410 South Third Street    River Falls, WI 54022 715/425-3567 archives@uwrf.edu

History of River Falls, WI


Although this area of Northwest Wisconsin was originally inhabited by the Sioux and Chippewa tribes, the person credited as the first settler of River Falls is Joel Foster. Foster was drawn to the area in 1848 by its natural beauty and commercial possibilities. Soon thereafter a number of other Yankees, attracted for the same reasons, established themselves here. The settlement was known by other names, such as Kinnickinnic and Greenwood, before River Falls (downtown River Falls, 1880's) became the official name in 1858.

Milling played an important role in the early development of River Falls. Harnessing the areas natural resources, C.B. Cox erected in 1850 the first flour mill in the area at Clifton and built his second one in River Falls in 1854. The same year, Joel Foster opened the first sawmill. The rapid settlement necessitated other commercial activities, such as a dry goods store, a hotel, blacksmith shops and other service establishments. [More in Early Commerce and Industry.]

The River Falls Journal began publishing in June, 1857, under the editorship of Lute and Horace Taylor. They moved to Prescott in 1861, and the River Falls Journal was reestablished again in 1873. From 1874 to1883 there was a second paper, the River Falls Press. There was also the River Falls Times from 1894 to 1933.

Houses of worship flourished alongside commercial ventures. The First Congregational church was organized in 1855 and was soon followed by the Baptist and Methodist churches in 1857, the Episcopal in 1859, and the Catholic church in 1876.

Education and the Normal School

Education has always been an important part of the development of River Falls. In 1855, a school district was officially organized. The Academy, a college preparatory school, was opened in 1856. The building was bought in 1865 by the school district for $1,200 for use as a public school. The building burned in 1879 and a new school building was erected on the same site in 1880.

In 1887, the first group of students graduated from the newly established high school program. This second building was destroyed by fire in 1926, and rebuilt in 1927, and still serves as a school.

River Falls was selected as the site of the fourth Normal School in 1872. The structure was begun in 1874, and opened to students in September 1875. In 1897, this Normal School (original South Hall building, ca. 1875) building was ravaged by fire (remnants of Normal School building, 1897). The economic base of wheat growing and milling was gone and River Falls was in danger of losing the Normal. Because of the generosity of the businesses and churches in offering space to hold classes, only a half-day of school was lost due to the fire. This and the lobbying work of influential citizens convinced the Board of Regents of the State Normal Schools to have the school stay in River Falls. The present South Hall was erected on the foundations of the original building. It was ready for classes in September 1898. This has grown into the present UW-River Falls.

Early Commerce and Industry

A large amount of wheat (wheat field with farmers in River Falls, undated) was grown in the area around River Falls, in particular Mann Valley. The readily available waterpower attracted Yankee millers, who from 1850-1880 constantly rebuilt and modernized their mills to produce high quality flour on a commercial basis and reestablished River Falls as nationally known milling center.

At its high point, five mills were operating in the city. These include the Greenwood, Junction, Prairie Mill, which burned in 1916, the Cascade Mill, and further down the river, the Dayton Mill. This milling activity necessitated the shipping in of additional wheat and shipping out the flour. For this, a railroad service (River Falls Depot, ca. 1880) was established, with the opening of the River Falls-Hudson line, in October 1878. The railroad line was continued to Ellsworth in 1885. The use of automobiles and trucks (Oligney trucks and drivers at Lunds Hardware, downtown River Falls, undated) brought this railroad to an end in 1966.

The constant planting of wheat had depleted the soil, but wheat growing continued until a combination of droughts and cinch bug invasions, for three successive years, 1884-1886, put an end to wheat growing in the area. Thereafter, the ever increasing shipping cost from the westward moving wheat growing areas made the large scale commercial milling in River Falls economically unproductive.

The Junction Mill in its last years of operation had already used hydro-electrical power for some of its operations. After it burned, its location was the logical site for a municipal hydro-electrical power plant. This was built in 1900 and began operating on November 25th of that year. It expanded with the continual need for more and more electricity. In 1923, it began using diesel motor power and in 1948 began the purchasing of additional power. Today, it is still a municipally operated power plant.

