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"Eau Claire County History, 1949"


Truax Community Club Celebrate Centennial

A history of Eau Claire and the community of Truax west of the city proper was related at the centennial observance held recently at the school house.  Clinton Preston, native of the community and resident for over sixty years told of his experiences while living here and of the changes that had taken place over the span of years when his father first started farming on the prairie wilderness.

Mr. Preston was born just four miles north of Truax Prairie, and moved with his parents into this prairie settlement when he was seven years of age.  His father, Hiram, bought a small farm from Chancey Pechtel, who had worked for Peter Truax, pioneer resident of this area.  This farm was located just west of the Truax homestead and is nearly three-quarters of a century old.

Another interesting feature of the club's meeting was a letter read by Miriam Mattison, teacher of the school, from Harry Avery, another old settler of the community, who was unable to attend the gathering.  Mr. Avery, a nephew of Cordelia and Peter Truax, retold in his letter tales of the by-gone days.  One incident told of how the wolves would come to the Truax's window at night and put their fore legs on the window sill, looking inside for food.  Also the Indian scare incident was related, and the many social gatherings the Champion, Truax and Avery families had together, as they were about the only settlers here in the community at that time.  Jerome Champion, husband of Isabelle Avery Champion, was one of the first teachers of the district school, which was built across the road from the Peter Truax homestead.

Eau Claire is a French name meaning "clear water", it is located at the junction of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers.

In 1784 a trapper and fur trader named LaDuc was living here among the Sioux Indian tribe.  Logging near the banks of the Chippewa began about the year 1822, and twenty years later Jeremiah Thomas and Stephen S. McCann, first permanent white settlers, staked claims and built shanties here.  In 1856 when word came that a railroad was to pass through, Eau Claire County was organized and settlers began coming in large numbers.

From the beginning the white pine of the Chippewa Valley became the foundation of property in Eau Claire as well as in Chippewa Falls on the river above, and for years lumbering interests and rivalries determined the life in both cities.  Soon after settlement an intricate series of conflicts arose over control of the many-branched Chippewa, main outlet for the northwestern Wisconsin's wealth of timber.  Dams and booms built at any one place on the river impelled the drive of logs to other communities downstream; quarrels based on this economic fact soon grew into feuds.  When Eau Claire men proposed to build a dam in 1860, Chippewa Falls interests fought the project in the legislature and courts for more than 15 years, only to lose eventually; and when Eau Claire sought incorporation as a city, Chippewa Falls again opposed strenuously, but vainly.  Such civic rivalries were complicated by the conflicts of individual lumbermen, who formed and reformed alliances and stratagems without particular regard to community loyalties.  These business conflicts centered chiefly around projects to develop Beef Slough, the great log harbor at the mouth of the Chippewa.

The Beef Slough men wished to use the Chippewa only as a driving stream and to have all sawing done on the Mississippi.  The dams, mills, and booms at Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire were a hindrance both to the business unity of the project and to its log drivers, and the rivalry between loggers sometimes flared into open battle.  In the spring of 1867 the firm of Bacon and Davis hired a hard-fisted crew of rivermen, who smashed a whole winter's cut through the booms at the falls, sweeping all logs with their own toward the Mississippi.  The great mass of timber extending from shore to shore, swept  toward the Eau Claire mills, but before it arrived the sheriff and posse of armed Eau Claire "riverhogs" stopped the Bacon and Davis crew.  Eventually the Mississippi rivermen, partly by battle and partly by compromise, attracted most of their rivals into the Beef Slough Improvement Company and settled the logging disputes.

The railroad was completed in 1870.  Eau Claire County had shrewdly inserted "may" instead of "shall" into its promise to float a $50,000 bond issue to subsidize construction, and consequently, was one of a very few Wisconsin counties that escaped paying heavily for rail service.  At this time 22 sawmills operated in Eau Claire.  Then as logging declined along the Chippewa, paper and pulp plants, much of the water of the rivers was diverted to drive hydroelectric turbines.  Factories making furniture, sashes and doors, and other wood products sprang up.  Today Eau Claire also produces kitchen utensils, farm machinery, books and stationery, mill tools, mechanics supplies, sewer pipes, refrigerators, automobile tires and accessories, out-board motor boats and many other small sportsman articles.  The United States Rubber Company plant, largest int he city, covers four city blocks and employs 6,000 men and women at peak production.  The National Pressure Cooker Company which produces kitchen utensils and outboard motors is the second largest industry and employs about 2,000 people.

The county of Eau Claire was organized by an act of the legislature and approved Oct. 6, 1856.

The first man to commence farming in this county was the Rev. Thomas Barland, who came from Illinois, where he had been interested in settling that state.  He was also engaged in work for the American Tract society, and in disseminating the anti-slavery doctrine, which was looked upon at that time as of vast importance.  He arrived in the fall of 1849 and procured about 200 acres of land on the Sparta road, about two miles and a half southeast from the Eau Claire settlement.  His first neighbors were E. W. Robbins and David Wyman.  They came in the year 1854.  The Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railway was built in 1870.  The apportionment of the school tax for 1859 was as follows:

Town of Half Moon $ 43.00
Town of Eau Claire  100.00
Town of Brunswick  50.00
Town of Bridge Creek  30.00
Town of North Eau Claire  25.00
Town of Pleasant Valley  10.00
$ 250.00
Oak Grove appeared at this time as a township, but it was afterward united with west Eau Claire and they became the town of Union.

The offices of the county officers were mostly in the stores in which they or their partners carried on business, or in such rooms as could be secured for the purpose, and were consequently scattered throughout the village.  This primitive condition of things existed until 1861, when a building was erected on the north side for county purposes, at a cost of about $2,500.  Considerable rivalry existed for many years between the residents of the east and west sides, but in 1871 a compromise was affected.  They had united in constructing a truss bridge across the Chippewa.  In 1871 a county building costing $75,000 was erected on Bridge St. (Grand Ave.) with jail quarters in the basement.  A new jail was built in 1884.  It is a two-story brick building on Bridge Street and Oxford Avenue.  In January 1885 the prisoners were moved from the county building to the new quarters in the jail.

The first wedding ceremony was performed by Rev. A. Kidder of Eau Claire on New Year's Day, 1857 in the town of Bridge Creek.  The bride was Miss Charlotte Stone, and the bridegroom, Mr. J. C. Hachett.

In 1890 Union township had thirty-four square miles, a little less than a regular township, with a population of 674.  At that time there were only two post offices, one at Anthony and the other at Porter's Mills.  Later one was established at Brackett and Nix Corners.  The residents of these townships in which these post-offices are situated met there for the discussion of agricultural, political, and other types of local interest, there being no stores.  Truax was a station on the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha railway, four and one half miles northwest of Eau Claire, but it had no post office. The name of the community came from Peter Truax, one of the early pioneers and settlers of this prairie wilderness.  This pioneer not only was interested in opening up this tract west of Eau Claire but developed one of the greatest horse raising industries of the northwest.  He was a breeder of thoroughbred horses and it was a recorded fact that he paid $1,000 for a fine mare named Nellie Mason, which he had purchased from York State.  He constructed a large horse barn 50 ft. x 200 ft. which was destroyed by fire some twenty-five years or more ago.  Albert Harris had bought the farm from Mr. Truax around the year 1900.

One of the first school houses built on the prairie was located across the road from the Truax stock farm.  In the summer of 1859 Isabelle Avery taught this school, moving here with her parents from Bienville, New York.  On October 7, 1860 she was married to Jerome Champion, who also taught the district school at Truax.  After teaching the winter term at Menomonie, Jerome and his wife returned to a farm on the prairie to make their new home.  Later the husband was employed as time-keeper at the O. H. Ingram mill in Shawtown.

Later the school was moved up the road one half mile west of the original location.  About the year 1930 the old building was moved up to the Hyman Smith farm and dismantled.  A new structure was built on the same site a few yards east of the old foundation.

The railroad depot one half mile north of the main trail and schoolhouse, served as a means for passengers to get on and off in transacting their business to the east and west of the community by rail communication.  At that time there was only a single track with a spur for switching to allow faster trains to pass, there being a signalman spotted here and telegraph janitor.  In the year 1912 a double track was laid and the signalmans duties were discontinued.

The Wheaton Congregational Church was built in the year 1895.  Mrs. John Connors, Sr. was the leader of the church movement for their religious novices.  The Rev. A. Kidder was often the minister.  Often he and his wife would spend a few days visiting among the people on the prairie.  At that time there were only a few families, the Truaxes, Averys, Connors, and Champions, all being one happy family.  In 1922 the church was remodeled, a basement was built underneath the church, furnace installed, and the upstairs redecorated.  One of the largest donors to this building fund was Mrs. Cordelia Truax, wife of the late Peter Truax. The church was renamed the Truax Congregational Church.  The Rev. Mr. S. P. Luce served here as pastor for over 20 years.  Many a good time, spiritual and social gatherings and Sunday School was held in the school house.

The parsonage of the church was located one mile east of the church.  The advent of the motor car brought about a change.  The minister to the church no longer made his residences on the prairie as he served both the 2nd Congregational Church and the Truax Church and established his residence in Eau Claire, where the larger church was located.  Perhaps it was due to this fact that no marriages occurred in this church until the year 1935, then a precedent was broken, when Roy Preston took Adell Johnson for his bride.  This being the first church wedding in forty years on the prairie.

A cheese factory was built just east of the parsonage and was operated for a few years as a cooperative enterprise, making Swiss and later American cheese, but later the operations were discontinued and the building was sold by the farmer stock holders of the community.

A creamery was built and operated by a couple of men named Iverson and Handel about the year 1905 just across the road to the east of the Truax School.  Later this business was sold to Harvey Pierson who added a feed mill to the establishment.

Across the road from the school, on the northeast corner, in 1938 a gasoline service station was built by Roy Preston, which he operated until August of 1946, when the business was sold to the Tank Car Service Co. of Eau Claire.

One mile to the east of the Truax Service Station several business places were located.  A store was built by Don McKinnon who had living quarters upstairs, at about the term of the century.  Over a period of years the grocery business has changed hands several times, McKinnon sold out to Walter Hobbs, who sold to Wheeler Bond.  Then James Barney was the owner, about the year 1930 the building was destroyed by fire and a new building was erected on the same site by Otto Plantiko, who sold to Philip Champion.  Ernest Krueger operated the business for a few years, when about five years ago Oscar Nelson, the present owner, bought from Champion.

William Backhous built a county blacksmith shop on a lot west of the exchange.  Just recently the business interests and building were sold to A. Starberg, who is the present operator of the shop.

Across the road from the blacksmith shop the Anton Hoeday farm was located.  This farm was transformed into a nursery and is now owned and operated by the Eau Claire Nursery Co.

To the east of the nursery, across the road from the store, the county poor house was located.  Recently this building was torn down and the new county home was built up at the county asylum site.

The first rural delivery was started around the year 1893 in the township.  Mark Sherman, Sec. was the first carrier.  For over 20 years John Ness delivered the mail by hose and buggy through all kinds of weather and road conditions.  He missed very few days of service, having an enviable record in Eau Claire.

The first newspaper was started in August of 1857, and the Eau Claire "Free Press" came into being the following October.  The later is in existance today, the oldest newspaper, "The Times" having suspended.

Considerable religious enthusiasm was engendered by the arrival in Eau Claire of the Rev. W. W. McNair, a Presbyterian minister and Rev. A. Kidder, a Congregationalist.  They found some twenty houses in process of construction, including a small saloon.  A Presbyterian church edifice, the first of that denomination in the Valley, was commenced as a mission station, and completed early in 1857.  Rev. Kidder was, however, the first to hold service in it, and considerable friction ensued.  He however, established a church on the west side the same year.  Education is necessary to civilization, and in order to impart this invaluable ingredient to the rising generation of the village, a school - the first one - was started in the winter of 1856-57 of rough boards, inclosing a single room.

The music hall was erected in 1867 at the corner of Barstow and Kelsey Streets and destroyed by fire in 1871.  Music Hall block was built on its site.  It was named the Eau Claire Opera House for its dynamic performances and musical entertainments.  Alfred Kahn and Peter Truax were the owners of the building.

The first Eau Claire fire department was organized in 1868, a volunteer organization with James Terrant as the first foreman.

In August, 1870, the village was visited by a sudden and destructive flood.  The stream rose to a volume of fifteen feet above its ordinary level.  It was estimated that 20,000,000 logs were lost as well as many booms and mills swept away.

Many hotels sprang up with the advent of the logging era.  At one time there being over 30 hotels and rooming houses in operation in town.  Business houses as well as large dwellings continued to originate until the lumber industry made the town grow by leaps and bounds in spite of serious flood losses.  One of the first hotels was the Eau Claire House which originated in the year 1858.  It was located on the corner of Barstow and Eau Claire Streets,and was owned by Adin Randall.

The Eau Claire Public Library was organized in 1876 and was located on River Street.

The first feed elevator mill was built by Thomas Randall about the year 1880.

Other business houses and their date of origin were:  
  • Eau Claire Book and Stationery Co., 1885
  • Eau Claire Citizens Loan and Building Association, 1889
  • Eau Claire National Bank (originated by C. C. Spafford), 1861
  • Eau Claire Electric Light and Power Co., 1884
  • Eau Claire Grocery Co., 1888.

Buildings having early origin in Eau Claire were:
  • Second Methodist Church, 1860
  • First Baptist Church, 1861
  • Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1864
  • Second district school (on Farwell St.), 1864 (known as Bartlett High School)
  • Music Hall (corner Barstow and Kelsey St.), 1867

First saw mill (1846) started by McCann, Randall, and Thomas was later transformed into a large building.

In 1850 a mail route was established with a post-office in Eau Clarie.  George W. Randall was the first post-master, and his office was called the Clear-water post-office.  It was made a money order office in July, 1865.  A free delivery office in 1884.

Just west of the store a large building houses the Union Telephone exchange, with living quarters upstairs.  The first exchange was started 40 years ago in the Walter Hobbs store.  Later was located in the William Backhous house until the present exchange building was built.

So the city of Eau Claire has developed as has its surrounding towns and communities and we have only to look back in history on its past  and see how fortune has smiled on our ancestors.
  

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