5 Things to Know About the Roaring ’20s in the Chippewa Valley

Tom Giffey |

The Eau Claire Coffee Co., a roasting business, operated on what is now Graham Avenue in the 1920s. Image: Chippewa Valley Museum
Eau Claire's Graham Avenue in the 1920s. (Shown: The Eau Claire Coffee Co., a roasting business. (Image: Chippewa Valley Museum)


The Chippewa Valley, and the rest of the country, waved farewell to legal alcohol in January 1920 when the 18th Amendment took effect. Prohibition had supporters and detractors locally, many of the latter being German-Americans for whom beer was a major part of social life. While most saloons closed, others operated as soda parlors where “hippers” would top off patrons’ drinks from their flasks. There were moonshine raids, but local authorities often turned the other way when it came to enforcing Prohibition.


In 1919, Wisconsin had been one of the first states to approve the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. When the amendment was ratified the following year, women flocked to register. In August 1920, “Over 3,000 women registered to vote (in Eau Claire), equaling if not exceeding the male voters,” writes historian Brian L. Blakeley.


The 1920 census recorded 20,906 people in Eau Claire, a figure that grew 25% by the end of the decade – the city’s biggest growth spurt since the lumber boom of the 1880s. Eau Claire was cementing itself as a manufacturing center. Leaders worried about a lack of housing, and people began to commute from Chippewa Falls and Menomonie for jobs in Eau Claire.


The growing city needed bigger public facilities, including a new high school. By 1923, there were more students than desks at the old high school on Lake Street. After years of debate, voters narrowly approved building a new high school. The $490,000 school opened on Main Street in 1926. Later a junior high, the building now houses the Eau Claire Area School District’s offices.


The Ku Klux Klan had at least 15,000 members in Wisconsin in the 1920s, and the Chippewa Valley was a center of Klan activity. The group aimed its hatred on Catholics and Jews, and on several occasions burned crosses and held rallies in the area. The Klan was condemned by elected officials, and in 1924 the City Council banned a Klan leader from speaking at the City Auditorium. By the ’30s, the local Klan had fortunately fizzled.