After the demise of the milling industry, the residents of River Falls and the surrounding area had to find other forms of economic productivity. Two potato starch factories operated briefly as did a sewing factory. A brick factory in the 1890s supplied the bricks for building South Hall and a number of River Falls residences. Farmers ( in Pierce County farmers, unnamed and undated) who moved here from Southern Wisconsin introduced dairying soon after 1900, which necessitated the establishing of a creamery. Several pickle and sauerkraut factories lasted into the 1930s.

Also of significance was the Tubbs Medicine Company (Tubb's price listing, ca. 1906), started in 1881, by Thomas E. Tubbs. The company sold patent medicines regionally, shipping thousands of bottles to customers each year.

The influx of more settlers enabled a larger and more varied business community, with more hotels, the Gladstone with a wholesaler sample room, haberdasheries, barber shops, hardware and drug stores, groceries, garages, (employees of the Carisch Garage, downtown River Falls, ca. 1928) bakeries, millineries (storefront downtown River Falls, ca. 1900), butcher shops, laundries, saloons and livery stables.

After six major fires in four years, this prompted Editor George Merrick of the River Falls Press, to urge a volunteer fire department as early as 1878. Finally, on June 5, 1885, the new Common Council established the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company (ca. 1939).

Land to establish a park was purchased in 1898. Over the years, it received the popular name Glen Park because of the beauty of the Glen created by the South Fork coming into junction with the Kinnickinnic River, and enhanced by the waterfall created by the high dam of the Cascade Mill. Large halls, including the Opera House, made it possible for the presentations of traveling entertainment groups and later the showing of moving pictures. The present movie theater was built in 1927. In 1923, the River Falls Library Association was formed and a library was opened in the city.

The advances in the practice of medicine and surgery made the need apparent for the hospital. Various private hospitals were operated between 1916 and 1925, when the citizens voted to establish a municipal hospital. The city rented various vacant houses until 1928, when the city was given the Coggeshall house and surrounding land on Lewis and Maple Streets for that purpose. The Coggeshall house was used, until the city hospital, now the Ingram Center, was finished in 1938.

Of business established before 1900, those surviving in 1993 are the Freeman Drug Store, opened in 1872 by R.S. Freeman, and Lunds Hardware Store (1890), established in 1873 by A.W. Lund as a carriage and harness shop.

River Falls – 20th Century

The schools saw many changes over the years. The original school building, which was located on Fremont Street on the west side, burned in a spectacular fire in 1926. The building was rebuilt in 1927 on the same site. It would serve as the one public school building for the community until the 1950’s. At that time, post-war growth of the town brought crowded conditions to the school. In 1955, Greenwood Elementary School, on the east side of town on 8th Street, was opened. It was located on land that would be developed mainly by Herbert Cudd into the Falcon Heights addition. Further crowding occurred in 1960 with the closing of the one-room school houses in the area. It was too expensive for the small outlying districts to provide primary education for their students, so the schools closed and the students were then bused to bigger towns. The consolidation was to occur in 1962, but in order to secure bonds for a new high school, it was advantageous to have the outlying districts attach to the River Falls School District earlier, so they did so in 1960. A new high school, on 9th Street, was dedicated in 1962. Additional schools added to the district would be Westside Elementary School in 1970 and Rocky Branch Elementary School on the south side in 1991. Continued crowding in the 1990’s necessitated building a new high school on the south side, which opened in 2001. The old high school building on 9th Street was then converted to a middle school. The Renaissance School, a charter school that offered an alternative learning environment for students, was begun in the summer of 1998. It was initially housed at the Ames Teacher Education building on the university campus, but with the opening of the new high school in 2001, it was switched to the old middle school building on Fremont Street.

Technical education in River Falls was tied in with the public schools in terms of funding and structure. For several years, technical education courses were offered at the high school, usually in the evenings or on weekends. In 1965, vocational technical education in Wisconsin was revamped, resulting in various Vocational, Technical, and Adult Education (VTAE) districts. Pierce and St. Croix Counties were part of the VTAE District One out of Eau Claire. Pierce County then split off on its own, but then rejoined the Eau Claire district. Various counties in NW Wisconsin were also split off into other districts, which then eventually formed the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical District in 1971. That district would include St. Croix County. VTAE District One would later change its name to the Chippewa Valley Technical College. In the 1980’s-1990’s, the technical school in River Falls would have an administrative office housed in various commercial buildings, including a professional building located at 314 North Second Street and at a location at 715 North Main Street. With expanding programs and enrollment from this area, the need was evident for a stand-alone facility. This was accomplished with the opening in 1999 of the Chippewa Valley Technical College campus in River Falls, located on South Wasson Lane by the current location of the Moody car dealership.

