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Closing of an Era
What next for River City?
By Alison Bruener
South Wood County Historical Museum
With Dave Engel, Wisconsin Rapids City Historian
Note- At the time of original posting we incorrectly stated that in 2014, Verso was based out of Miamisburg, Ohio. It was brought to our attention that at the time they acquired Newpage they were instead based out of Memphis, Tennessee.
It was the most important development in city history.
“A new move has just been made by a number of the leading business men of the twin cities [Grand Rapids and Centralia] which cannot fail to be of the most beneficial and far reaching consequences upon the growth of the twin cities. It is a move which has been hoped for and talked of for years and years.”
The sentiments from both the Centralia Enterprise and Grand Rapids Tribune in August 1894 celebrated the beginning of the Consolidated Water Power Co.
After fighting in court for years to consolidate the several smaller sites along the river’s edge, one of the visionaries wouldn’t see his dreams become reality. That was Jere Delos (J.D.) Witter who died in 1902 following a failed operation for Bright’s disease. Witter’s final moments were spent surrounded by his family: his wife (Emily Phelps Witter), son (Isaac, who later built the house that became the South Wood County Historical Museum), daughter (Ruth Witter Mead) and son-in-law (George W. Mead, a furniture dealer in Rockford, Ill.)
It would be left to Witter’s partner, Nels Johnson, to keep the project going.
Johnson turned to J.D.’s son, Isaac, to aid in continuing his father’s dream. But the more cautious Isaac asked his brother-in-law, George Mead, to stay “for a week or two” and help out.
In 1902, with investments from locals and a loan from the Wisconsin National Bank of Milwaukee for at least $150,000, “Consolidated Water Power” added “Paper Co.” to its name and over a century of papermaking began.
Dreams Become Reality
As Consolidated was moving along in its plans for a paper mill, dam and a power house, another tragedy befell the company when Nels Johnson died.
Following the Johnson funeral, the Witters turned to George Mead again. After all, he had experience constructing a large building and running a business in Rockford, so, would he stay with Consolidated until a paper man was to be found? He agreed and his first task was the building of a dam. His daughter, Emily Baldwin Bell, related that Mead would wake up in the middle of the night and go and sit on the rock by the rapids, planning the all-important dam.
It was completed in March 1904 and the mill in April of the same year. In June, Consolidated shipped the first carload of newsprint to the Los Angeles Times. The Grand Rapids mill had made history as the only paper making operation which used electrically-powered machinery.
In 1911, the Grand Rapids Paper Co. mill at Biron was acquired, followed by the Interlake Pulp & Paper Co., Appleton, and the Stevens Point paper mill and hydroelectric plant. In 1920, through their Newaygo Timber Company, the company purchased timberland acreage in Ontario, Canada, that led to building of a paper mill in Port Arthur, now Thunder Bay.
In a stroke of good luck, Consolidated sold the Thunder Bay mill just before the Great Depression of 1929. While the rest of the country struggled with unemployment, Consolidated changed to a four-day work week, which allowed them to continue with no layoffs to their employees.
Also, during the Depression years of the 1930s, Consolidated adopted a new process that produced coated paper in a single, high-speed operation, in coordination with the company’s largest client, Life Magazine. The big, fast, new Number 5 paper machine overlooking the Wisconsin river carried the motto “Built for Life-Operated for Life.”
During World War II, Consolidated developed a laminate sheet utilized in the production of aircraft equipment, later called “Consoweld” and used mainly for countertops.
The 1960s began with the production of a lightweight coated paper for magazines and catalogs and in 1962, the corporate name change from Consolidated Water Power and Paper Company to Consolidated Papers Inc. Towards the end of the decade, the $37 million Kraft pulp mill and power complex was constructed.
Growth continued into the 1980s as paper sales were temporarily boosted by the increasing use of personal computers and copy machines. As CPI coated papers thrived in direct-mail advertising and color inserts in newspapers, the company celebrated the River Block, a new office building in Wisconsin Rapids that, by the mid ’80s, housed the world headquarters of the planet’s largest producer of enamel papers.
