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Days Gone By (May 5)

Note to Readers: This week's column and photo was provided by River Falls historian Dan Geister. Look for more River Falls history next week.

The history of the growth of River Falls

The area of River Falls was originally inhabited by the Sioux and Chippewa Indian tribes. On the border of their range, the area saw little permanent long term occupation by either tribe.

Many had been coming to this region since the 1830s, most along the St. Croix or Mississippi rivers. The scarcely populated hinterland remained a mystery. The land survey of Pierce County was not complete until 1848.

Joel Foster and his companion, an African American known only as "Dick" came to River Falls that same year. After his first visit, Foster, a Connecticut native, wrote his brother in Illinois: "I think I have found the New England of the Northwest. It looks as though the Almighty had made this portion of our country first and made a perfect system, piling up rocks in perfect mounds...and making pasture lands...and farming lands, with pure streams of water and beautiful falls."

Soon a number of other "Yankee" settlers came including the Mapes brothers, Duncan McGregor, Charles Cox and brothers Nathaniel and Oliver Powell.

They platted and sold lots in the village of Kinnickinnic starting in 1854, the year the first store was also started on the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets known as the Pioneer Store. This served for a short time as the community's only store, house of worship, and post office. It burned in 1878.

The community was known as Kinnickinnic, Greenwood (then the name of the township, named after settlers Caleb Green and Joseph Wood) or River Falls. The name was finally settled by the Postal Department in 1855 when the first post office was started known as River Falls.

Cox erected the first flour mill in 1850 at Clifton Hollow, and built the Prairie Mill in River Falls in 1854.

Also that year the Powell brothers and Foster operated separate saw mills.

In 1855 the second general store, first hotel, first hardware store and first blacksmith all opened for business.

The First Congregational Church was organized in 1855, soon followed by the Baptist and Methodists in 1857 and Episcopal in 1859; the Catholics not coming until 1878.

The River Falls Journal began publishing in June 1857 under Lute and Horace Taylor. Horace moved to Hudson and Lute moved the paper to Prescott in 1861. River Falls was left without a newspaper until 1872 when the Journal was revived by Abner Morse.

Other papers in town included George Merrick's River Falls Press (1874-1883), The River Falls Times (1894-1933), The Daily Sentinel (1940-42), The Town Crier (an early advertising paper) and The Reporter (1950- 1969).

The greatest development of the village of River Falls was between 1854 and 1883.

A great source of water power and great wheat growing conditions caused the millers to constantly upgrade and modernize their mills.

At its high point five mills were operating, the Prairie, Greenwood, Cascade and Junction Mill, with the Dayton mill about two miles downriver.

About 100 workers worked in the mills with local merchants also prospering from this robust economy.

River Falls had the second highest per capita income in the state as a result as late as 1887. This milling activity spurred the railroad to come to River Falls in 1878, and to expand to Beldenville and Ellsworth in 1885.

Then with the demise of wheat-growing in the area, resulting from the monoculture, wheat fields expanding west and the cinch bug, the economic base shrank.

For three successive years, 1886 to 1888, there also was a severe drought; wheat acreage decreased from 50,000 to 17,000 acres in the county during those years. Thereafter the population declined until World War I.

Farmers of the area had to look to other ways of surviving. For a short period there were two starch factories in town. Dairying came to be of importance, with the first creamery built in 1886.

Several pickle and sauerkraut factories lasted until the 1950s. A sorghum mill, brickyard, and laundry were also early large employers.

The Tubbs Medicine Company, started in 1881, lasted until the 1940s. It sold patent medicines regionally and shipped thousands of bottles to customers each year.

The Junction Mill was using hydro-electrical power for most of its operations. After it burned in 1896, the location was selected for the municipal power plant. Starting in 1900, it expanded slowly with the impetus coming from the use of ever more electrical appliances.

In 1920 a concrete dam was constructed, in 1923 water power was not enough for the city's electrical needs so it began using diesel power and in 1948 it began purchasing additional power.

Look for more River Falls history in next week's River Falls Journal.