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls would see tremendous changes in structure and growth in the 20th century. One of the biggest would occur in 1925, when the Regents would authorize the granting of the 4-year degree. This necessitated the name change to the River Falls State Teachers College. During World War II, enrollment dropped to just a few hundred students. However, the post-war boom years would swell enrollment to over 1,000 by the early 1950’s. The need for the state teachers colleges in the state to expand their educational offerings brought about the change in 1951 whereby the school could now award liberal arts degrees. Thus, the name changed to the Wisconsin State College-River Falls. In 1964, the school name was changed again, this time to the Wisconsin State University-River Falls, to reflect the addition of graduate degrees to the curriculum. The final name change would occur in 1971, with the merger of the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State University campuses into the University of Wisconsin System. The name then became the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Enrollment in the 1980’s would top 5000 students.

With the growing university, several new buildings were added to the campus over the years. At the turn of the century, the main building was South Hall (South Hall, ca. 1875), which had been rebuilt in 1898 after the 1897 fire (remains of South Hall building) destroyed the original building. In 1914, a second main building would open on campus, North Hall (undated). A training school addition to North Hall was added in 1928. The first dorm for students, Hathorn Hall, would open in 1951. The Chalmer Davee Library (south view, 2006) would be completed in 1954 and dedicated in 1955. The 1960’s and 1970’s saw an explosion of new buildings, including several dorms, Hagestad Student Center, Karges Gymnasium, Rodli Commons, the Wall Amphitheatre, Hunt Arena, Kleinpell Fine Arts, and the Centennial Science Hall.

Dean Irma Hathorn placing cornerstone in Hathorn Hall. December 11, 1950
Hathorn Hall, ca. 1960
Dean Irma Hathorn placing cornerstone in Hathorn Hall. December 11, 1950
Hathorn Hall, ca. 1960


One building that went up during the growth spurt of the 1960’s was a new campus school, the Ames Teacher Education building. It would house a K-9 school on the campus, as a companion to the teacher education program the university offered. The program was scaled down to K-6 in the early 1970’s. The school would close in the early 1980’s, the last of its kind in the state. The building itself was razed in 2004, to make way for a new student union.

For more on UW-River Falls campus buildings, visit What's in a Name?

Transportation would change dramatically in River Falls in the next century. The automobile would be to the 20th century what the train was to the 19th century. In the early 1900’s, various automobile dealerships would start up, including the Ramer Garage, which was a Ford dealership. Moody’s would open in 1940, on the corner of Main and Maple Streets. It would relocate to its present site on Cascade and Wasson Lane in 1971. The train would faithfully serve the city up through the World War II era. After that time, passenger service would be stopped, with just freight service continuing. However, with decreased need, the freight service was discontinued in 1966 and the tracks were ripped up shortly after that.

River Falls school bus, 1944
Woman in automobile. Mead Special Collections, ca. 1955.
River Falls Truck Transfer Company, undated.
River Falls school bus, 1944.
Mead Special Collections, ca. 1955.
River Falls Truck Transfer Company, undated.
Special Collections Photograph, ca. 1910.


There were several civic improvements in the city during the 20th century. Glen Park had been established in 1898. A beautiful suspension footbridge over the South Fork of the Kinnickinnic River would be built in 1925. A pool would be added to the park in the 1930’s. The original construction of the pool started as a Civilian Works Project in 1933. Funding under the WPA would come and go, so the pool’s progress would start and stop. The pool was finally completed in 1937.

Another civic improvement was the establishment of a public library. In the early 1900’s, the River Falls Tuesday Club, a social and civic group composed of area women, helped to establish a library in the city. The quarters of the library were not ideal, and in 1958, a beautiful new library was opened, as part of a new city hall complex on Elm St. The library would stay in that location until 1997, when the library would move to a beautiful new building on North Main Street, in the location formerly occupied by the River Falls Area Hospital.

In 1971, the first subsidized housing for the elderly, Riverview Manor, would open on North Main Street. Additional elderly housing would be built later on in this same location.

