Posts Tagged ‘Wisconsin’

Eighty years ago, Rudy Wendelin was a young artist fresh out of the University of Kansas School of Architecture struggling like many others to find work during the Great Depression. Relief came in 1933 when he applied for a job in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, under the new Civilian Conservation program launched that same year. Wendelin got the job, a position as a draftsman with Region 9 of the U.S. Forest Service, and immediately began turning out various artwork, signs, displays, publications, architectural drawings, and much more for the agency. By 1936 the local newspapers were referring to him as “the Ding Darling of the United States [Forest] Service” after the famed cartoonist Jay Darling. Within four years Wendelin would be promoted to the Forest Service’s national office in Washington, DC, and go on to become well known as the primary artist and “caretaker” of Smokey Bear. His time in Milwaukee working on CCC projects, though, was a crucial step towards this future career success.

During his final year working for Region 9, Wendelin drew a series of sketches depicting the forestry work of the CCC that were used in an instructional pamphlet given to enrollees. Woodsmanship for the Civilian Conservation Corps, published annually from 1937 to 1941, served as a guide to using various tools, basic first-aid, poisonous plants and insects, and an introduction to conservation and forestry. Some of the artwork was also used in other CCC materials, like recruitment flyers. The cover image captures the spirit of the CCC then and the perception of it today—the strapping young man made strong from the work and smiling with gratitude for the opportunity.

“The mountains and forests of this country may seem a wilderness to those of the Civilian Conservation Corps who come from the cities and farms,” read the pamphlet’s text. “Experience in the C.C.C. . . . will, however, call for what is known as ‘Woodsmanship’ – the ability to live and work safely, conduct yourself in accordance with your surroundings, and adapt yourself to your environment. No one can be taught woodsmanship out of a book, but here are a few traits of a good woodsman.”

View selections of Wendelin’s CCC art from Woodsmanship below, and consult the Rudolph Wendelin Papers in the FHS archives for further information.

CCC artUsing the Shovel, CCC artwork.
Fighting Fires, CCC artwork. lookout tower art.
Carrying the Crosscut, CCC artwork.
Carrying the D.B. Ax
Felling Trees, CCC artwork.Drill Ye Tarriers
Holding the Ax
Planting Trees, CCC artwork.
Always Break your Matches
Dragon art.

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On this date in 1894, a group of men with water and property rights along the Wisconsin River reached a monumental agreement. The group decided to combine their holdings in order to build dams and consolidate water power in the area around Grand Rapids and Centralia (the two towns would later merge to become Wisconsin Rapids). The formal articles of organization were officially signed and dated twelve days later, and the Consolidated Water Power Company was born.

Consolidated Articles of Organization

Consolidated Water Power Company, 1894 articles of organization (click to read full document).

The early years of the company were wracked with disagreements over the allocation of funds, and it wouldn’t be until after the turn of the century that the ultimate direction of the company would emerge. The company’s success would eventually be found in papermaking, a shift in focus which can largely be attributed to George W. Mead.

Born in Chicago in 1871, Mead graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1894, the same year Consolidated was formed. Mead was drawn into the company in 1902 by his ailing father-in-law, Jere Witter, a banker who owned considerable shares in Consolidated. Following Witter’s passing that year, Mead arrived in Grand Rapids to temporarily assist the company. Originally planning to stay in the area for only two weeks, Mead ended up as a resident of Grand Rapids and a permanent fixture in Consolidated’s company history.

Along with Nels Johnson, manager of the Grand Rapids Pulp and Paper Company mill in Biron (and another shareholder of Consolidated), Mead helped lead a new project: the construction of a large paper mill along with a planned dam on the Wisconsin River. The new Grand Rapids dam with attached paper and pulp mill was completed in 1904, beginning its operations with the world’s first electronically powered paper machines. By that time the company’s name had already officially changed to Consolidated Water Power & Paper Company (the name would later change again to Consolidated Papers, Inc.), Mead had taken over permanent direction, and business was on the verge of taking off.

While the company experienced major growth over the following decades, accessible pulpwood supplies in the area eventually began to dwindle. In 1930, Stanton Mead (George’s son) attended an American Forestry Association meeting in Minneapolis to learn more about the growing field of forestry.  There he met a forester named Emmett Hurst and came away impressed.

A few months later, Stanton Mead hosted a private forestry conference at his family’s fishing camp in Markton. Mead invited several notable figures in the field of forestry to the August 1930 gathering, including renowned forest researcher Raphael Zon, Forest Products Laboratory head Cap Winslow, and regional forester E.W. Tinker.

Mead Forestry Conference

Mead Forestry Conference, August 1930. You’ll find a report of the conference in the list of further readings below.

Mead used the assembled group to help determine the best direction for a potential forestry policy for his company. Zon advocated both buying second-growth forest land and adopting more sustainable partial-cutting practices (rather than the clear-cutting practices still widely used at the time). Mead took the advice to heart and decided to adopt a formal forestry program for Consolidated.

