Memories of Change

CVM’s Ralph Owen sequel recalls Eau Claire, 1920-1960

Megan Ault |

A person can live and work in a city for years and yet never really know much about its culture or history. The new book called The City Grows Up: Ralph Owen’s Eau Claire, 1920-1960 published by the Chippewa Valley Museum can correct this problem for those who are from the Chippewa Valley and yet know very little about its history.

This book includes 80 pages of material from the donated manuscript written by Ralph Owen. Dorothy Owen, his daughter-in-law, donated his manuscript to the Chippewa Valley Museum that contains over 2,000 typed pages including Owen’s thoughts and experiences in the city of Eau Claire. After the positive response to the first book published about Owen’s younger years, the museum decided to publish the second book.

The first book covers the period of 1884-1909, and includes funny stories and quaint descriptions of Eau Claire from a younger and more playful perspective. In contrast, the second book includes more history from the time period of 1920-1960. It also contains humorous moments from Owen’s life, but has a more serious tone with his adult views of Eau Claire.

Ralph Owen started writing the manuscript after the urgings of friends and family to write down everything he knew about the history of Eau Claire. He came from an influential and well-to-do family, which is reflected in the fact that Owen Park, Lake Owen, and the city of Owen, Wisconsin are all named after the family.

Owen and his father ran the John S. Owen Lumber Company, which he took over from his father in the 1940s. In addition to his business influence, Owen had a great weight in the undertakings of Luther Hospital, the Red Cross, and Eau Claire’s public library.



Frank Smoot, the editor at the Chippewa Valley Museum, explained that the second book shows Owen’s view of the diminishing beauty of the city of Eau Claire as the city chose to replace the pretty older and historic buildings with practical, concrete structures. In this book, Owen seems to question whether or not the growing industry in Eau Claire necessitated changing the city that way.

Smoot had the difficult task of selecting 80 pages from the manuscript for both books. One of the hardest parts was taking the collection of random facts and stories and putting them into a form that readers could follow.

In order to accomplish this task, Smoot said that he printed out sections of the book, spread them out, and literally arranged them together in a way that flowed. As can be imagined, this process entailed pieces of paper scattered throughout the entire room.

In addition to selecting the content of the book, Smoot also had to help choose from around 6,000 pictures for the books. Luckily, he received help from Eldbjorg Tobin, the Chippewa Valley Museum’s librarian. Some of the photos in the books have never even been published.

Smoot said that he feels that the photos are one of the charms of both books. He said, “Even without reading the book, you can get a sense of the town and its character through the pictures.”

Frank explained that the museum’s goal in publishing these books is to “tell the local story while also addressing the broader national history. Eau Claire’s story tells a similar story to small cities across the state and the nation.”

For people who want to learn a little bit more about the history and culture of Eau Claire, this book accomplishes that while also relating to the larger picture of the nation.