Fox cities: Appleton history and fun facts

Fox cities Lawrence University

People in the Fox Cities were unimpressed with the original Bostonian designs for Lawrence University, so they decided to spruce the designs up a bit. Main Hall today. (photo: Dan Powers/ Post-Crescent)

DealChicken spends a great deal of time hunting and pecking around Appleton and the Fox Cities to uncover the best daily deals. Along the way, he’s managed to unearth some fascinating facts. From masters of deception to masters of magic, Appleton has been home to some colorful characters.

One of Appleton’s early founders, Eleazar Williams, claimed he was the “lost Dauphin”—the rightful heir to the French throne. Maybe it was royal blood that inspired him to devise a lofty plan to lead an empire based in Wisconsin. In the 1820s he led a host of Native Americans from New York to settle in the Fox River Valley. His plans to become their emperor kind of fell through, but he did succeed in accidentally establishing the future location of Appleton and the Fox Cities.

Local residents added a personal touch to Appleton from the very beginning. When the design for the city’s college building, Lawrence University, was sent from Boston, Wisconsin builders thought it lacked a certain je ne sais quois. To jazz it up a bit, they added a few gables—four, to be exact. According to one story, Mr. Lawrence was none too keen on their additions, but the college became a source of local pride all the same.

Many paper companies call the Fox River Valley their home. In fact, the valley boasts the world’s highest concentration of paper-related companies, with a whopping 80 plants and 90 publishing companies. This is commemorated at the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame, located in Appleton. Imagine how many paper airplanes that is!

Plenty of folks know that Houdini called Appleton home, but did you know that Appleton holds the secrets to some of his great tricks? AKA Houdini, an ongoing exhibit in the History Museum at the Castle, lets visitors get a first-hand taste of Houdini’s magic with hands-on activities. The exhibit won the 2005 American Association for State and Local History Award of Merit and has been featured on the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, the Arts and Entertainment Network and the BBC. How’s that for spellbinding?

The Fox Cities have bred their share of local and national heroes, and the most prominent might be John Bradley. An Appleton native and graduate of Appleton West High School, Bradley helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima and was immortalized in the famous photograph of that event. After the war he returned to Appleton and married his sweetheart, Betty Van Gorp. Today an Appleton clinic and scholarship for college-bound high school seniors bear his name and continue his legacy.

Appleton residents played a key role in preserving their city’s shocking heritage. Appleton was the home of the first commercial hydroelectric plant, as well as the first house in the world to be lit with hydroelectricity. That house, which later became known as the Hearthstone House, was set to be demolished by the city in 1986. A group of Appleton residents calling themselves “Friends of Hearthstone” raised enough money to save the house and then turned it into a museum where it continues to shed light on Appleton’s local history.

There’s no better place to go through the looking glass—or rather, to go looking for glass than the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum in Neenah. Evangeline Bergstrom bought her first antique paperweight out of the nostalgia she felt for a similar object that her grandmother owned. Her collection grew to more than 200 weights, which were displayed alternately in museums like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Neville Public Museum. When Evangeline died in 1959, she left her collection and home to the city of Appleton, and the museum was born.

The Appleton Fire Department sure has come a long way since its inception in 1854, when fire wardens were responsible for garnering volunteers any time they needed to put out a fire. In its early years, the fire department budgeted more than $800 to care for horses. Today the department operates six full-time career department districts with eight vehicles that respond to more than 3,000 calls each year—much more than the 89 calls that the department answered in 1895. Now that’s hot!

Apples? We ain’t got no apples. Contrary to the way it sounds, Appleton is not a town named for its fruit production. In fact, the city was known as Grand Chute until the construction of the local Lawrence College. The Methodist Reverend Reeder Smith, himself paramount in Lawrence College’s establishment, named the town in honor of Mr. Lawrence’s wife, Sarah Appleton. Later, Smith and Lawrence convinced Samuel Appleton, a wealthy Boston philanthropist, that the town was named for him in hope of receiving a donation for the college. They were successful, and Samuel donated $10,000 for the school’s library.

Before there were the Fox Cities, there was the fur trade. The Fox River played an important role as a channel for pioneers and fur traders alike. Today, the valley’s fur trading era is preserved in the Charles A. Grignon Mansion. Grignon built his mansion on the site of an early trading post as a gift to his Pennsylvania wife, Mary Meade. The mansion is staffed by costumed guides who transport visitors back to the time when Charles and his family lived there. Fur real!

Did you already know these facts about Appleton and the Fox Cities? Check out our round up of Green Bay trivia.