The first recorded inhabitants of the Menominee River Basin were a small Algonquin tribe known as "the wild rice people." Journals of seventeenth and early eighteenth century explorers describe a tribe of forty to eighty men living in a single village at the mouth of the Menominee River. By the early 1820s, the Menominee numbered about 500 men, and were scattered throughout a dozen villages in Wisconsin. Between 1670 and the early 1800s, various explorers, fur traders and missionaries visited the area as they passed by on the water routes of Green Bay and the Menominee River.
The first known white settler on the Menominee River was Stanislaus Chappu, or Chappee, a French-Canadian fur trader who operated a log trading post at the site of Marinette between 1794 and 1824. Another fur trader, William Farnsworth, arrived at the Menominee River Basin in 1822. Two years later he usurped Chappee's position as the area's fur trader as he forcibly ejected Chappee from his trading post with the help of nearby Chippewa Indians.
Farnsworth and his Native American common law-wife, Marinette, after whom the city is said to have taken its name, operated the trading business from the log post for several years. Farnsworth's companion, who was sometimes referred to as Queen Marinette, acquired considerable skill in managing the fur trading business. Marinette became virtually solely responsible for the business, as Farnsworth began to devote time to other pursuits. Farnsworth associated with Charles Brush in a business venture, which marked the beginning of a new industry that would dominate the Menominee River Basin for the next fifty years. In 1832, the partners erected a water-powered sawmill at the foot of today's North Raymond Street.
A second sawmill was constructed on the river in 1841, which was followed by several more in the next few years. In 1856, the New York Lumber Company built a steam-powered sawmill at Menekaunee, now Marinette's east end. A small community of boarding houses began to grow around each of the mill centers. The need for lumber to build the fast growing cities of Milwaukee and Chicago, along with the large expanse of available timber in the pine stands near Marinette, provided the impetus for major sawmilling activity along the Menominee River. Realizing the enormous potential of the Menominee River pineries, Eastern lumbermen began to exploit the region's white pine resources.
Statue of Isaac Stephenson
Isaac Stephenson arrived in Marinette in 1858, when he purchased a quarter interest in the North Ludington Lumber Company sawmill. Over the next sixty years, Stephenson became a town supervisor, county board chairman, justice of the peace, member of the state legislature, a U.S. Senator, publisher of the Milwaukee Free Press, instigated the construction of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, and owned iron mines in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He donated the Stephenson Public Library to the city, built the Stephenson Block, the Lauerman Brothers Company Department Store, and founded the Stephenson National Bank.
As lumbering prospered, so did Marinette. In 1853, the population was 478; by 1860 the number of people in the growing community had reached 3,059. Between 1890 and 1900, the population soared from 7,710 to 16,195. Marinette's lumber boom reached its zenith about 1895. Two dozen sawmills lined the Menominee River, and other lumber related businesses prospered in Marinette, including sash, door and blind factories, planing mills and box factories.
Marinette was incorporated in 1887, and by 1900, was the tenth largest city in Wisconsin. It had a new courthouse, city hall, opera house, two hospitals, a street railway, more than a dozen hotels and boarding houses, thirty saloons, and major industries, including the Marinette Iron Works, Marinette Flour Mill, the A.W. Stevens farm implement company, and the M & M Paper Company.
As the lumber boom period began to fade, the once prosperous sawmills began to close, and most of the sawmill related buildings were either razed, dismantled and moved or burned in fires and not replaced. The last Menominee River log drive occurred in 1917, and the last lumber company sawmill closed down in 1931.
Excerpts from a 1990 study of the Surviving Architecture of a Menominee River Boom Town, © 1990, 1996, City of Marinette, Wisconsin.