Eau Claire leaders opened a large new event space near the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers in hopes of sparking the rebirth of downtown.
Sound familiar? Of course it does.
But this story is not about the much-ballyhooed 2018 opening of Pablo Center at the Confluence.
Instead, the setting is 1919 and the opening of the Eau Claire Auditorium on North Barstow Street is expected to be a cornerstone in downtown’s renaissance after the collapse of the lumbering era that defined the community’s first half-century.
The auditorium, which held more than 2,500 patrons and hosted everything from movies and boxing matches to orchestras and political rallies, was one of a number of prominent construction projects from 1906 to 1926 that marked the city’s transition into a more diverse industrial age, author Brian Blakeley asserts in his newly published 401-page “A History of Eau Claire, Wisconsin — Volume II: The Manufacturing Age.”
“What I call the ‘first confluence project’ is kind of a symbol of the new Eau Claire that arose during this period,” Blakeley said in an interview last week. “It’s essentially a city that manufactures a variety of identifiable products.”
A century before the unveiling of what today is known as the Confluence Project — comprised of Pablo Center, Haymarket Landing and Haymarket Plaza — a more diversified project including public buildings, modern industry, shopping centers and entertainment venues took shape in the same neighborhood near where the two downtown rivers merge, Blakeley said.
Major structures built during that time included Farmers Store, Kline Department Store, the State Theatre, Hotel Eau Claire, Gillette Safety Tire Co., International Harvester Co., Carnegie Library, City Hall and the YMCA. It amounted to a rebuilding of an area previously dominated by Eau Claire Lumbering Co., rooming houses for transient workers and livery stables for the horses of the pre-automobile age.
“It’s this confluence project, which is completed in the 1920s, that reflects this new, more diverse Eau Claire that doesn’t really change much for about 40 years,” said Blakeley, 78, who grew up in Eau Claire before earning a doctorate at Duke University and spending most of his career teaching British history at Texas Tech University.
The parallel between the two confluence projects is one of the book’s fascinating revelations, said Carrie Ronnander, director of the Chippewa Valley Museum, which published the volume.
“We get caught up in life today and sometimes we don’t realize that things we think are new and different aren’t really so new and different after all,” Ronnander said.
In yet another case of history repeating itself, Blakeley reported that Eau Claire leaders in the 1920s, much like their successors today, cited a lack of housing as the city’s greatest obstacle to future growth.
Volume 2 of what Blakely intends to be a three-book series about the history of Eau Claire, generally covers the period from 1906 to 1951. Blakeley, who retired with his wife, Mary, to a family timber farm near Wheeler in Dunn County, said he hopes to complete the final volume, which would deal with the rest of the 20th century, over the next two years.
While Mary suggested her husband always needs a project to pursue in retirement, the researcher himself said he has always been surprised that nobody has written a comprehensive history of Eau Claire that attempts to put the city’s experiences in state and national context.
“Considering my background in history, I just thought someone should give it a try,” Brian Blakeley said. “I consider it our contribution to a city that has given a lot to us.”
With its focus on such landmark events as World War I, prohibition, women’s suffrage, the Great Depression and World War II, along with the rise of widely recognized companies such as Gillette (later Uniroyal), the second volume might have a wider appeal than the first, Mary speculated.
“These are things that some people have lived through or heard their parents talk about,” she said.
In one passage, Brian Blakeley wrote about how the end of prohibition in 1933 removed one of Eau Claire’s most divisive issues, although in practice the city already had abandoned the constitutional ban on the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. That year the city had 21 “soft drink” retailers, mostly operated in north Eau Claire, and the City Council was well aware that heavy window blinds hid illicit activities.
Federal agents conducted most major raids, such as the midnight assault in June 1931 on the “Midway” near Lake Hallie. In that case, the roughly 400 patrons simply emptied their glasses of whiskey and beer onto the floor.
“(The daily newspaper) The Leader reported that business returned to normal as soon as the agents left and the floors were mopped,” Blakeley wrote.
Blakeley relied heavily on newspaper archives, census records and city directories for his research.
Among the researcher’s conclusions that might surprise readers the most is that the Depression wasn’t as miserable in Eau Claire as in many other parts of the United States.
“I’m not denying there was a lot of hardship, but relatively speaking Eau Claire does reasonably well even in the Depression,” Blakeley said. “Most people still have jobs, and though wages may stagnate or even decrease, the city doesn’t come close to collapsing.”
As a result, he said, Eau Claire residents generally don’t endure the desperate level of deprivation that occurred in places such as North and South Dakota.
At the same time, Blakeley makes the case that the city’s former three-man commission form of government proved remarkably adept at obtaining state and federal funding for public works projects. Much of that money was used in the 1930s to pursue high-employment projects installing citywide curb and gutter and a modern sewage system that laid the basis for the community’s expansion in the post-World War II period. Blakeley called it a “New Deal” for Eau Claire, although he said it was the same deal experienced by cities throughout the country at the time.
Blakeley also maintained that the ethnic rivalries among German, Scandinavian and Irish immigrants that marked the lumbering era largely dissipated in the early 20th century as the melting pot worked its magic. A prominent example was that German and Norwegian churches largely moved to conducting services in English instead of the native language of the immigrant worshippers.
By the time of World War I, a period characterized by many modern historians as a time of hatred and discrimination especially in a heavily German state such as Wisconsin, “Eau Claire navigated the trauma of its ‘cousins war’ with relative calm and understanding,” Blakeley wrote.
Surviving ethnic differences still produced tensions, but his research indicated they seldom rose to the level of violence.
“World War I was a unifying force as much as it was a divisive event,” he wrote.
The book, released last week, is an important contribution to scholarly research about Eau Claire, Ronnander said, noting that it illustrates the steps the community took to reinvent itself.
“How do we go from a sawmill town to Uniroyal to what we are today?” Ronnander asked. “A lot of things happen along the way to make that happen, and this book allows people to see those things.”
For his part, Blakeley said Eau Claire embraced its new status as a more diversified manufacturing center than the river town founded as a lumbering community.
“The residents of Eau Claire took pride in the fact that they produced items that the state and nation needed and wanted to buy,” Blakeley wrote.
When the book ends in the early 1950s, Blakeley said, city leaders were already expressing concern about the future of industry in Eau Claire and starting to talk about the need for an even more diverse economy.
“You can see something of the handwriting on the wall,” Blakeley said, portending the decline of traditional manufacturing jobs that would plague Eau Claire and much of the rest of the nation in the years to come.