Thrift a Piece of History
local labels are fun finds in thrift stores
The Chippewa Valley was a hub for manufacturing, farming, packaging, and many other forms of creation during the 1800s and early 1900s. That history is preserved in museums, books, and architecture, but it can also be found on the racks and shelves of area thrift, vintage, and antique stores.
Try, for example, stopping into Eclectica on Grand (106 W. Grand Ave., Eau Claire) a treasure trove of Eau Claire history. John Curtis has worked there and in his former shop next door, River Trader, for 15 years, but he was a history enthusiast long before that. He enjoys collecting and selling Chippewa Valley ephemera – old postcards, photographs, and advertisements – while his daughter, Sarah Curtis, who owns the shop, picks up locally manufactured pottery and souvenirs.
At Eclectica on Grand, one can find cigar boxes from local producers – Jim Schuh from the Chippewa County Historical Society named Dark Raven, Red Axe, War President, and 77 as some of the brands people might stumble across at local shops. A carafe warmer from Aloa Ceramics, a company that partnered with Pyrex to produce pottery in Eau Claire, is up for grabs as well. But for those interested in searching for Eau Claire- or Chippewa Falls-made objects will benefit most from a chat with the people who work there. They know all the brands that used to produce home goods in the Valley.
Chippewa Falls was an especially prolific manufacturing town in the 1900s, when it was home to a number of apparel companies. Among them were Chippewa Woolen Mills, which produced durable wool clothing. Boot and shoe manufacturers included Chippewa Boot and Shoe Company, Handmade Shoe Company, and The Hunkidori Boot Company. Mason Shoe produced shoes in the city until a little more than a decade ago.
According to Schuh, one Chippewa Falls-based clothing company, XMI Neckties (which operated from 1987-2011), provided most of the ties used to costume the cast of the early 2000s American drama series The West Wing.
If you’re especially lucky, you might even find instruments that originated in the Chippewa Valley. Beginning around 1903, brothers Knute and Gunnar Helland began producing Hardanger fiddles – Norwegian fiddles with an extra set of strings – in Chippewa Falls. They produced Helland fiddles until 1927.
It’s nearly impossible to list all of the brands and businesses that peddled locally made products in the Chippewa Valley, but if you’re in the market for some local history, here are some tips for finding such objects:
1. Know your local history
Reach out to organizations such as the Chippewa County Historical Society, the Chippewa Valley Museum, or the Dunn County Historical Society to learn more about the history of manufacturing in the Chippewa Valley.
2. Check the label
While some company names are harder to identify as local to the layperson, many area manufacturers had the name of the city they were housed on their labels. Check clothing tags, furniture marks, the bottom of pottery, for whatever marking you can find to see if it’s got local ties.
3. Search local antique and thrift stores
Reuse stores such as Hope Gospel, Savers, and Goodwill occasionally receive donations of old clothing that was made in the region. Antique stores such as Eclectica on Grand and The Antique Emporium on South Barstow Street in Eau Claire are treasure troves for local paper products, housewares, and more, and their proprietors will likely know the history of a given object.
More information about Chippewa Falls manufacturing and industry can be found by visiting the Chippewa County Historical Society at 123 Allen St. in Chippewa Falls. Visit their website for information about hours and exhibits.