History

 

The City of Oconto Falls incorporated as a village July 3, 1903, with O.M. Saunders as its first president. In 1919, the village became a city, with William Munsert as its first mayor. In 1906, the first electric light service was installed. A powerhouse was constructed in 1910 for lighting the community, but it wasn't until 1932 that a hometown owned and operated utility was established. Oconto Falls Municipal Utilities is one of 82 municipally operated electric utilities within the state of Wisconsin. The utility became a proud owner and shareholder of Wisconsin Public Power Incorporated in 2001. They supply the electric energy consumed by municipal customers.

The area that became known as the City of Oconto Falls was first reached by John and Almira Volk and their family in October 1846. The Volks landed on the west side of the river just below the falls and started the construction of the first permanent structures in the community. Almira Volk described the land as being, "extremely beautiful with tall, stately pines stretching far up into the heavens upon all sides, while the River, clear as crystal, unmolested, glided along with the utmost complacency, then plunged over a rocky abyss, and went foaming away below."

The Volks built a sawmill utilizing the power of the river on the west side property. The first log was sawn in 1847. By the 1850's, the lumber industry became the community's main source of employment. It was reported that in the fall of 1871, the dry fall resulted in only a trickle of water running over the falls. That was the year of the Great Peshtigo Fire, which consumed the settlement of Oconto Falls, along with many others in the area. Only two homes and the sawmill were saved from the fire.

The power afforded by the falls is what first attracted settlers to the area. The falls were very beautiful, and travelers would go out of their way to stop and see them. In 1883, the falls were dynamited to facilitate the building of dams, as well as to eliminate the damage to timber driven further downstream to the mills at Stiles and Oconto. This destroyed the natural beauty of the falls. The first upper dam was built in 1902, and was constructed of wood.

In addition to the Great Peshtigo Fire, there were several notes of important structures sustaining damage from fires throughout the history of Oconto Falls. In the mid-1800's, the settlement's first saw mill was destroyed by fire, but was immediately rebuilt. The "Falls House", a local business, burned on May 14, 1881. In December 1907, the Falls paper mill was also destroyed by fire. In about 1924, the original Jefferson School building was hit by lightening and burned. And in 1957, the high school burned, with only the auditorium left standing.

Anton Gustin, an Austrian immigrant, arrived in Oconto Falls in 1906, bringing with him 20+ years of experience in the pulp and paper industry. In 1908, a new pulp mill was constructed using Gustin's improved sulphate pulping process. Oconto Falls became the location of the first commercial production of Kraft (brown) paper in the United States.

In 1909, the municipal water utility was established, providing village-wide domestic water service. Supplied by the aquifer underlying the community, water is currently pumped via three wells.

The community's first sewer system was constructed in 1910. In 1951, a sewage disposal plant was built for $165,000. The present-day system uses a citywide system of gravity flow sewers and force mains. The Utility did a system-wide upgrade, starting in 2006, which included rehabilitation of manholes and mains, as well as an upgrade of the plant itself.

The Franklin Street City Hall was first occupied in 1952. The 6,000 square foot structure once housed the offices of the city government, utilities, the police department, the fire department, the street department, and ambulance. Construction of the current 14,000 square foot municipal building began with a groundbreaking on April 29, 2000, and was completed on November 1, 2000.

In the 1980's when the rest of the state was relying on outside companies to provide them with cable TV, the City of Oconto Falls decided not to wait until cable television came to them. On July 13, 1981, the Water & Light Commission took matters into their own hands and voted to build the very first municipally owned and operated cable television in the state. In February 2011, Oconto Falls Municipal Utilities took another big step in improving cable and broadband services in Oconto Falls. Packerland Broadband is the current Cable Television and Broadband Telecommunications provider in Oconto Falls.