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Oliver Powell, one of River Falls' first settlers. Submitted photo

Days Gone By (May 12)

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columns River Falls,Wisconsin 54022
River Falls Journal
Days Gone By (May 12)
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

The History of the Growth of River Falls

Note to readers: This week's column and photo were provided by River Falls historian Dan Geister. Look for more history in next week's River Falls Journal.


Education has been always important. In 1855, a school district was officially organized. The Academy, the area's only college prep school was opened in 1856. In 1865 the school district bought the Academy for $1,500 to use as the public school.

This building burned in 1879, with a new building built the next year. In 1887 the first high school graduating class of five finished their courses.

This building was destroyed by fire April 28, 1926, and rebuilt in 1927. This public school building served all grades until 1955 when the first elementary school, Greenwood, was built.

This long interim was possible partly because the Normal School training program took some of the pressure of enrollment, as did the opening of the Catholic parochial school in 1951.

The original building went from being the high school to the junior high to the middle school and then in 2000 to the River Falls Academy. There is currently a campaign to save this building as some community members are for razing it.

River Falls was selected as the site of the fourth Normal School in 1872, with the first classes held in September 1875. In 1897 the building was gutted by fire. Because of classes held in various public buildings only a half-day of classes were missed.

At this time there was a chance that River Falls could lose the university. The Normal School attracted people to River Falls, some moving here just to give their children a better education, therefore the school stayed here.

The building now known as South Hall was built in 1898, the oldest building on campus. After milling declined, the Normal School became the focal point in town.

Main Street was a mix of mostly wooden buildings until over a dozen different fires decimated Main Street.

In 1885, River Falls became incorporated and declared an ordinance to build just brick or stone buildings on Main Street, at the same time establishing a fire department that moved from Main Street to Elm Street (1913) to Second Street (1955).

Large halls were the focus of public meetings, traveling entertainment groups, and early movies including Cox, Brackett and opera halls; however, River Falls was not known for its major dance halls or saloons for it was very much a temperate town until the 1930s.

The Falls Theater was built in 1927. The public library started in 1923 on Elm Street. Lund's Hardware (1873), Freeman Drug (1872) and the River Falls Journal (1872) are the only 19th century businesses that are still operating today.

It was not until 1922 that Main Street was fully paved; the work starting in 1920. The residential street paving moved slowly, being finished in the 1950s. The road to Beldenville and Ellsworth was not paved until 1940.