A BRIEF HISTORY OF KAUKAUNA
Excerpted from the article “Kaukauna: “Lion of the Fox” by Mary Grogan-Seleen which appeared in the Summer 1985 issue of Voyageur magazine]
Tumbling from Lake Winnebago to Green Bay, the lower Fox River falls almost 170 feet. A drop of over 50 feet in about one mile occurs at the place now known as Kaukauna. Over the years it has had many names: Kakalin, Cacolin, Cau Caulin, Kackaloo, Grand Kaukaulin, Grande Coquiller Rapides. The name derives from the Menomini word, Ogag-kane, meaning the stopping place of the pike or O-Gau-Gau-Ning, the stopping place of the pickerel. In any event the name refers to the abundance of fish the early inhabitants found in the river beneath the falls.
Reportedly, the first white explorer to see Kaukauna was Jean Nicolet, who pushed his birch bark canoe up the Fox River from Green Bay in 1634. Nicolet’s impressions of the area are not known, but Father Claude Allouez, the first missionary in this area was very impressed, noting in his diary: “On the 18th day of April, 1670, we made a portage which they call Kakalin. Our sailors drew the canoe through the rapids; I walked on the banks of the river where I found apple trees and vine stalks in abundance’.
For the next hundred years Kaukauna’s history was part of the history of the French in North America. Explorers, missionaries and fur traders, such as Hennepin, Marquette and La Salle, came and were forced to portage around the Grand Kakalin.
While Green Bay became the hub of the fur trading business of the area, Kaukauna was a major outpost. It was a day’s journey from the bay and at a point where river travel was interrupted by a long and difficult portage. A trading post was established at the foot of the Grand Kakalin rapids by Green Bay’s founding traders, Charles de Langlade and his son-in-law, Pierre Grignon, sometime before 1760. When Pierre died in 1795, his son, Augustin, took charge of the Kaukauna post. By this time Kakalin was a village of over 1,500 inhabitants, mostly Indians and French-Indian traders. Among those settled here was a family of Dan McCrea, a Scotsman married to a Menomini woman. McCrea’s daughter, Nancy, was born there in 1783. In 1805, Nancy and Augustin Grignon were married.
The first recorded sale of land in the state occurred at Kaukauna in 1793. Dominique DuCharme obtained a deed for 1,282 acres. His price was two barrels of rum, paid to Wabisipine and Le Tobacnoir. Over the years other Indians, claiming the land, received similar payment from Ducharme.
About 1800, Dominique’s younger brother, Paul, bought the land and trading post. He maintained the Kaukauna business until 1812 when the uncertainties of the war forced him to safer surroundings at Green Bay. The following year he sold a portion of the land, including Dominique’s cabin to Augustin Grignon.
Although he had business interests there and his wife and children were there, Augustin Grignon did not actually settle in Kaukauna until 1813; by that time his eldest son, Charles, was 5 years old. In 1816, he built a grist mil on his property and shortly thereafter, a sawmill. The Grignon hospitality was known by every river traveler. Albert Ellis of Green Bay called it:
“Almost princely hospitality. No man, woman or child ever met a frown at his door or went away hungry. He would invariably say, ‘only let us reach Augustin’s before dark and we shall be happy.’ His house was often crowded at night with travelers to the great inconvenience of himself and family, but the cordial welcome, the bland smile and the bountiful good cheer never failed, and all without fee or reward.”
The home that sheltered all those travelers was the cabin built by Ducharme. Grignon enlarged it and built warehouses and a store from which he continued trading with the Indians. As river traffic increased Grignon furnished wagons and horses to transport goods around the portage while the empty boats were pulled or pushed through the rapids. Because of his French-Indian background, he acted as an agent in dealings with the U.S. government and the Indians. He played a prominent role in the signing of the 1836 Treaty at Cedar Point, now Little Chute, in which the Menominee ceded over four million acres of Northeast Wisconsin to the government.
About 1830 Augustin and Nancy left Kaukauna for their holdings at Buttes des Morts. His sons, Charles and Alexander took over the business and family homestead. In 1837, Charles built his “mansion in the woods” near the old cabin. It was built as gift to his bride, Mary Elizabeth Meade, whom he married on January 1, 1837, in Green Bay. He continued trading and was also active in local politics, serving in several early town and county offices. Charles and Mary raised nine children in their home, which is maintained today as a historical site.
From 1822 to 1834, people of the Stockbridge and Munsee tribes lived at Statesburg, which was located on the south side of the Fox River along the rapids. The community operated under the watchful eye of officials of the Scottish Mission Society, the Presbyterian Church of North America, the Reverends Jesse Miner and Cutting Marsh. Miner arrived in the spring of 1828 with instructions to preach the Gospel, establish a school and promote goodwill among the natives.
A teacher at the school is said to be the first school mistress in the state. Electa Quinney taught several years there until she married a Methodist minister, Daniel Adams, in 1833 and left for the mission of the Great Plains.
Statesburg leading citizens include Electa’s brother, John, who was instrumental in the founding of the settlement; John Metoxen, elected leader of the Stockbridge in 1817; Jacob Konkapot and Hendrick Aupaumut, who both served in the revolutionary War.
Aupaumut, who received his captain’s sword from George Washington, had a distinguished military record and is cited in several War Department records. After the war, he was a government agent who helped negotiate treaties with other Indians tribes, served under general William Henry Harrison in his campaign against Tecumseh, and later with Harrison in the War of 1812. He chronicled events in the lives of his people and translated religious works and portions of the Bible into the native language.
