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Urbanization and Industrialization: The Impact on Three Wisconsin Towns -By: Amy Lund

Introduction to the Unit


Lund Grist Mill

My textbook spends two, four-page, sections on Urbanization and Industrialization. Urbanization is all about the large cities of the northeast, and industrialization is about railroads (specifically George Pullman) and unions. There is not a lot there to make it real for my students.

With that in mind, this unit looks at three separate towns in northern Wisconsin during the late 18- and early 1900s. They all were formed for different reasons, grew differently, and the impact of industrialization on each of them had very diverse results.

It is my hope that this unit will help your students understand that urbanization didn’t just happen in New England, and that industrialization was more than just the Transcontinental Railroad and unions.

Activities included in the unit are designed to give students the opportunity to work with a variety of primary source documents – maps, census data, and photographs – that will help bring these two historical themes down from broad generalizations about places they’ve never been, to their impact in specific examples from around home that they can see the effects of. Over the five lessons, students should develop an understanding of urbanization and industrialization and how it has impacted towns just like theirs. From this, they can then extrapolate how their town was affected, how their state was affected, and how these two themes affected the entire nation.

Each lesson addresses urbanization or industrialization in the following manner:

Lesson 1: What Makes a Community?

This lesson helps students learn what it means to have a community. Without that basic idea, they will never understand the concept of urbanization.

Lesson 2: Industrialization – A Study in Pictures

This lesson helps students understand the different industries in northern Wisconsin in the late 19th century and how these industries impacted the towns around them.

Lesson 3: Urbanization – How a City Grows

This lesson looks at the growth of cities by examining maps and learning about different outside forces that can impact a city’s development.

Lesson 4: Urbanization – Using the Census

This lesson gives students an introduction to a new way to learn about how a city develops – by looking at who lived there. Students will use the census enumeration pages to learn about the residents of a city, and how studying these documents can help us understand more about that city’s growth.

Lesson 5: Industrialization & Urbanization – How Wisconsin Changed

This final lesson looks at Wisconsin has a whole and changes in population and industries between 1880and 1930. It widens the scope of study to the state, from which students can understand both industrialization and urbanization at a larger level.

Brewery Employees

Some Background about the Towns

Porter’s Mills / Porterville
Porter’s Mills was located just south of Eau Claire off HWY 37 before you get to Caryville. A sawmill was built there in 1863, along with one house for the workers. By 1867, the town had a blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, boarding house, small store and office, lodging house, ice house, stables, granary and 11 houses for laborers, and there were 52 men employed by the mill. In 1873, the mill employed 120 men, and boasted the most married men of any mill in the area. The Northwestern Logging Company provided housing for single men, and purchased a farm to raise animals and vegetables for the town store. There were named streets and numbered houses, with about 50 houses and 200 residents. Even Eau Claire did not have numbered houses at this time! The town of Porterville was platted in 1883. The town was more or less a company town, with several buildings built by the Northwestern Logging Company. At its most productive, around 1888, the mill produced 45,000,000 feet of lumber per year. The number of mill workers was almost 500, and the town’s population neared 1,200. Porterville had a school, two churches, and several organizations, including a Modern Woodman’s Hall. However, the town was too tied to the industry of logging. The company began moving their offices out of Porter’s Mills in 1891, and dismantled the first mill in 1898. The last mill was dismantled in July 1899 and moved to Stanley. Most residents of Porter’s Mills left with it, the majority moving either to Stanley or Eau Claire. By 1904, nothing remained of what was once a thriving village. Today, you can bike the Chippewa River State Trail to go by where Porter’s Mills once stood. All you will find are trees and the Chippewa River bottoms.

An excellent source of information on Porter’s Mills is: Rohe, Randall E. Ghosts of the Forest, Vanished Lumber Towns of Wisconsin, Vol. 1. Forest History Association of WI, 2002.

This book can be found in the ARC (5th floor), McIntyre Library, UWEC; the library of the Chippewa Valley Museum, and the Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire Public Libraries (these are the only ones that can be checked out). The book dedicates an entire chapter to Porter’s Mills. Using this book, I have created a PowerPoint timeline of the history of Porter’s Mills, which can be found at the Center for History Teaching and Learning’s website.

Altoona / East Eau Claire

Railroad tracks came through what was to become Altoona in 1870, but the town itself would not develop for another 11 years. In 1880, the Eau Claire depot for the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railroad wanted to add a roundhouse and new terminal, but didn’t have the space for it. Fall Creek was considered, but the officials in Eau Claire were afraid they would lose their status if the roundhouse moved that far away. Two railroad officials walked the tracks from Eau Claire to Fall Creek, and found a flat, straight stretch of tracks that was close enough to a water source to be viable. Construction of the roundhouse began in June 1881 and in October of that year, East Eau Claire was platted. By 1882, there were ten houses, a general store, a hotel, and restaurant. The name of the town was changed to Altoona in October 1882 due to confusion over freight charges with Eau Claire. In December of 1882 Altoona got a post office; the population of the town was 215. By 1885 the population was 500, and most residents were employees of the railroad. The city was incorporated on April 5, 1887. In 1890 the population was 805, and jobs tied to the railroads were still the dominant profession. There were very few other industries to support it alone – no newspaper, no factories, no real “Main Street”, etc. – and the proximity to a much larger city (by 1890 the population of Eau Claire was 17,415) made the development of separate industries unnecessary. Travel between the two communities was aided by the railroad and an electric streetcar that ran several times a day from Altoona to Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls. Many people who worked in Eau Claire lived in Altoona, and Altoona became more of a bedroom community than an individual city. Many amenities were located in Eau Claire, only a short trip – shopping centers, newspapers, and grocery stores, for example – so there was no need to duplicate them in Altoona. Even without these facilities, Altoona survived as a city (in 2000, the population of Altoona was 6,698), even once the railroads’ importance declined. The trains still run through the city, the tracks and depot are still on Spooner Ave., and the high school mascot is the Rails, but the railroad is not the heart of the city any longer. Altoona was able to survive as a city because of their close ties with another, larger community, and could almost be considered a suburb.

An excellent source of information on Altoona is:

Hagen, Gerald A. A History of Altoona. Altoona: Altoona Printing, Inc. 1987.

This book is available in the library at the Chippewa Valley Museum and at the Altoona Public Library (they have three copies available for check-out). Check City of Altoona, but there is not much historical information on it. You may, however, find more recent information and info about the schools there.

Alma 1883

Alma / Twelve Mile Bluff

The first settlers to Twelve Mile Bluff arrived in 1848. They were two Swiss brothers who made their living cutting firewood for the steamboats traveling the Mississippi River. Other settlers soon followed, and they changed the name to Alma in 1855, after part of the bluff fell down. The name was chosen, according to one legend, because it was the name of a river in Russia that was the site of a battle during the Crimean War. Other stories say it was chosen because it was “short and pretty.” Alma became the Buffalo County seat in 1860 and was incorporated as a village in 1861 with around 200 residents. While the residents of Alma had ties to lumbering, they also developed a variety of other businesses, including breweries, hotels, a cigar factory, sawmill, creamery, flour and grist mill, and a railroad depot. In 1867 the Beef Slough Manufacturing, Booming, Log Driving and Transportation Company was organized just north of the town. It employed nearly 600 men, and was a storage pond for the logs floated downstream by other logging companies. Loggers used the logs to form rafts to be sent down the Mississippi to other sawmills. An interesting side story is that of the Beef Slough War. A brief history of this fight can be found on the Wisconsin Historial Society. The slough was dammed off in 1889, but Alma continued to grow. In 1890, the population was 1,428, and peaked at around 1,500 in 1895. The diversity of industries and businesses allowed Alma to remain an independent city long after the logging industry faded. Today, Alma remains the county seat and has a population of 942. According to the city’s website, “Alma is rich in history, scenery, and recreational opportunities. Whether you enjoy shopping, fishing, hunting, or bird watching, you’re sure to find it here. It’s a great place to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of the ‘big city’.”

An excellent source of information on Alma is:
Anderson-Sannes, Barbara. Alma on the Mississippi 1848-1932. Alma, Wis.: The Society, 1980.

This book can be found in the ARC (5th floor) and one the 3rd floor of the McIntyre Library, UWEC (the 3rd floor book may be checked out); the library of the Chippewa Valley Museum, the Eau Claire Public Library (special collections – cannot be checked out), and the Pepin Public Library (can be checked out). In addition the City of Alma has other information about the town.