Oconto County, Wisconsin



Source: History of Northern Wisconsin 1881 (Oconto County) submitted by Diana Heser Morse


The earliest settlements of what is now Oconto County, since the setting off of Marinette, were made in the vicinity of Pensaukee. In 1829, Daniel Hubbard erected the first saw-mill in the county, on the Pensaukee River. It was situated two miles from its mouth, and was built for John P. Arndt, of Green Bay.


It was not until 1835-36, that the first permanent settlements were made, and the first mills built in Oconto. George Lerwick, George Langden, and George Ehrie, entered claims during the former year, for land upon the present site of the city They built a dam, which was soon carried away, and held their claims for "a rise" ten years. It then came into possession of Col. David Jones, who had built the first saw-mill in Peshtigo, in 1836, and was one of the fathers of the county. This was the original plat of the city of Oconto, being lots comprising the present site of the court-house, and which were laid out in 1855. In 1847, Col. Jones had erected another mill near Oconto. It was washed away by the flood of 1881. In 1854, there were about 1,000 people in the county, and it became necessary to open up the lumber country more in accord with the ways of civilization. There was no regular road in the county, only trails, which to the unskilled would lead from nowhere to nowhere. In August of that year, William W. Delano, of Pensaukee, surveyed the first road, from Oconto to Stiles. At about the same time, the first bridge was thrown across Little River, where it enters the Oconto, near the John Doyle place. The builder was Duncan Cameron. The first bridge across the Oconto was built in the Spring of 1856. It is called the Patterson bridge, and situated near the Oconto Company's flour mill.


Mrs. Effie A. Leigh, of Leighton, was the first white child born in the county. Her birth place was seven miles up the Oconto River, and the date, July 25, 1851.  J. M. Couillaird, her father, was the first white settler in that portion of Oconto County. He came from Milwaukee, making the journey with an ox-team and being four weeks on the road.


At that time, Indians were constantly seen in large groups in the streets.


July 4, 1859, was celebrated in great style. Joseph Loy, of Green Bay, was the orator of the day. A. Lawrence read the Declaration of Independence. George B. Farnsworth gave the ball.


In July, 1859, the Board voted $3,000 toward building the road from Green Bay to Menominee.


On the 5th of June, 1859, the dam of Jones & Co. and R. W. McClellan was swept away. By July 30, it was restored, and the mills were running.


A destructive fire occurred on the 3d of August, 1859. The Brunquest Building was burned. S. W. Spencer, A. Aspinwall, John Remick and Mr. Mitchel were sufferers.


In August, the Board of Supervisors voted $750 for road purposes.


Judge Arnt built a saw-mill at Pensaukee in 1825, obtaining the privilege of doing so from the Menomonee Indians, on the annual payment of $15 a year and all the boards they wanted—which did not exceed six boards a year—to make coffins.


In September, 1859, a sidewalk was built from the Empire House to Senk's saloon.


In November, 1859, a Sunday-school was started in Hart's Hall.


In December, the close of navigation stopped the daily mail—only once a week during the Winter.


The new school-house of the Second Ward was completed December 10, 1859.


During the season of 1859, Bailey & Coull manufactured 23,125 feet of lumber.


January 1, 1860, a new stage line was put on by R. J. Bogart, to run between Green Bay, Stiles and Oconto. Wolves were reported as too plentiful for the comforts of civilization.


The fact that 1860 was leap year, was celebrated in an enthusiastic way by a sleigh ride to Stiles.


In the sugar season of 1860, a very large amount of maple sugar was made in Pensaukee, Stiles and Peshtigo.


In 1860, there was $1,400,000 invested in the lumber business in the county. There were 321 saws running in Oconto, and 106 at Stiles.


In 1852, there were 424 inhabitants in Oconto; in 1855, 1,015; 1860, 3,598.


The city charter was amended in 1861, cutting down the number of Supervisors to one.


Census of the county in 1800:

Marinette --- 478

Oconto Town --- 489

Village West --- 433

Village East  --- 456

Pensaukee --- 295

Peshtigo --- 566

Stiles --- 654

Suamico --- 163




In 1860, the amount of the fur trade in Oconto was $75, 000. Here are the prices at that time:

 Musk rat -----$0.10 to $0.20

Mink ----------$1.25 to $2.00

Marten --------$1.50 to $2.50

Otter ----------$4.00 to $6.00

Fox -----------$1.00 to $1.50

Fisher --------$4.00 to $6.00

Beaver -------$1.00

Racoon -------$.62

Bear ----------$6.00 to $9.00

Wolf ----------$1.00 to $1.50

Deer, undressed --------$0.25 to $0.30

Deer, dressed ----------$1.50 to $2.00




Company F, Twelfth Wisconsin Infantry, was raised in Oconto County, and, with its regiment, did efficient service during the war, taking part in all the battles and marches of Gen. Sherman's campaigns, from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Raleigh, N. C.


