Big Names in Eau Claire’s History
meet a few of the people who helped make Eau Claire what it is today
Orrin Ingram (1830-1918)
Today, Orrin Ingram’s name isn’t as well-known as those of some of his lumber baron contemporaries from Eau Claire’s early years: Daniel Shaw gave his name to Shawtown; William Carson and H.C. Putnam lent their names on parks. But Ingram was hugely influential in the city’s formative era. Ingram came to Eau Claire in 1857, and immediately became involved in the lumber business. His original firm – Dole, Ingram, and Kennedy – evolved into the Empire Lumber Co. He also partnered with lumber mogul Friedrich Weyerhauser as well as invested in operations in Wabasha, Dubuque, and Rice Lake. But his fortune didn’t begin and end with sawdust. He was integral to getting the Dells Dam built in Eau Claire; he invested in Eau Claire’s first water system, its streetcar system, and much more; and he was a major philanthropist, funding the YMCA in Eau Claire and paying for the statue of fellow pioneer Adin Randall.
L.E. Phillips (1899-1978)
If you know the name of Eau Claire businessman L.E. Phillips it’s likely because you’ve seen it emblazoned on numerous local institutions, including Eau Claire’s public library, the UW-Eau Claire science hall, a senior center, a Boy Scout camp, and more. Phillips’ life is the quintessential immigrant success story. Born in 1899 in Lithuania, Phillips came to Wisconsin at the age of 2. His father began a candy, newspaper, and magazine wholesaler business, which later became a liquor distributor and distiller. Phillips moved to Eau Claire in 1923 when the family opened a branch of the business here. In 1942, he bought into National Pressure Cooker Co. – now National Presto – and became its president. At the same time, he established L.E. Phillips Charities, and for the rest of his life – and beyond – became known as the city’s preeminent philanthropist. His charity still donates millions to scores of causes.
Joe Bee Xiong (1961-2007)
Born in Laos, Xiong became a soldier at age 12, helping rescue U.S. pilots shot down in the “Secret War” in Southeast Asia. He and his family fled to Thailand as refugees in 1978, then came to Eau Claire in 1980. He earned several college degrees, then was the first Hmong police officer in Wisconsin, became a social worker, and led the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association. In 1996, he became the first Hmong American to be elected to public office in the United States when he was voted onto the Eau Claire City Council. He served on the council for four years, and later ran for the Wisconsin State Assembly. In addition to his community leadership, Xiong was a musician, and was master of the qeej, a traditional Hmong bamboo reed flute. Sadly, Xiong died at the age of 45 during a return visit to Laos. A street in Eau Claire – Xiong Boulevard – was named in his honor, and in 2019 PBS Wisconsin created a multimedia educational feature about his life, called “Joe Bee Xiong: War to Peace.”
John Menard Jr. (Born 1940)
No, for the last time, the super-enthusiastic white-haired guy in the old Menards TV spots wasn’t John Menard (it was an actor named Ray Szmanda). The real John Menard keeps a much lower profile, even though his name is on about 300 giant home improvement stores across the nation where you can, as the jingle says, save big money. Menard was born in Columbus, Wisconsin, but as a child moved to Eau Claire, where he graduated from Regis High School and UW-Eau Claire. While still a student at UWEC back in 1958 he started putting up pole buildings to pay for college. Over the years, that building business led to a cash-and-carry lumber company, manufacturing plants, the namesake hardware chain, and a NASCAR racing team (son Paul is a driver). Along the way, Menard amassed a fortune that Bloomberg currently estimates at more than $20 billion, making him America’s 33rd richest person and the 76th wealthiest in the world. Now that’s a successful Blugold! In recent years, his philanthropy has benefited institutions such as UWEC and the YMCA.