HISTORY OF WAUSAU
(This page has been extracted from the city of Wausau website).
We take a great deal of pride in our community, many people were born and raised here and have either stayed or come back to raise their own families. The Wausau area offers a unique combination of city living with the country just minutes away from any doorstep. We have the best of both worlds. Residents enjoy four distinct seasons that offer beauty and recreation year round. We are proud to call Wausau our home!
It was the Wisconsin River that first drew settlers to this area originally known as “Big Bull Falls”, either named by Indians or early fur traders. An 1836 treaty transferring land along the Wisconsin River from the Indians to federal ownership sent George Stevens’ lumbermen up the river two years later to find suitable places for turning the pine forests into lumber. “It is decidedly the best Mill Site I ever saw or heard of in the Union” wrote George Stevens after reaching Big Bull Falls in the Summer of 1839. Nonetheless he was very excited when he wrote his partner George Morton in St. Louis about the site and its possibilities. By 1840, the Stevens sawmill was processing the pine forests into lumber. It was not long before other mills began springing up along the riverbanks of central Wisconsin. This was the coming of the Lumbermen. The death of the forests became the birth of a town. “The Pinery”, magical words 150 years ago, is a legend today.
Among the first men who took the lead in business and in the growth of the community was Walter McIndoe. He arrived in 1846 and due to his efforts, Marathon County was organized in 1850. About the same time, Big Bull Falls began to be called Wausau and became the county seat. This was the area where the Chippewa Indians went on their yearly hunts and called it “Wausau”, translated to mean “far away place”. McIndoe decided that would be an appropriate name. There are stories that question that interpretation. Another Indian language states the word “Wausau” means a “noise like thunder”. This would make sense because of the noise the water made rushing over the falls.
Decade by decade, Wausau began to grow and mature. Wausau had been platted and organized as a town in 1852 and incorporated as a village April, 1861. Heavy German immigration brought more media people into the area, churches and social organizations began to flourish. 1872 was an end and a beginning, it ended the days as a village and began its days as a city. The State of Wisconsin granted a city charter in 1872 with its first election the first Tuesday in April under the charter. The citizenry elected German-born August Kickbusch as its first mayor. In 1874, the arrival of the railroad made it easier for people to get to Wausau. By the 1890’s, the city grew to 9,150 persons, compared to 2,820 in 1874.
(View History of Mayors and City Hall)
Turn-of-the-century technology and fortunes based on that technology, continued to change Wausau. The city and the county were on the edge of economic disaster. As trees vanished, mills closed, towns vanished as well. It did not happen to Wausau. Some of the reasons for Wausau’s good fortune, was its location, one of the best water powers on the Wisconsin River and an exceptional group of people who reformed the economy of the city in the early part of the 20th century. They came to be known as the Wausau Group. They did much to build the town and more to preserve it. Papermaking followed lumbering as the pinery began to disappear and industry flourished. To meet those industrial needs, Employers Mutual Liability Insurance Co., of Wisconsin started selling insurance at the corner of Third and Scott Street in 1911.
The arrival of automobiles in the county helped to improve roads and by the early 1920’s there were over 2,200 miles of hard-surfaced roads in the county and also concrete road construction. Air travel also came to Wausau in the mid-1920’s, Ben and Judd Alexander decided to build an airport on the southeast side of Wausau with the understanding that the city would take it over after five years and maintain it. This airport is now known as Wausau Downtown Airport.
Wausau’s cultural isolation began to fade in the early part of the 20th century. The Grand Opera House built in 1899 was replaced by the newer and more technological Grand Theater in 1927. The theater, restored in 1986 / 1987 at a cost of nearly two million dollars, is owned by the Grand Theater Foundation and leased to the Performing Arts Foundation. The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum opened in 1976. It is Wausau’s most distinguished cultural institution. These and other organizations have helped to promote the arts in Central Wisconsin and make Wausau a premier arts community.
The depression years after the stock market crash in 1929 hit Wausau hard. Industries were forced to cut back, laying off or dismissing workers. The financial disaster which continued into the 1930’s was a shock to Wausau after decades of progress. Ironically, the federal programs under the New Deal measures taken did more than anything else to modernize the area and bring it into the mainstream of American life. Wausau has continued to grow since then, not so much in population, but in industry, education, recreation, and its retail center downtown. The building of an eight block enclosed shopping mall in downtown Wausau, which opened in August 1983, made this the largest economic gamble in the city’s history thus far. The Wausau Center Mall is still a successful shopping center that draws shoppers from the region.
In the late 90’s the economy prospered, Wausau saw the need to purchase and development more land for the West Industrial Park to meet the needs of expanding companies. There was also an increase in commercial development on the west side of town along Stewart Avenue. More recently, the city acquired through gifts and purchases, the 400 Block in downtown Wausau. It was designated by council in 1998, as a public open square to be improved and otherwise developed for the use and enjoyment of the citizens of our great community as part of the Redevelopment Plan.
This Redevelopment Plan, called the Wausau Central Business District Master Plan, created a comprehensive long-range vision and implementation strategy for the redevelopment and economic structuring of downtown Wausau. It was adopted by the Common Council in March 2000. These redevelopment plans, along with the mission and goals of the Wausau River Edge Commission, proposes to maximize the aesthetic and natural benefits of the Wisconsin River edge within the central business district. Through study, planning, and cooperative programs with all public and private interest for recreation and other uses, the area will be enhanced and become a showplace of natural beauty for public enjoyment with a system of walks, recreation areas, and commercial sites that will attract tourists and increase the value of the river corridor, its islands, and surrounding areas.
In 2002, the Performing Arts Foundation completed an ambitious $13 million dollar expansion project. The project integrated three historic structures including the Center for Visual Arts and the 1927 Grand Theater as the centerpiece. This project provided additional amenities for patrons and performers which will serve the Grand Theater for many years to come. In June 2002, Governor McCallum announced Wausau’s acceptance into the Main Street Program. Main Street is a state-administered program that brings expert advice to cities to help merchants and politicians work together to focus on preserving and rehabilitating historical buildings; attracting more people to the downtown businesses; developing underutilized property; and maintaining the retail function in the downtown area. The downtown district, known as the River District, also represents the City’s first business improvement district. The BID district assesses special assessments to each property within its boundaries to fund the salaries and operating costs of the main street program. The City of Wausau supplements these contributions with an annual allocation of room tax dollars for the main street program.
In recent years, the city has entered into several highly successful private-public partnerships. These partnerships have transformed the skyscape and vistas of the downtown rivers edge. In addition, these projects have increased tax base and employment in the community. The City is thrilled with the addition of the Dudley Tower, Eye Clinic of Wisconsin, Jefferson Street Inn, The Palladian and Wausau Benefits/Wipfli Building.
In this fast pace world, what we do and build now will have to fit in the future scheme, so decisions need to be made with special consideration to future needs. Our futures sees continued development along the Hwy 51/29 corridor, enhancements to the 400 block and expansion of the river edge trail, and the redevelopment of property along the Wisconsin River, and Third Street to name a few. The story of Wausau is far from over and the past gives good reason to be excited and optimistic for its future.
Want to learn more?
Wisconsin Public Television has a fantastic documentary on the history of Wausau.