Company H, of the Fourth Cavalry, was composed of men from Oconto County. The company was called the "Oconto River Drivers".  It was in various engagements and battles, and was mustered out at Fort Leavenworth, September 29, 1865.


The Eleventh Battery, _____, in 1862, eighty-four men, were enlisted by John McAfee, of Oconto, intending to become a part of the Seventeenth Regiment, under the name of the "Oconto Irish Guards." When the company reached Camp Randall, the Seventeenth was found to be fully organized, so they were transferred to the artillery service, and attached to the "Irish Brigade," then being organized by Col. James A. Mulligan, at Camp Douglas, Chicago, Ill. A second lieutenant, with a number of recruits from Illinois, joined the company at Camp Douglas, and the Eleventh Battery was organized under command of Capt. John Rourke, of Milwaukee. Capt. McAfee was commissioned as first lieutenant. The other officers of the "Oconto Irish Guards" retained their positions.


Oconto had a number of men in the Seventeenth Infantry, in Thirty-sixth, Thirty-eight and Thirty-ninth Infantry, and in Second and Third Cavalry. Oconto's quota of troops was 311; total credits, 292.

History of Northern Wisconsin (City of Oconto) submitted by Diana Heser Morse

Oconto is a growing city of 4,500 people, situated at the mouth of the Oconto River, midway between Marinette and Green Bay, on the west shore of the body of water of that name. Its people are industrious and alive, and the trend of its leading business organizations is upward. Banking facilities are obtained through the private house of Farnsworth & Smith.

The city of Oconto was incorporated under chapter 449, P. and L. L. 1869, March 11. It is divided into four wards, the North, South, East and West, and its system of government is in accord with that of other cities. Its municipal officers for 1881 are: Mayor, William H. Young; Clerk, A. M. Martineau; Treasurer, S. W. Ford; Assessor, Peter Don Levy; Superintendent of Schools and City Physician, Dr. H. Allan; Marshal, Frank Leroy.

The Fire Department of Oconto consists of two companies of fifteen members each. There are two engine houses, also. J. H. Driscoll is Chief Engineer, and Gilbert Morrow, Assistant.

Oconto's educational system consists, as is usual, of a School Board and a City Superintendent, composed as follows: School Board—President, W. J. McGee ---O. A. Ellis, James Don Levy and George Beyer. Superintendent, Dr. Hamilton Allan. J. H. Gould is President of the Free High-school. There are five schools and ten departments. The Jefferson school building was built of brick in 1879, at a cost, with site, of $5,500. It is proposed this Fall to erect a new school edifice at a cost of §6,000. Of the 1,239 children of school age residing in the city of Oconto in 1880, 678 attended the public institutions; 329 patronized private and parochial schools.


Methodist Episcopal Church.—Was organized, in 1854, by Rev. G. D. Donaldson. The church was built in 1865-6. The society is under the pastorate of Rev. E. Yager, and numbers about thirty members.

First Presbyterian Church.—Was organized in 1856, and a building erected two years after. The present edifice, the finest in the city, was built, in 1878, at a cost of $8,000. The church has no settled pastor. Its membership is fifty.

St, Peter's Church (French Roman Catholic ).—Was organized twenty years ago, and a building erected at the same time. The membership is 200 families. Its present pastor, Rev. Father Vermare, has had charge of the church ten years.

St. Joseptis Church is a limb of St. Peter's Church, and was formed ten years ago. Rev. Father Sweibach is pastor over 100 families. A nunnery is situated on the church grounds. Connected with the church are the St. Joseph's Total Abstinence and Benevolent, and the Altar societies.

Ten years ago the St. Marks' Church ( Episcopal ) was formed by Rev. Mr. Tenbroeck. It has a membership of thirty-five, and Rev. William Dafter is pastor.

There are also small societies of German and Scandinavian Lutherans.


The first newspaper published in the county was the Oconto Pioneer, issued by George C. Ginty in 1859. In 1864, he formed a partnership with C. S. Hart. The next year they sold to J. W. Hall, who had established the Lumberman in 1864. The Oconto Reporter, founded in 1871, was bought out by A. R. Bradbury, who, in turn sold it to A. Reinhart. This gentleman, with others, conducted the paper until September, 1873, when it passed into the hands of C. S. Hart. In the Spring of 1875, the Oconto Times was absorbed by the Reporter. In July, 1881, the Reporter was merged with the Republican, established by P. h. Swift in October of the previous year. That journal, under the name of the Oconto County Reporter, is edited and managed by the latter, a strong Republican. The Lumberman was founded by J. W. Hall in 1864, and there has been no change in proprietorship since. It is a six-and-a-quarter-column quarto, independent Republican in politics. The Enquirer was established in July, 1881, by Messrs. Sharp & Brazeau, F. C. Sharp, editor. In politics it is Democratic. Form, a six-column quarto.