Among the further acquisitions of the 20th Century were Wisconsin River Division, Castle Rock Container Co., the Niagara, Wis., paper mill, Lake Superior Paper, Superior Recycled Fiber and “Repap USA.” Major improvements and expansions were made to the Biron and Stevens Point mills. The big #16 machine in Rapids became one of the world’s largest. Consolidated at its peak was listed as a Fortune 500 company and owned over 600,000 acres of forest land.
For stockholders, employees and townspeople alike, nothing seemed more secure. Nearly 30 percent of the employees had been with the company for more than 20 years and their children had the privilege of continuing the tradition. Continuing as a family-run company, CPI was able to keep up with the times while pursuing a conservative fiscal course and for the most part avoiding debt.
In the early 1990s, an economic recession facing the industry foreshadowed tough times to come. For the first time, Consolidated would accrue long-term debt.
In 1993, George Mead II stepped down as CEO while remaining chairman of the Board of Directors. His replacement, Patrick F. Brennan, was the first chief executive from outside the Mead family.
As the nation’s economy recovered in the mid-90s, Consolidated once again began expanding. Like the $150 million that went to improving the mill in Stevens Point in order to produce 64,000 tons of specialty paper to be used in food and consumer packaging. Over the next few years, the company surpassed the $1 billion revenue mark. As the new millennium approached, Consolidated was enjoying the last days of glory.
In 2000, Consolidated was acquired by Stora Enso Oyj., of Helsinki, Finland, for $4.8 billion, making Stora Enso the world leader in coated paper. While the sale was meant to bring the Wisconsin Rapids paper mill along with the Scandinavian company’s other holdings to a global market, the plan never reached its potential, due to a worldwide decline in paper demand, competition from Asian paper manufacturers, an “overconfident management” and a weak U.S. dollar.
During the Stora Enso era, the local paper mill celebrated its centennial.
After seven years, Stora Enso operations in Northern America were sold to NewPage Corporation, Miamisburg, Ohio, for $2.1 billion. NewPage soon filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, emerging in restructured form.
In 2014, NewPage was acquired by Verso of Memphis, Tennessee (they are currently based out of Miamisburg, Ohio), for $1.4 billion.
The new owner would continue to employ 1,700 workers spread between Wisconsin Rapids, Biron and the Steven Point mills.
In 2016, Verso filed for bankruptcy protection after falling $2.4 billion in debt. The company owed around $14 million to nine Wisconsin companies, including Sparhawk trucking in Wisconsin Rapids, Plum Creek timber in Tomahawk (which had purchased 309,000 acres of Stora Enso owned forest in Northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan), deBoer Transportation in Blenker and Corenso North America in Wisconsin Rapids.
Now comes the news that signals the end of an era.
For the first time in its history, the landmark original Consolidated mill will have a full shutdown.
Verso said paper demand has declined due to the COVID-19 pandemic and as a result its Wisconsin Rapids and Duluth mills will be indefinitely closing at the end of July. This action will lay off 902 employees here.
After 116 years, the dream of a prosperous “consolidation” on the river is coming to an end. Only time will tell what will become of what was the world headquarters. Who knows, maybe somebody will be walking along the Wisconsin River and they too will have a dream of what the city will be, what our new identity will become.
Angelica Engel, history correspondent
In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I took a brief dip into the newspapers of yore to see what was happening in Wood County back in 1918, the year of the Spanish influenza pandemic. Here are a few relevant clippings from the October 17, 1918 edition of the Wood County Reporter.
As we “shelter in place” here in March of 2020, this description of the situation over 100 years ago feels very familiar.
At the time of the 1918 pandemic, World War I raged on. The war contributed greatly to the spread of the flu, because more people moved from country to country than ordinarily would at the time. In our modern day, we are accustomed to jetting here and there, and illness comes with us where we go.
