began losing many of its historic industries. The old Sawdust City companies: the sash and door plants, the match factory, the furniture makers, began to disappear from the riverbanks. As they fell, the city mourned not only the loss of jobs, but the end of a way of life for generations of workers.

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Narrator: The seed for a new industry was planted by Steve Wittman, a nationally-known air racer, airplane builder, and manager of the local airport.

Michael Goc: He's a natural born aeronautical engineer. He designs a racing airplane. In the 1930s, into the 1940s, builds a reputation as one of the most Prominent air racers in the country.

Narrator: When Paul Poberezny, President of the Experimental Aircraft Association, was looking for a new site for the EAA's Annual Air Show, Steve Wittman gave him a call.

Dick Knapinski: Steve contacted him, and said that, "Here in Oshkosh, we have two long runways that don't cross so you could bring in twice as many airplanes at one time." Paul came up, liked what he saw, and in six months, Paul and the volunteers from the EAA created their first convention site here in Oshkosh for 1970.

Narrator: Community leaders convinced the EAA to move its Headquarters and Museum to Oshkosh, and give the Air Show a permanent home.

Michael Goc: It was, of course, a tremendous boost to the Oshkosh economy.

Dick Knapinski: I like to call it aviation's family reunion because if it has flown, is flying, or will fly, it will come to this event at some point. Attendance is more than 500,000. We have more than 10,000 airplanes that come to the region for the event. 5,000 could fit on this Airport at any given time. People come here just to see the breadth, the depth, the freedom of the aviation world in the United States and here in Oshkosh. It's said that you can go anywhere in the world, and tell a pilot that you're from Oshkosh, and they'll know exactly what you're talking about because of all this that is now here. So, Oshkosh has developed the kind of publicity that you can't buy because people have a positive image of it instantly with something that they've experienced within the community.

Narrator: The experience gained from hosting the Air Show opened the way for developing many other Oshkosh events. Events have become part of what Oshkosh culture is. We welcome people from all over. We want them to enjoy what we have here.

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Paul Sanchez: My first WaterFest was in 1999. I was in a rock band called Cowboy Mouth at that time. I believe that they still play the Fest. It was on the back of a flatbed outside the Convention Center. Within five years, they had gotten an endowment from a local philanthropist to build this beautiful amphitheater.

Mike Dempsey: We think that WaterFest introduces the community and its possibilities to people and gives them a reason to return. Not just to WaterFest, but to the community. Not just on WaterFest nights, but throughout the year.

Narrator: Repeat visitors now have many choices, like touring the Oshkosh Public Museum, designed by William Waters. They can walk the botanical gardens of the Paine Art Center and view its fine art collections or stop in for a burger at one of the city's vintage drive-ins. Oshkosh continues to make the most of its location on Lake Winnebago and the Fox River, and continues to rely on its distinctive name, as a brand.

Michael Goc: It still stands out as a distinctive place and that goes all the way back to this funny meeting there on the banks of the Fox where Native American people and people of French heritage and American heritage came together and decided, "We're going to name this place after our Chief, Oshkosh."

Announcer: To purchase a DVD of Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Oshkosh, call 1-800-422-9707, or visit the Wisconsin Public Television online store at the address on the screen.

Announcer: Funding provided in part by the John E. Keunzl Foundation; Alberta S. Kimball, Mary L. Anhaltzer Foundation; Oshkosh Area Community Foundation; CastlePierce; Theta and Tamblin Clark Smith Family Foundation; with additional support from these funders: the Friends of Wisconsin Public Television; and the Wisconsin History Fund, supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Oshkosh: Teacher Resources

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