Telling the Whole Story: Eau Claire Native Writes First Volume of City History
Brian Blakeley may have just published an account of Eau Claire’s early history, but his own name has literally been part of the city’s history for decades: His grandfather’s farm on the south side of Eau Claire was subdivided in the middle of the 20th century, and Brian Street was named after him. Nearby, you can drive down Blakeley Avenue.
Considering you can find his first and last names on city street signs, maybe it was fate that drew Blakeley to write A History of Eau Claire, Wisconsin – Volume I: The Lumbering Era. More likely, however, it was a combination of Blakeley’s professional calling and his desire to do meaningful work in retirement.
Blakeley grew up in Eau Claire, graduating from Memorial High School in 1958 and Eau Claire State College (now UW-Eau Claire) in 1962. Later, after earning a Ph.D. in Modern British Imperial History, he spent 35 years teaching, most of it at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. In retirement, Blakeley and his wife, Mary, moved back to the region – they live on an old family farm near Wheeler – and Blakeley set about looking for something to do. In addition to maintaining the timber on his property, he got to work on a history of the United States as seen through the lives of his own and his wife’s families. That book, Ordinary People: A Study of Our Blakeley and Mierow Ancestors in America, won an award from the Wisconsin Historical Society in 2015 as the best family history of the year.
Next, he decided to tackle a project that was both broader and narrower in scope: a comprehensive history of his hometown. “A decent history of Eau Claire was something that had to be done,” Blakeley said, noting that most of what has been published about the city’s history is dated or incomplete. “I got the idea that it was time to write one.”
Blakeley’s professional speciality has been British history, which allowed him to come at the history of Eau Claire with the fresh eyes of an outsider (albeit one who was born and raised in the city).
The first volume of what Blakeley intends to be a three-volume series was published late last year by the Chippewa Valley Museum. The book traces the history of the community from the first British and French interactions with Native Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries to the end of the logging era at the dawn of the 20th century.
Blakeley relied heavily on contemporary accounts, specifically newspapers of the era, in researching the book. Despite their biases, they were invaluable in providing details about Eau Claire, particularly its political development. Eau Claire was a city divided along ethnic lines, Blakeley explained, but for the entire era described in the book it was politically dominated by the earliest Yankee settlers and their descendants: people of English ancestry who moved to the Chippewa Valley in the mid-1800s from New York and New England. They provided the city with its mayors, its major industrialists and business leaders, and its Protestant clergymen. While Irish and Canadians were also among the early settlers, and many Germans and Norwegians came later, these people weren’t strongly unified within their own groups, let alone across ethnic lines. “They’re never able to really break the power of the first group,” Blakeley said.
The book is full of rich detail of the community’s history, telling the stories of individuals who modern Chippewa Vallians may have heard of (such as entrepreneur Adin Randall and lumber baron Daniel Shaw) and many more who are fascinating but more obscure (like Selim Hobart Peabody). It describes how three villages divided by rivers – the north, east, and west sides were originally separate villages – eventually consolidated into one city in 1872, and how that water was literally the driving force behind the city’s economic success, carrying with it millions of logs from northern pineries to the city’s sawmills.
During his research, Blakeley reached some interesting conclusions about this era. For example, Eau Claire’s reputation as “Sawdust City” may be overstated: “I never saw Eau Claire referred to as ‘Sawdust City’ before the early 20th century,” he said. While lumbering was definitely the city’s dominant industry, by the 1880s – the peak of the lumber era – Eau Claire’s output had fallen far behind the likes of Minneapolis, Winona, and La Crosse. In 1888, for instance, only four of the 50 largest mills in the Upper Mississippi region were in Eau Claire.
What’s most important about lumbering, Blakeley explained, is not that it became a permanent industry, but rather that it allowed Eau Claire to survive and generate wealth that was re-invested in other industries. The second volume of Blakeley’s trilogy, which he expects to publish within a couple of years, will detail the city’s role as a manufacturing center well into the mid-20th century. After that, Blakeley intends to tell Eau Claire’s story up through the present day. In doing so, he’ll have put himself on metaphorical map as well as the literal one.
A History of Eau Claire, Wisconsin is available at The Chippewa Valley Museum in Carson Park and at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire.