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River Falls has rich history, promising future

February 26, 2009

UW-River Falls students and citizens of River Falls reside, work and attend classes in a city with a vibrant history and progressive future.

River Falls was originally called Greenwood—the name was later changed due another town in Wisconsin that was also called Greenwood—and was a prosperous mill town. The city has transformed into a rapidly growing University center. Sustainable development has become a primary concern in River Falls and construction is currently underway on a new environmentally friendly city hall.

“The new town hall is L.E.E.D [leadership in energy and environmental design] certified. The building will eventually be run by solar panels,” River Falls Mayor Don Richards said.

History

Joel Foster was the first settler of River Falls. Foster was attracted by its beauty and commercial properties, according to an article written by Ursula Peterson, a local resident and historian.

“The town is interesting because it breaks a normal pattern of city design which arranges streets north to south,” River Falls Planning Director Mariano Lucero said. “Instead streets were arranged along the flow of the Kinni.”

Streets were arranged to follow the flow of the Kinnickinnic for economic efficiency, Lucero said.

The first flour mill was erected by C.B Cox in 1850. Massive quantities of wheat were grown and milled into flour in River Falls. Between 1850 and 1880 the mills were modernized. River Falls was established as a nationally known milling center in the region, second only to Minneapolis.

In 1874 River Falls was established by the Wisconsin Board of Regents to house the University, called River Falls Normal School, because of heated lobbying by locals and area supporters.

Depletion of soil from excessive wheat production lead to the demise of flour production in River Falls. A combination of droughts and bug invasion from 1884-86 ultimately ended the industry in the city.

A volunteer fire service was established and made official by the city council in 1885. The establishment of the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 was timely, only 12 years after its inception the Normal School building was incinerated by a fire of unknown origin.

Again, the city was forced into defense of its school. Newspaper editors battled ferociously over where the school should be rebuilt.

The Normal student paper, called the Badger, wrote a compelling piece in defense of its school.

The denizens from that section look upon this region as a land of sand banks and pine stumps; a section whose inhabitants have not yet emerged from the semi civilized state and whose schools and other social endowments are in perfect keeping with the savage condition of the barbarians…we have more handsome girls to the square acre than these less fortunate southern aborigines have to the square mile (Normal Badger, 1897, p. 47-48.).

River Falls won the legislative battle in a hotly contested meeting of the Board of Regents and celebration ensued.

“Whistles blew. Bells rang. People shouted. The city band assembled on Main Street and began to play,” according to a UWRF Centennial History article written by James King and Walker Wyman.

The Normal School was rebuilt in the same location and classes began in September 1898.

In 1893, the Ringling Brothers circus came to town. The circus included a display of at least seven elephants, cages full of other wild animals and many horses, according to a historical article reprinted from the River Falls Journal.

After the afternoon performance, lightning struck the main tent pole twice and caused a gasoline reservoir to explode. Seven people were killed and at least 19 more were thought dead. The Ringling Brothers circus declined to release any information on its employees.

Years later, what were thought to be dinosaur bones were discovered in a field and brought to the University. The bones were found to be elephant bones from the Circus disaster, Alyson Jones, University archive manager, said.

River Falls continued to prosper throughout the 1900s but its size remained relatively stagnant. The population boom began in the 1940s and took a major leap in the decade of 1950 to 1960. In 1940 the population was 2,806; in 1960 it was 4,857. The next major leap began in 1990 at which time the population was 10,610. The population as of 2007 is 13,930, according to a Pierce County Historical Association publication.

The current population boom is the largest in River Falls history.

Prohibition in the 1930s and 40s did not bring an end to alcohol consumption. A local business called Tubs Medicine sold “medical cures” that contained high alcohol content to locals, Katie Chaffee, a previous mayor of River Falls and local historian said.

During prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan was active in the community.

“They held big rallies and targeted Catholics and Jews. The KKK chose from its individual members to go door-to-door and recruit from the community,” Chaffee said.

John F. Kennedy visited River Falls on his campaign tour of the Midwest before he was elected 35th president of the United States.

The 1960s and 70s were marked by student demonstrations. Students protested the Vietnam War on campus. There was a strong anti draft movement. People held coffee house discussions and in classes there was heated debate, Chaffee said.

There was an uproar in college campuses around America.

“At UWRF a teacher burned a flag and it caused a big student demonstration. I went to check out what was going on. There was a huge crowd and I wasn’t sure if they were protesting for or against the burning of the flag,” Chaffee said.

In the 1980s and 90s, urban sprawl became a problem. There was an increase of people who bought fertile land on the outskirts of town but did not farm. As a result, the city tried various measures to curb this practice and encouraged conservation development by protecting fertile land.

“The measures were mostly unsuccessful and as a result widespread development has increased,” Chaffee said.

Progress

“The town of River Falls and UWRF are working together to encourage sustainable development,” Richards said.  “The citizens of River Falls are above average.”

River Falls is the first Wisconsin city to receive an EPA green community award. The award was mostly attained through the efforts of the student community to encourage sustainable practices on campus and with the creation of the University Center, an icon of sustainability.

Lucero expressed his historical opinion of River Falls.

“A community with a past is a community with a future.”