The river of dreams

The real magic in any river town happens smack in the fascinating intersection of history and progress.

A paradoxical paradise, the river view changes with the current, and lasts a thousand years.

I thought about this earlier this week as I enjoyed a paddle boat ride through my river town, Appleton, Wisconsin.

Thanks to the steady river and young cities teeming with originality and ambition, the Fox Cities rose to prominence in the mid-to-late 1800s. John A. Kimberly, for instance, who attended a recently founded Lawrence University, formed a partnership with Havilah Babcock, a general store owner, Franklyn Shattuck, a traveling salesman, and C.B. Clark, a junior partner in a hardware store. In 1872, each man kicked in $7,500 to form the Kimberly-Clark Corporation and build the first newsprint mill in Wisconsin. That year, according to the Paper Discovery Center, the company operated one mill with a two-ton-per-day capacity, and by 1897, it owned 14 mills with a daily capacity of 150 tons.

For the next century and a half, the Paper Valley boomed, and the Fox River obediently powered it along. Along her banks sprung factories and the gorgeous homes of the people who ran them. The Hearthstone Mansion, the first house in the country to use electricity powered by a hydroelectric central power station, stands today as a proud testament to those glorious pioneers.

In recent years, the digital age has brought new challenges to the paper industry, though the Fox River itself, and many of the cities on her banks, continue to thrive.

A dredging project begun in 2008, cleaned up the water and, happily, the river responded with new life. Today, you can stroll along her banks, or kayak through her rapids, and see all manner of fish and water fowl. Eagles nest along her banks, and pelicans, geese and ducks play in the water.

Riverfront developments in Appleton have brought new life there as well. The mills built during the paper boom have been converted to much-needed housing. Powered entirely by the Fox River’s still active hydro-electric plant, River Heath, a mixed use complex featuring restaurants, a hotel, condominiums and apartments, enjoys clean, sustainable energy from a river that also offers an excellent view.

As my sister Kathy, my mom and I enjoyed a nice afternoon on the River Tyme Too Wednesday afternoon, I thought about all that powerful river had seen in her steady flow through Green Bay to Lake Michigan, and all she had yet to accomplish.

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Although I forgot to charge my camera battery and ended up working with just my cellphone,  I love this picture of the old Kimberly Paper Mill on the right, and the locks on the left as we approached on our river boat cruise Wednesday afternoon. Such a perfect example of the cool juxtaposition of history and progress here in the Valley.
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Human traffic on the river began with canoes, then came the steamboats, then, along each bank, came the railroads and them bowing across, came the highways. What’s next for this old river? I can’t wait to see.
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I’ve driven over this river a million times, mostly in a rush to get somewhere. It was cool to paddle slowly under the highway for a change of perspective and pace.
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The Cedars Lock, in Little Chute, is named for the 1836 Treaty of Cedars, under which the Menominee ceded 4 million acres of land (including all the land around the Fox River) to the United States for a total of $700,000. You can read more about that treaty, which occurred after six days of negotiations between Menominee Tribal Leaders (including Chief Oshkosh) and Wisconsin Governor Henry Dodge. Here’s the link.
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My sister Kathy invited my mom and me to join her on the River Tyme Too Wednesday afternoon. The cruise piqued my interest in both the history and the future of the Fox River.

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