Thanks for Asking | Jan. 12, 2012

our local Jack-of-all-Facts tells you how it is

I now live on Eau Claire’s northside hill and am curious about its character. Did people get together as neighbors? Did Mount Tom have an active part? Also, I’ve heard Mount Tom was a Native American sacred site with a listing on a historic registry. Any truth to this?

Thanks for asking! The north side hill has always been a working-class neighborhood, and for decades its workers worked right there. From the 19th century, for example, the site where Banbury Place now sits had one of Eau Claire’s largest lumber mills. That 64 acres later held Gillette Tire and later Uniroyal, by far Eau Claire’s largest employer for decades. In fact, as late as 1960, five of Eau Claire’s six largest manufacturing plants, including the paper mill, sat on or adjacent to the northside hill. It’s no accident that the two sites for the labor temple over the years have been West Madison and later Birch Street.

It also started as an immigrant neighborhood in the 1870s and 80s, and remained so through the Hmong resettlement in the 1970s and 80s. Erin Street (Irish), Germania Street (German), and Norse Street (now Putnam Street, Norwegian) acknowledged three places neighbors hailed from. A substantial Polish population also filled the neighborhood. Sacred Heart School, near the present-day Eau Claire Academy, taught a lot of German and Polish kids. Like many immigrant neighborhoods, it was crowded, and especially crowded with kids.

In the 1890s, as many kids lived on the north side as on Eau Claire’s east and west sides combined. As far as I know, people got along all right for the most part (better than in the “bloody ninth” ward anyway), but there were tensions, particularly between the Germans and Poles, which shouldn’t be a surprise.

I’ve always gotten the feeling that, for recreation, McDonough Park and Davis Beach (not far from the Legion Hall on Starr Avenue) were more important to northsiders than Mt. Tom. Scenic for sure, and great for hikers and Tom Sawyers, Mt. Tom gives something up to the other two for picnics or playing. A lot of times, kids made their own fun along the Eau Claire River or the banks of Dells Pond, where you could light the gas jets hissing through the pond ice.

As for Mt. Tom being a sacred Indian site, it would surprise me a little. For generations, the Eau Claire River and its confluence with the Chippewa was a kind of demilitarized zone. A lot of game (deer and elk mainly) ran the riverbanks – of course, many deer still do, as you know if you live on Bellevue or Ball streets: we’ve even named a few of them: Hi, Sweet Pea, Hortense, Lauralone! – and that made the area good hunting, and that made it a flash point between the Ojibwe to the north and the Dakota to the south and west. In fact, the Eau Claire River became a U.S.-government-recognized border between the two nations in the 1825 Treaty of Prairie du Chien. So, anyway, neither the Ojibwe nor Dakota gave a lot of time to sitting around here.

I guess the only Ojibwe sacred site I’ve heard about in what’s now Eau Claire is the Treaty Oak, or Council Oak. The UWEC campus grew up around that tree and fashioned its official seal from an image of it. The Ojibwe (and I’m sure the university community, too) felt a sharp pang of loss when lightning struck it in 1966.

Got a local question? Send it (17 S. Barstow St.) or email it (mail@volumeone.org) and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 43 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.

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