Sketch of Its Industrial and Educational Development
Read by Miss Clara Fleming Graduating Exercises High School
The Oconto County Reporter (Oconto, Wis.) 10 June 1909; submitted by Diana Heser Morse

My essay was entitled, "Oconto, Historical, Educational and Industrial", but when persons speak of history, they invariably think of a time a century or more back; but in that case Oconto would have no history, for it has grown up during the average age of a person.

There is a difference of opinion as to the exact date of the coming of the first white settler to Oconto, but it is thought to be about 1850.

In 1851 there were six families living in Oconto. This same year Jr. Jones built two mills, one the 'Spies Mill' which is still standing near the mouth of the river, and the Water Mill about one mile west of the Pea Factory. The Hubbel Water Mill on the south side of the river was also built.

Up to this time Oconto had been a part of Brown County, but on April 7, 1852 Oconto County was formed. The county at that time was not the size it is now, but has since been divided and five separate counties formed including Marinette and Forest counties.

The first school-house was built in 1853 on the bank of the river just east of the Park Avenue bridge. It was a building 15 feet by 20 feet and had two rooms. One part was used as the school room and the other part for a general store. Then the enrollment was six scholars, with Mr. Squire as teacher.

The desks were made of rough boards nailed up along the sides of the wall with a box stove in the center. The girls were seated on one side and the boys on the other. School was held only during the winter months.

Oconto at this time was only a woods with Indian trails running through, the main trail extending from the water mill to the mouth of the river along what is now Main Street. The Indians had their camps along this trail.

There was an Indian mound about twenty feet long just south of Main Street.

Two years later a new school-house was built in a little clearing where Park Avenue and Main Street cross. It was built of rough lumber with laths on the cracks. The girls sat in the seats close to the stove, while the boys, occupied the seats farther back, with their caps pulled down over their ears. Some of the books used were: "MacGuffy's Reader" and the ''Elementary Speller". The pupils wrote on slates and everything from the A-B-Cs to Algebra was taught.

School was only held in this building during the winter months, it being used for a 'pest-house' during the summer, perhaps the pupils considered it as such the year around. When there were any patients in the building, the boys were stationed on the surrounding fence to keep the cattle from entering.

In 1856 the first court house was built on the south side of the river, opposite the hospital. It was a two story frame building, but was soon destroyed by fire. This same year the first Oconto Company Mill was erected.

Up to this time the land was owned by a few individuals, but in 1855 lots were apportioned and sold. The land was divided into one mile sections. Park Avenue, which was the division line between two sections was called Section Street. Main Street was laid out, the plan following that of the Indian trail, and then the other streets laid out accordingly.

By 1856 it became necessary to build two new school houses, one the Washington, which is now the Washington house on Main St., and the other the Pecor school. The Washington school was a two story building. It was on ungraded school with a total enrollment of about 150 pupils. The first floor was used for the primary scholars, and the second floor for the higher grades. Miss Weldon was the first lady teacher that taught in the higher grades in Oconto, while Miss Hart took charge of the little folks. The enrollment at the Pecor was about 58.

By 1859 Oconto was able to obtain its Village Charter.

Although Oconto County was still young with about a population of 600, it had its share of men loyal to the Union. For in '61, when the great call for men was heard, five companies of soldiers wore made up in this county. The men did fine work in the army, especially in the attempt to capture Vicksburg. Many of these men were Indians who, although they were not treacherous at home, made fearless fighters, one of them holding
a position on General Grant's staff.

The east end of Main St. seemed to have been settled first. The first post office was located in Mr. J. Jones house, the mail being kept in a small wooden box on the floor in the corner.

The Reporter building better remembered as the one recently purchased and moved by Mr. Beyer, was built near the bridge, by Geo. C. Ginty. At that time it was a three story building. The first floor was used for stores. The second floor was occupied by Mr. Ginty for a printing office where the "Pioneer", the forerunner of the Oconto County Reporter was first issued.

The first Circuit Court ever held here was held on the third floor of this building. This room was also used as a place to hold Church, socials and other entertainments. Later this building was sold and for a time Mr. Coleman had his drug store in it. The Post Office was then moved into the drug store.