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On this date in 1871, the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and several smaller surrounding communities were obliterated by fire. The “booming town of 1700 people was wiped out of existence in the greatest fire disaster in American history,” according to the memorial marker that still stands in Peshtigo as silent sentinel watching over the graves of more than 1,100 of the fire’s victims. The fire, which destroyed more than $5 million in property and 2,400 square miles, was overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred the same day and annihilated that city’s core. News of the Peshtigo fire didn’t even reach the state capital for two days. And when it did, Wisconsin’s governor was in Chicago with other state leaders trying to aid that stricken city and had to hurry home to help his own constituents.

Though still little known by the general public today, Peshtigo looms large in forest history and fire history circles. For example, several articles in the Fall 2008 issue of Forest History Today reference Peshtigo as an example of fire in the wildland-urban interface, and one looks at it in the context of wildfire and civil defense.

To mark the 140th anniversary, we have just finished processing a related archival collection, the Peshtigo Fire Centennial Collection, 1970-1990. In 1970, the town held a commemoration event marking the centennial of the fire. The new collection features event programs, commemorative items, publications, letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other materials. A few things that caught our eyes were the commemorative stickers and the postage cancellation mark, which you can see on the finding aid page, and a bumper sticker and wooden coins. All materials were kindly donated by Karl W. Baumann.

Peshtigo Centennial bumper sticker

Peshtigo Centennial bumper sticker (click to enlarge)

Peshtigo Fire commemorative wooden coins

Peshtigo Fire commemorative wooden coins

Artist's rendering of Peshtigo Fire.

Artist's rendering of Peshtigo Fire approaching a Wisconsin farm (FHS2525).

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On this date in 1915, what is believed to be the world’s first forest patrol flight was made at Trout Lake, Wisconsin. Aviation pioneer and wealthy Chicago sportsman Logan “Jack” Vilas made the initial flight in order to demonstrate the viability of using aircraft in fire prevention. Wisconsin’s Chief Forester Edward Griffith hired him but Vilas refused pay, saying that he wanted only a salary of “many thanks.” Vilas flew almost daily in July and August as a flying fire warden over the forests of Wisconsin. His 1929 memoir, My Life To My Children, tells this story and many other adventures of this colorful character. It had fallen out of copyright before Mary J. Schueller edited and self-published it in 2007.

In 1913, at around age 32, Vilas decided he wanted to become a pilot. Till then he had been a racing car enthusiast. He set his sights on a flying boat and traveled from the Midwest to Hammondsport, New York, to see Glenn Curtiss and purchase a plane for $7,000 ($157,000 in today’s money). While waiting for it to be built, he took flying lessons at Curtiss’s flight school and earned Hydroplane Pilot License No. 6 from the American Aero Society. He had his plane shipped to Chicago by rail. Six weeks later, and with only a few hours of flight time under his belt, he became the first person to attempt and complete a 63-mile flight across Lake Michigan. He did so with no compass or flight instruments.

Curtiss Flying Boat

Jack Vilas's Curtiss Flying Boat

In 1915 Vilas shipped his flying boat to northern Wisconsin, where he had a summer home, to conduct an experiment. On June 29, 1915, he “took Chief Forester Edward Griffith for a ride to demonstrate how easy it was to spot forest fires by air.” Impressed, Griffith had the Wisconsin Conservation Commission appoint Vilas as a flying fire warden, the first in the world. Vilas flew his surveillance missions from the forestry headquarters at Trout Lake in Boulder Junction. (A historical marker was placed at that spot in 1955.) News of Vilas’s work quickly spread; American Forestry magazine had an article about it in their September 1915 issue. The use of aerial detection to spot and report forest fires—dubbed the “Wisconsin Plan”—soon became a vital tool in fighting wildfires in many forested countries.

By 1917, the Wisconsin Plan had been adopted throughout the United States and was beginning to spread around the globe. The U.S. Forest Service joined with the Army Air Service in 1919 to introduce aerial fire patrols over national forests. The first missions were in California. According to Radio for the Fireline, the rumor that each plane was equipped with a telescope and machine gun proved a powerful deterrant to arson—the number of fires on the Cleveland National Forest decreased for awhile (p. 15). But personnel shortages compounded by shrinking War Department budgets cast doubt over the Air Service’s involvement at the beginning of each of the next six fire seasons. Among some foresters, reviews of the tool were mixed. Not as many fires were first spotted by the air patrols as hoped, and the lack of wireless radios for communication between pilot and ground crew slowed the fire reporting process down significantly. And yet after one season the Forest Service declared it a “huge success” (Radio, p. 16).

In 1925, Secretary of War John Weeks (yes, that John Weeks) ended the program, telling the Forest Service it was time to turn patrols over to commercial operations. Having already purchased some planes, though, the Forest Service conducted their own patrols for two more years before contracting out the operation as Weeks had recommended in what is surely one of the first incidents of government outsourcing. (See Maurer’s Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919-1939, 131-138, for more on this.)

Vilas Flying Boat (WHS)

Jack Vilas (seated) in the Curtiss hydroplane he used to spot forest fires, 1915 (photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

So break out your silk scarves and goggles to celebrate those daring young men in their flying machines. Watch as they take wing over our national forests in this photo gallery. For you armchair travelers, you can read about Wisconsin’s historical marker effort in our old journal here.


Forest patrol planes flying in close formation, Olympic National Forest, Washington, 1921. (FHS3730)

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