Dam helped bring paper mill to Shawano

I am often asked if I miss being in local politics. Serving eight years as alderperson and 14 years as mayor was one of the most wonderful and humbling experiences of my life. I do miss many aspects of public service, particularly the interaction with residents and employees. The communication I receive from you readers regarding my weekly column helps fill that void. I sincerely appreciate your comments and feedback.

Sometimes a reader requests information or suggests a topic for my column. Recently, I received a call from a local resident who asked if I knew anything about the old brickyard that was in Shawano years ago. I also received a call from someone who was interested in when the old Shawano dam was built.

My hubby worked at Little Rapids Paper Mill for 45 years, and he shared with me some of the related information he learned while working there. He often visited with the late George Putz, a local historian. Other resources include a book Mr. Putz wrote titled “The Shawano Paper Mill Centennial 1894-1994” and newspaper clippings from the Shawano County Advocate.

The Wolf River dam was completed in 1892. Building it was quite an undertaking. It spanned the river, which was about 350 feet wide. It needed to be able to hold back an 11-foot head of water.

It was constructed in the same way others of that era were built. Large timber cribs were filled with tons of fieldstone and spaced across the width of the river.

The gates of the dam were made of 16-foot long, four-by-four-inch square timbers, which stood in a vertical position across the openings between the cribs. The vertical timbers were referred to as “dam needles.” The needles would be put in or removed in whatever quantity necessary to control the flow of water in an effort to maintain a proper head of water above the dam.

During my hubby’s employment, the mill was responsible for the dam, and he often went out and took care of the needles. The mill no longer controls the dam.

Although the dam would be considered primitive by today’s standards, it withstood the test of elements through many years. There were times when huge ice floes would slam against the cribs. There were a few recorded occasions when flood waters were so voluminous that even with all the gates open, water went over the top of the dam.

It was because of the dam that Mr. Joseph J. Wirtz, of Kaukauna, made a trip to Shawano to see if Shawano had any advantage to offer for the successful operation of a pulp mill, and perhaps a paper mill. He found that not only was the dam site an opportune location, but there was also sufficient local capital available to launch such a venture. On Feb. 7, 1894, the Wolf River Paper and Fiber Co., the forerunner of Shawano Paper Mills, was founded.

In answer to the question about the brick yard; the Shawano Paper Mills purchased the land and all the buildings on the former Larson Brickyard property in the late 1950s. This is now the site of the mill’s wastewater treatment facility.

The Larson property contained a small lake that was formed in a pit from which, for more than a half-century, clay had been taken for the manufacture of bricks. The property contained three brick kilns, two of which had a 35,000-brick capacity and one in which 100,000 bricks could be fired.

There were several large curing sheds and a building in which the bricks were manufactured. The complex was laced with a narrow-gauge rail system.

Also located on the property was Larson’s 12-room family mansion. The interior of the mansion was modest except for a stained-glass window on a stair landing and a few ornate light fixtures. The house was a wood frame structure, with a brick-veneer exterior. The interior walls were brick, finished with plaster, instead of the conventional lath and plaster. All partitions were solid brick, two tiers thick. The basement floor was also brick.

The home’s centrally located chimney was unusual. From the basement to the second floor it was a chimney within a chimney. Its purpose was to have air circulate through the space surrounding the regular chimney to collect heat from it and then exit from hot air registers on the second floor.

After Mr. Larson closed down the brick-making operation in 1946, the mansion became a rental property.

In later years the property became a target for vandals, and as a result the paper mill had the vacant mansion and other buildings demolished.

Question: In what year did Shawano Paper Mills demolish the Larson structures?

Clothesline Conversation Answer: To clear the land and eliminate potential hazards, the Larson buildings were demolished in 1971.

Lorna Marquardt is a former Shawano mayor.