The first bank in Oconto was located near the old Reporter building but was of short duration. The next bank was established by Farnsworth and Smith in the building now occupied by L. C. Harvey. The abstract office was on the second floor.

Draw bridges were now built across the river at the end of Superior and Park Avenues.

On Nov. 15, 1858 the First Presbyterian Church was organized and dedicated in '64. It was a frame building in the same place that the present one is, but was burned and another built. The Methodist Church was built in 1869.

In '63, the firm of Holt and Balcom purchased the mill formerly owned by R. M. Norton.

By 1869 Oconto secured its City Charter.

In '7I the Pier, which is still standing was built, and the Pier Road made. Boats from Green Bay came up and left their passengers and freight at the pier. Large boats were unable to come up the river owing to the fact that all the sawdust and rubbish from the mills was dumped into the river. In summer the passengers could come up the road but in the fall and spring it was impossible because there were few sidewalks and the mud was too deep
to use the stepping stones. During this same year the first railroad was run through Oconto, by the C. and N. W. R. R. Co. and which fact is often supposed to have been the cause of the Peshtigo fire, which occurred that same year. Although it did a great deal of damage, little was done here.

In 1880 eight dams broke, causing a terrible freshet in the Oconto river, taking with it both houses and cattle.

With the exception of the erection of the new Washington School in 1894 and the Court House in 1891 and of the transferring and reorganizing in 1886, of the Oconto National Bank in its present location, nothing of any great importance occurred for the next nineteen years.

In 1899 the Oconto Canning Factory was built and has steadily prospered.

As most of those present have resided in Oconto from the time of 1899, it will be hardly necessary to review the events in detail, but I will mention a few of the more important.

The educational side changed but very little, except for the erection of the Farnsworth Public Library.

The industrial side of Oconto has advanced to a greater extent. Besides the saw mills we have the Canning and Pickle factory. And some of our prosperous business men are watching with interest the outcome of the "Payne" bill now, pending in Congress. For if it should be passed the Oconto Glove Factory which now employs four will be strengthened and will in the near future be a prospering business.

Oconto Reporter (4 June 1931) (by Aileen Noonan) submitted by Diana Heser Morse

To some, it night seem humorous, the idea that little, old Oconto has a past. Yet somewhere back in the dim, half-forgotten days so near and dear to the heart of an old timer, lurk stories as brimful of romance and adventure as our modern-day fiction. These stories, or legends, as they might well be called, have at once pathos and humor, and though the themes are crude and ill-designed, they touch a responsive chord in the heart of every hearer, because they are so intensely human.

Of the many colorful stories related concerning early life in Oconto, there is one that has always had an irresistible appeal for me. It has never failed to draw aside for me the impenetrable curtain that envelopes the past, and permit me to look into the hazy "used to be," and see Oconto as it was before the whiteman rudely broke into the sanctity of the Indian kingdom; when Main street was merely a winding path, pounded down by the cat-like tread of copper-colored Indians, which found its way through a forest as dense as Longfellow's "forest primeval."

This story, with its unaccountable lure for me, is that of Grisdau, an Indian Chieftaan who is symbolic of the Indian rebellion against the white man. He plays an important part in the story, for he it is who called his tribe together one evening in the late spring, to decide what was to be done about this sudden invasion of the new-comers. The council had been called in front of the cabin of Judge Jerome, who in partnership with Dr. Hall, had purchased the land of the surrounding territory. The chief had kept the members of his tribe comparatively quiet for some time, but gradually they became noisy and very troublesome. Thinking it was only the nightly Indian council paid little, if any attention to it at first. Finally, however, he was forced to ask Abel Tourtillotte, to request them to be a little more quiet. Abel spoke to the Indians but with little success. As he passed through the house, to the crude kitchen at the rear, bent on bolting the door, he encountered Gris-dau, who had found his way into the house. Surprised and slightly abashed, Abel ordered the Indian out of the house, but Gris-dau refused to be so easily disposed of, and doggedly stood his ground. In the ensuing fight, Abel, who was skilled in the art of self defense, sought to tire Gris-dau, by clever maneuvering. But, here, Girs-dau's Indian ancestry came to the fore, and his fund of physical endurance seemed inexhaustible. The fight, which lasted for some time, was brought to rather an abrupt conclusion, by the entrance of the foreman, of whom the Indians stood in awe, and who was successful in separating the two pugilists. Gris-dau seemed acquiescent enough but in his eyes there smoldered that unquenchable fire, born only of the undying resentment of the Indian toward the "pale-face".

The story of Gris-dau and others are mere threads in the web of romance spun around the early settlers in Oconto, but they reveal subtly enough the fact that to call Oconto historical is not be christen it incorrectly.


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