Opening the Fox River to navigation and connecting it with the Wisconsin River had long been a dream of travelers and traders. In 1829 Morgan L. Martin of Green Bay began considering the project. Ten years later, as a territorial delegate, he obtained congressional approval for the project, but could not begin until Wisconsin became a state. In June 1851, three years after Wisconsin joined the Union; Martin’s crew of 500 workers began excavations at Kaukauna for the locks and dams system.
In March of that same year, the state legislature changed the name of the town from Grand Kaukalin to Kaukauna. Another act approved construction of a bridge at Kaukauna with George Lawe, David Meade, Lawe’s father-in-law, and Clark Knight heading the project. Lawe recorded his seventeen-block plat of the town in October. The following month, Alexander Grignon recorded a plat of a town he called Springville, located on the eastern end of the Grignon land, near a sulfur spring. He hoped to rival young Kaukauna. The site was thought to be ideal, being at the foot of the rapids and the transfer point for goods coming by boat from Green Bay to wagons to Lake Winnebago. Despite the immediate construction of several homes and a hotel, the town failed, as it could not compete with Kaukauna, where shops and homes were being rapidly built along Wisconsin Avenue to accommodate the canal workers.
The economic boom turned bust, as the canal was completed and workers moved on. Completion of the waterway in 1856 did little to change conditions and the vacant buildings, so recently completed, were bought and moved to become homes, barns, and storage buildings for the farms north of the town.
The coming of the railroad in 1862 held more promise for the town. It was after all on the main line of the Chicago and Northwestern between Milwaukee and Green Bay. Railway tracks from Manitowoc to Antigo were laid on the south bank of the Fox River in 1872. The Kaukauna Water Power Company organized in 1880 by officials of the Milwaukee, Lake Shore and Western railway platted the Village of Ledyard, in anticipation of great things to come. The following year, the northern office of the line moved from Manitowoc to Ledyard. Two years later the relocation was completed and the town had a population of almost 1,000. Ledyard had become a railroad boomtown. By 1890 the line employed almost 1,000 men and boasted a monthly payroll of over $30,000.
On June 20, 1884, a charter was granted the village of Ledyard. John Hickey was voted village president. At the first village board meeting committees were appointed, a seal adopted, licensees granted, school children ordered vaccinated, and money borrowed to pay current expenses.
Not all favored incorporation. Opponents expressed their concern in a five-point petition which was signed by about one-third of the voting population. It stated:
The population is largely transient, there being not to exceed fifty families having a fixed home; 2) That the business and industrial interests are mostly controlled by one corporation and while it is presumed the interest referred to is now and forever will be in harmony with the interested of the people, yet it is believed unwise to place the controlling power over a young and growing community within the grasp of a foreign corporation; 3) The village of Kaukauna, so called, though not incorporated, is situated near and immediately joins….that in fact the two places and people thereof are inseparably linked, their interests common and that to separate them by incorporating one, would be a great detriment to both, create a destructive rivalry and neutralize the energies of both; 4) That incorporation would heavily increase the cost of government; 5) That if incorporation is advisable in any case, by joining the two in incorporation, the expenses of government would be borne by a larger amount of assessable property.
The sentiment must have been shared by many on the northside as movement was soon underway to merge the two. The act of incorporation was passed by the state legislature in early March, 1885. News of it was reported in the March 5, Appleton Post.
This news was received with delight and celebrated with enthusiasm by people on both sides of the river…cannons were fired, whistles and bells were sounded, speeches were made, all testifying to the delight of the people… The corporate name of the united villages will be the City of Kaukauna. The act will be effective March 25 and officers elected two days later.
Once passed by the legislature, the act was sent to Governor Jeremiah Rusk for his signature. Rusk failed to sign it by the March 25 deadline, hence, Kaukauna became a city without the approval of the governor.
From the beginning there was trouble in paradise, as each side of the river claimed advantages over the other. The island created by the river and the power canal was seen as neutral territory and so David Brother’s Island Opera House, a converted roller rink, was the scene of the first city council meeting. The election of April 5, 1885, saw Colonel H.A. Frambach named the city’s first mayor. Aldermen were Michael Sullivan, John Jansen, John Beck, F. Kowalke, C.A. Walker, E. Michel, J.F. Langlois, E. Vandenberg, Dan McCarty and G.F. Steele.
Today, the blacksmith is gone, as are the flour and lumber mills and the hub and spoke factory. The trains no longer stop and Oscar Thilmany’s mill is the only paper mill in town. New businesses have taken the place of the old, but reminders of Kaukauna’s past are everywhere. The massive limestone buildings at the west end of the International Papers complex were built for other mills during the 1880’s and 1890’s. The businesses have changed, but the shops built by Otto Runte in 1874, G.W. Fargo in 1890, J.G. Fechter in 1887 and James Driessen still stand on Wisconsin Avenue. The south side business district has many of its early shops still standing; several looking much as they did when built.
Residential areas are still known by particular geographic or ethnic qualities. Strassburg on the city’s northeast side is named for the number of German families who settled there. The marshy land around High Street and Hyland Avenue is now filled in but people still live “across the marsh”. White City, a park on the northeast side takes its name from the homes in the area, many of which were built in the 1920’s by the Thilmany mill for its employees and painted white.
Across Crooks Avenue, stretching back to Kuttler’s Woods and Horseshoe Valley, is Conductor’s Hill or Yankee Hill. Homes in that area also date from the heyday of the railroad, but these were the homes with the green lawns and wide verandahs built by the railroad elite and the Ledyard professionals.
Kaukauna, once called the “Lion of the Fox”, has kept a firm hold on its history. As it enters the second millennium, that history will continue to shape and form its future.