Finding Your Roots:
RIVER FALLS Township
Courtesy of the Pierce County Historical Association
River Falls Township was first formed as Greenwood Township in 1854 and was changed four years later to River Falls Township. The first white settler was Joel Foster in 1848 who had come north from Illinois to look for business opportunities. He first went to St Paul and then to Stillwater. There he heard about the Kinnickinnick River Valley and hired a guide to take him out to check it out. He saw the potential of the area and filed a land claim. His first winter was spent in a cave and a lean-to with a family servant. The next spring he built a log cabin which was sometimes called ‘Fort Foster.’ Foster claimed land at the junction of the Kinnickinnick River and the South Fork and most of the west side of what would become River Falls. That same year he was appointed judge after which he was known as ‘Judge Foster.’ The brothers James and Walter Mapes arrived in 1849 and that same year, Foster was joined by Duncan McGregor and his wife who shared Foster's cabin until they could build their own housing. Mrs. McGregor was the only white woman in the area. She never knew when a Native American might enter her house, help himself to anything on her table or in her cupboard, only to leave a piece of venison in exchange. She told at the time of their arrival there were no trout above the falls, but in June 1850, her husband and Walter Mapes caught trout at the mouth of the Rocky branch and put them in the stream above the falls. Trout are plentiful there today.
In 1850 Nathaniel and Oliver Powell made their appearance and claimed the northwest quarter of Section 1. This is where the businesses would develop. The first children born in the township were twins of Mr. and Mrs. Fish in 1850. The first hotel was established in 1853 by George Cairns. The first school was built in 1854 at a cost of $500 (which is $14,124.62 in today's money) with Helen Flint as teacher. The Powell brothers set up the first saw mill in 1853 and a general store in 1854 and platted 60 acres on the east side for the village of Kinnickinnick. Before the store goods were in place at Powell’s ‘Pioneer Store’, missionary Rev. R. Hall used the building to preach the first sermon in the township. The first post office was set up with Charles Hutchinson as postmaster and the village changed its name from Kinnickinnick to Greenwood. The post office soon began to get mail from a Greenwood post office in Clark County. It was decided to change the name to River Falls to avoid the confusion. Foster built a saw mill on the South Fork in 1854. In 1856, the Powell brothers platted another 120 acres on the west side, buying the land from Judge Foster for $40 in gold coin. Foster could have gotten more but wanted to see the village grow. The Powells were also very community-minded donating land for such things as the academy and the Methodist Church. The village grew quickly due to job opportunities based on the availability of water power. The mills needed blacksmiths, wagon makers, barrel makers, and carpenters, besides the millers themselves. More people meant more shopkeepers were needed to provide the basics. Opportunities were everywhere.
Nathaniel Powell was responsible for getting Charles B. Cox, builder of the first mill in the Kinnickinnick Valley, to move from Clifton to River Falls in 1854 and continue his mill work by constructing the Prairie Mill. In 1858, Cox built the Greenwood Mill and turned its operation over to George Fortune. In 1867, Cox and Dr. A. D. Andrews built the Junction Mill. By 1876, four grist mills and two saw mills were operating within the city limits. The prairies around River Falls were found to be very good for growing wheat. The mills went from grinding flour for individual families to producing flour in large quantities. The flour industry needed barrels to ship the flour. This led to several saw mills, and firms to manufacture staves and heads for barrels and jobs as mill workers and barrel makers. Flour was shipped down river to St. Louis. This meant flour had to be hauled to Hudson or Prescott to be loaded on steamboats. By 1878, a rail line was run from Hudson to transport the flour by train. The River Falls newspaper does report that in 1881, the amount of flour leaving River Falls totaled 11,720,000 pounds. Other big export items for 1881 included 5,436,500 pounds of wood, 5,436,564 pounds of lime, and 4,842,500 pounds of railroad ties.
While most of the early settlers were of English descent, southeast of River Falls another story was true. In the 1860s, a migration from Bohemia began with immigrants claiming land in Sections 20, 21, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, and 34. They called their settlement Korna or Cherma, in English. Originally the families would travel the three miles to St. Mary’s church in Big River but bad weather often made this a hardship. They formed the Catholic congregation of St. Martins in 1892 and built their church soon after. The earliest families were the Kordoskys, Falteiseks, Tylers, Pechaceks, Jansas, Cobians, Voleskys, Dvoraks, Matzeks, and Andrles. Joseph Kordosky opened a small general store near the church to provide staples for the local families. A post office called Korna existed from Jan. 1900 until March 1903, operating out of the store. Several schools served the Cherma families: Forestville opened in 1856, Jerusalem Corners opened in 1866, and Randall School (considered a “Yankee” school) opened in 1867. Just west of Cherma, many Irish families settled including the Moynihans, Fitzsimmons, Collins, Donahues, McMahons, Cliffords, Carolins, and Staples. They built a log school for their children in 1866 naming it the Donegal District. The first session found 21 children attending. The first teachers walked out from River Falls a distance of about six miles but boarded with local families in bad weather. A few of the Cherma children also attended the Donegal School. A real change occurred in this area when the railroad extended the line through Cherma all the way to Ellsworth in 1885. A flag stop was set up at Cherma down on what would become County O. Originally it cost ten cents for a one way ride to River Falls which most of the community thought too pricey so they still walked the 5-6 miles. They still had to deal with the noise and traffic from the trains.
While most families in the township were farmers, extra money could be gained from putting up wood especially those residents of the southeast corner of the township. There were several buyers in River Falls. Work could often be found at the saw mills near Beldenville. As timber on the east side of the township was harvested, some farms turned to raising vegetables in large quantities. In the fall, it was not unusual to see rail cars loaded with cabbage. Beldenville also had a stock yard at their depot that made shipping livestock easier so many farmers raised some extra cattle or hogs to be sent to market to raise a little extra cash. The northeast corner of the township was settled by those with Scandinavian heritage. A post office was established in Section 1 by the name of Gertrude. Halvor O. Halvorson was the post master and owner of a small store there. This was near the Gertrude/Lauder School. By 1900, the post office closed at Gertrude.
Early land owners include: J. Foster, W. Vapes, A.D. Andrews, J. Carruthers, A. Chapman, E. Currier, S. Clagget, J. Deans, S.D. Dodge, B. Eaton, G. Fortune, Dr. G. Gallup, C.A. George, Dr. A.E. Gendron, C.C. Glass, J. Grimm, T.M.E. Hamilton, C.G.N. Heyerdahl, N. Heyerdahl, C. Hutchinson, J. Terpenning, J. Chinnock, P.Flint, M. Mahon, M. Driscoll, R. Lovell, R.N. Jenson, L.D. Morgan, A. Morse, C.R. Morse, W.M. Newcomb, O. Newcomb, G.W. Nichols, C.D. Parker, L. Pomeroy, the Powell family, W.D. Purves, M.A. Shepard, J.A. Short, G.T.Smith, J. Stephens, T.W. Tait, N.A. Thealander, Prof. A. Weld, A.P. Weld, M. Walker, J. Wells, F.M. White, the Wigers, I. A. Williams, and John Winn.
If you have an ancestor who was among the pioneer families of River Falls Township, the Pierce County Historical Association needs your help. We are looking for information and photos on early families, farms, businesses, churches, and schools for a summer 2017 exhibit on Pioneers in Pierce County. Photos can be copied and your original returned. PCHA P.O. Box 148 Ellsworth, WI 54011, or phone 715-273-0118 and leave your contact info.