The following is a somewhat graphic description of how to care for a sick person, spoken in the more poetic language of the time.
The paper also included a thorough update on the situation in Rudolph, where the flu had not completely consumed the consciousness, though several families felt the effects.
Stay well and warm wishes.
Clippings from Wood County Reporter, 17 Oct 1918, acquired via newspapers.com archive.
If planning on visiting the South Wood County Museum during the next few weeks, please call our number (715)423-1580 ahead of time to schedule a visit.
Museum staff will still be in the office and archives on Tuesday-Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
We will continue to monitor the situation and will post all updates on this page.
Friends of Museum Gardens Program
The Wood County Master Gardener Volunteers have maintained the museum gardens since 1996. Our maintenance has included our time and some financial funding from our organization on an annual basis.
We would like to extend an opportunity to the community to join us in volunteering your time to work with the master gardeners to help keep these two plus acres a community show piece and destination spot. “Shadow Lawn,” as it was called by the Isaac Witter family, is used as a popular photo spot for weddings, prom, graduation, and other special events.
Saturday, December 7 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Sunday, December 8 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Friday, December 13 4 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Saturday, December 14 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Sunday, December 15 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.
by Alison Bruener, Museum Assistant
Every off-season, staff touch up permanent displays and assemble a changing exhibit to be featured in the Marshall Buehler Gallery. Exhibits we have had in the past include Don Krohn’s photography, the Civil War, papermaking, and minor league baseball at Witter Field.
This year, the Marshall Buehler Gallery’s featured exhibit will be the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, which has covered local news for over a century. We invite citizens and visitors alike to step through the doors, page through bound editions and remember how newspapers looked before the digital era.
We will be open every week from Memorial Day to Labor Day on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 1 pm to 4 pm. Our hours are also listed on the front page of our website.
The Daily Tribune exhibit would not be possible without the help of former Tribune writer (Uncle) Dave Engel, who helped compose the verbiage and whose personal images and objects have been indispensable in showcasing the work that went into a daily newspaper. Thank you also to Lori Brost, the museum administrator, for always hearing my thoughts and helping focus them into a narrative. I’d also like to give a special thank you to the Wisconsin Rapids Community Theatre for their use of props in the “Editors Office.”
The staff at the museum hope you can make it through our doors this summer to view our local history, to enjoy the former Witter home and the abundant gardens impeccably maintained by the Wood County Master Gardeners. See you soon!
by Alison Bruener, Museum Assistant
Today with fewer and fewer newspapers circulating, I’m amazed how many local people over the years owned and published the numerous iterations of our local newspapers. In the days of the Wood County Reporter, the Centralia Enterprise & Tribune and the Grand Rapids Tribune, there were names like Jack Brundage, H.B Philleo, and Drumb and Sutor. But one family stands out for their years spent running the Daily Tribune: the Huffmans.
Having moved to Grand Rapids in 1919, William F. Huffman purchased the Grand Rapids Daily Leader and the Weekly Leader in October of the same year. By spring 1920, the Tribune had absorbed both Leaders. For almost a year, both the daily and weekly Tribune continued to be published and eventually the weekly was discontinued in favor of the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune.
A couple years after moving to Grand Rapids, in 1921, William Huffman married Alcinda Louise Fey, or as she was more commonly known, Louise. The two met in college and were engaged, though the wedding was postponed due to his participation in the French Ambulance Service during WWI. Once married, the couple had two children, William Jr., born in 1924, and Mary, born in 1926.
With his family settling into the growing city, and still at the helm of the Tribune, Huffman in 1940 introduced a new media outlet to the area, radio station WFHR (William Ferdinand Huffman Radio).
After Huffman’s death in 1949, the widowed Louise Huffman served as the president of both the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune and the radio station WFHR until 1950. Then, William Jr. (“Bill”) took the helm, after returning home from receiving a degree in agricultural journalism from UW-Madison. He had also served in WWII. As for Louise, she would spend the next two decades traveling the world. She passed away in 1976.
