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.