History of Papermaking in the Valley

Photographed November 18, 2014
Erected 2010 by John Bergstrom
Neenah, Winnebago County, Wisconsin
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At its height in the mid-1900s, Wisconsin was the leader in paper production worldwide, with the Fox Valley and Fox River being the driving forces behind the state's achievement of this title. The Fos River drops 170 feet in 35 miles, creating hydropower -- a cheap and non-polluting form of electricity. According to an 1869 newspaper article, "the Fox River's capacity is beyond computation and there is no limit to the amount of machinery it is capable of turning." At one point, there were approximately 150 paper mills in Wisconsin, with the majority of them lining the Fox River. Papermaking's rich history took place predominately in the Fox River Valley, creating rapid growth and prosperity.

The first paper mill was built in 1848 in Milwaukee -- and Wisconsin did not become a state until three months later! The paper was made from rags, straw and wastepaper and was used to publish the first issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel & Gazette.

A plentiful supply of water is important in papermaking. This is why paper mills were built along the major rivers of Wisconsin: Fox, Wisconsin, Chippewa, Menominee, Peshtigo, Eau Claire and Flambeau. Forests were also very important because wood fiber was necessary in the papermaking process.

Neenah Paper Company opened in 1865. The mill made paper from cotton fibers, as others were doing at the time. At the end of the Civil War (1865), there was an increased demand for newspapers. The high cost of ragpaper was undesirable for disposable products of such high volume, so paper companies turned to the much cheaper wood pulp based manufacturing process.

The Keller groundwood process was created in Germany in 1844 by Friedrich Keller. He discovered that by pressing wooded sticks against a grindstone and adding water, it created small fibers suitable for papermaking. This process was beneficial to Wisconsin and the Fox Valley due to the plentiful supply of timber.

Prior to World War I, most paper mills were manufacturing newsprint. This changed with increasing demand for specialty paper production, such as book papers, tissue papers, toilet papers, napkins and blueprint paper.

The volume of products that paper companies were turning out took a significant drop during World War II when many factories were voluntarily converted to make war equipment. Frequently, paper companies accepted military contracts that requested them to make guns and munitions to help the war effort.

Each paper mill brought something new and important to the paper industry in Wisconsin. At one point, papermaking accounted for 60 percent of the non-farming jobs in Wisconsin and was the backbone of the state's economy. Having all the blessings nature could bestow and drive to use them, it was possible for the people of the Fox River Valley and Wisconsin to enjoy an abundant share of both the necessities and amenities of life. Paper was an important piece of our history!
Bergstrom | Legacy Park is located at the entrance to the Plexus Corporation plaza, at the west end of West Church Street, at its T-intersection with North Church Street, near 135 North Church Street, Neenah, Wisconsin 54956.

NOTE: The address for Plexus Corporation is 1 Plexus Way, Neenah, Wisconsin 54956

Legacy Park, located in downtown Neenah, Wisconsin, honors and illustrates a wealth of information on the origin, growth and importance of papermaking in the Fox Valley. The privately funded park was built around the existing base of the former Glatfelter / Bergstrom Paper Co. smokestack.

With the former Glatfelter / Bergstrom Paper Co. smokestack in the background.

The Church Street entrance to Bergstrom | Legacy Park.

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