A Historical Geography of the Paper Industry in the Wisconsin River Valley
Weichelt, Katie Lynn
University of Kansas
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The paper industry, which has played a vital social, economic, and cultural role throughout the Wisconsin River valley, has been under pressure in recent decades. Technology has lowered demand for paper and Asian producers are now competing with North American mills. As a result, many mills throughout the valley have been closed or purchased by nonlocal corporations. Such economic disruption is not new to this region. Indeed, paper manufacture itself emerged when local businessmen diversified their investments following the decline of the timber industry. New technology in the late nineteenth century enabled paper to be made from wood pulp, rather than rags. The area’s scrub trees, bypassed by earlier loggers, produced quality pulp, and the river provided a reliable power source for new factories. By the early decades of the twentieth century, a chain of paper mills dotted the banks of the Wisconsin River. The paper industry helped to revive struggling sawmill communities in the region and, in some cases, created completely new settlements. Paper company executives, in fact, served as both employers and civic leaders. Operating under the principles of “welfare capitalism,” these leaders provided employees good wages and made generous gifts to local communities. This culture persisted for decades, but ended abruptly when local mills were sold. Using a variety of sources including, newspapers, maps, business records, and interviews, this dissertation examines the paper industry’s impact on three communities in the Wisconsin River valley: Nekoosa, Port Edwards, and Wisconsin Rapids. It examines factors that made the region attractive to paper manufacturers and discusses the entrepreneurial decisions that led to the creation of successful mills in each city. Later chapters investigate the industry’s impact on the material landscape of the three communities and how these places are coping with paper’s recent decline.
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