Economic development in River Falls would become a focus after World War II. In 1950, the River Falls Industrial and Civic Development Corporation was formed. A main purpose of the group was to increase the business base in the city. The group had been formed after the Lang Overall Factory was destroyed by a fire in March of 1950. The Lang factory had been in River Falls since about 1930. Seeing how one large employer’s disaster can affect a community, the group’s purpose was to help the Lang factory rebuild and to attract new businesses to town. The Lang factory did rebuild, on a site on the west side of town, where it would be known as Langwear. The group was also successful in getting Erickson Industries to relocate from Roberts to River Falls in 1956. A new building was built on the north end of River Falls to house the Erickson Industries plant and they moved here at the end of the year. The plant would later be called Vollrath Refrigeration and then Kolpak. The plant would close in 2005.

Other major manufacturing interests in River Falls included Smead’s and UFE. Smead’s, based in Hastings, Minnesota, opened the River Falls plant in 1945. It produced office supplies, such as folders. The original plant was on Main St. in the business district. The plant moved to a site north of the city in 1978, in a new industrial park area. It closed its operations in River Falls in 2004. Another company that came in the mid-1960’s was the St. Croix Corp., which would later be known as Kroy Industries and then UFE. The parent company was and still is based out of Stillwater, Minnesota. It operates plants in that location, as well as the River Falls plant, and one in Dresser. The company manufacturers plastics.

Medical care in River Falls would be greatly improved in the 20th century. The City Hospital, situated on a hill just over the Maple St. bridge on the west side, was built in 1939. The River Falls Medical Clinic was established in 1942. The clinic originally had a spot on Main St in the business district- 106 South Main Street (now Bo's N Mine). The clinic would move to its new facility on the corner of Spruce and Locust streets in 1963. It would remain there for close to 30 years. St. Joseph’s nursing home, built in 1961, would add a hospital onto its structure in 1962. In 1975, the hospital would change from public to private ownership and thereafter be called the River Falls Area Hospital. The nursing home was operated as the Kinnic Home. The old City Hospital on the west side of town was closed and all services merged into the facility on Main St. in the later 1970’s. The City Hospital building was razed in 2008 to make way for the new City Hall. In the early 1990’s, the need was evident for more space for these facilities. In 1991, the new River Falls Medical Clinic would open on East Division St. In 1992, the hospital would also move to this location, as part of a shared facility. A new Kinnic Home was also attached to this group of buildings.

Farnsworth House on the SE corner of Cedar and Winter Streets.  Once served as River Falls city hospital, 1916-18. Nurses from the River Falls Clinic, 1948.    
Farnsworth (or Oligney) House on SE Cedar and Winter Streets, served as city hospital from 1916-1918. Nurses from River Falls Clinic, 1948.    


The 1970’s saw growth continuing in the city. Several new residential developments went in, including Falcon Heights 4th edition on the east side and River Hills on the south side. A new bridge over Maple St. across the Kinnickinnic River would be completed in 1974. In 1976, Heritage Park was dedicated, next to the bridge. This was done at the time of the nation’s bicentennial, which was quite fitting.

A large, new grocery store opened on the south side in 1980 when Applebaum’s came to town. It switched to the IGA affiliation in 1982. The Erickson’s store on the northern end of Main St. would relocate to southern end of Main St. in 1984. It reopened in a whole new mall, called Riverside Square. The store changed its name to More 4, to reflect the new and improved store. The new stores though would signal an end to others in the 1980’s. The Malmer’s Red and White grocery, which had stood on the corner of Main and Walnut streets for decades, would close in 1982, along with Isaacson’s Super Valu (closed 1985) and the Red Owl store (closed 1990).

Two major banks in town would move to new, larger buildings in 1974. The First National Bank would relocate from the middle of Main St. south to a new location next to the Holiday station store. The River Falls State Bank would relocate from the corner of Main and Elm streets to Second St., between Elm and Walnut.

River Falls has had various community festivals throughout the years, such as Town and Country Day and Old Fashioned Bargain Days. River Falls Days, the festival that includes business sidewalk sales, royalty coronation, a street dance, and other events, got its official start in 1974. The yearly festival continues into 2005.

[Compiled by Ursula Petersen and Stephanie Zeman, 1993; 20th Century compiled by Stephanie Zeman, 2005; corrections and additions by Dan Geister, 2009]