By 1955, Bill Huffman had co-founded the Forward Communications Corporation with other Central Wisconsin newspaper publishers. The company would later expand to other regional television and radio stations.
In his editorials in the Tribune, Huffman criticized the war in Vietnam and expressed concern for environmental protection.
In 1983, Huffman sold the Tribune to Thomson Newspapers out of Toronto, Canada.
Gannett Co. purchased the Daily Tribune in the year 2000. Gannett also owns Appleton’s Post Crescent, Wausau’s Daily Herald, Green Bay’s Press Gazette, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Sheboygan Press, Fond Du Lac’s The Reporter, Manitowoc’s Herald Times Reporter and the Stevens Point Journal. Gannett’s headquarters are located in McLean, Virginia.
I have enjoyed learning the history of our local newspapers and look forward to continued work on our forthcoming exhibit on the papers here at the Museum. We will be open to the public again after Memorial Day, which, as things go, is right around the corner, and we will post our summer hours soon. Hope to see you then!
by Alison Bruener, Museum Assistant
At the end of every season, we at the South Wood County Historical Museum ponder what are we going to do for next year’s Buehler Gallery exhibit. The 2018 exhibit featured the closing of East Junior High School, also known as the “Old” Lincoln High. While considering what to choose for next season, an anniversary came to our attention: William F. Huffman purchasing the Grand Rapids Tribune. What about 100 years of Tribune History?
To start preparing for the exhibit, I needed to gain more background on the newspaper history of Central Wisconsin. I was surprised at just how many papers were circulating along our piece of the river. The first was the Wood County Reporter published by John N. Brundage in November 1857 (one year after the county was organized). Another newspaper was the Centralia Enterprise, a weekly paper started in 1879 by C.H. Clark. This paper would go on to merge with the Grand Rapids Tribune, which was created in 1873. The last new newspaper to come into existence was the Wisconsin Valley Leader, which began in 1902.
These newspapers all exchanged ownership multiple times, which came with name changes of the papers themselves. When the Centralia and Grand Rapids papers merged, their name became Centralia Enterprise and Tribune. Then when the two cities of Grand Rapids and Centralia merged and became Grand Rapids in 1900, the paper once again became the Grand Rapids Tribune. It really boggles my mind how much change happened with these papers! What a good way to track the changes going on in the city and county they were named after.
In 1919, the famed and fabled William F. Huffman from Rockford, Ill., moved to Grand Rapids after graduating from Beloit College.
William Ferdinand Huffman c. 1919
Huffman had already worked in newspapers. In high school, he served as a correspondent and reporter for the Denver Evening Times and Rocky Mountain News. He was the editor of his college newspaper, The Beloit Round Table.
He would leave college for two years which he spent as an ambulance driver for French forces before the United States joined World War I.
Upon graduation from Beloit in 1919, he made the move to Grand Rapids. In October of the same year, he purchased the Grand Rapids Tribune and the Wisconsin Valley Leader. By 1923, Huffman had purchased the Nekoosa Tribune, and discontinued all papers other than the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, which received its name in 1920, when it became a daily paper.
So, while the exhibit’s focus will be on the years between 1919 and 2019, one can’t help but take note of what happened leading up to the consolidation of the papers. In a time and place where radios weren’t common just yet, newspapers held all the power of the news, not just in the city or county, but state, national and international. As I type this in the digital era, it pains me to think of not being able to plug a question into an internet search engine and have the answer in under one second. What a time to be alive! The excitement of innovation is probably similar to what people in this region felt 100 years ago, when daily newspapers first arrived.
Photos by SWCHC Website Coordinator Angelica Engel
As we approach the end of our annual Christmas Tree Walk, here are a few images of the trees that so many people have seen around the Museum! You still have a chance to view them this evening from 4 to 8 pm, tomorrow (Saturday) from 12 to 4 pm, and Sunday also from 12 to 4 pm.