Marathon County - An Evolving Economy
(Photos courtesy of the Marathon County Historical Society)

Wisconsin became a territory in 1836 and originally encompassed all of what is now Marathon, Lincoln and Oneida Counties and parts of others – stretching all the way up to Lake Superior. An 1836 treaty transferred ownership along the Wisconsin River from Native American tribes to federal ownership. The Wisconsin River was the main attraction that drew settlers to this area. At the time the area was known as “Big Bull Falls” by Native Americans and fur traders because of its rapid waters.

Photo courtesy of the Marathon County Historical SocietyPioneer George Stevens’ lumbermen were sent up the river two years later to find suitable places for turning abundant pine forests into lumber. It was said that Stevens quoted this area to be the best mill site he ever saw or heard of in the Union!! Many other mills sprang up along the river banks of Central Wisconsin with the coming of the lumber barons.

The lumber barons first put this area on the map through lumber and eventually also paper manufacturing. The area known as “The Pinery” – a section north of the Dell Prairie tributary of the Wisconsin River produced 70,000,000 feet of pine lumber. Big Bull Falls Mill had 22 saws producing 19,000,000 feet of lumber and Little Bull Falls Mill (Mosinee) had 8 saws and produced 6,000,000 feet of lumber annually. Communities grew in response to the successful lumber industry and the influx of settlers creating business services, department stores, restaurants, barbershops and taverns. Agriculture also grew to feed the growing population of laborers in the lumber industry.

Photo courtesy of the Marathon County Historical SocietyIn 1846 Walter McIndoe arrived in the area. He was instrumental in establishing Marathon County. Two years after Wisconsin became a state our county was formed from a larger county (Portage County) on February 9, 1850 and was named for the Greek battlefield. At that time the 500 inhabitants of the County made their living from timber resources. McIndoe is also known as the Father of Wausau. Big Bull Falls came to be called “Wausau” meaning the area where the Chippewa went on their annual hunt. Wausau translates to “a far away place”. Wausau became the county seat in 1850 and grew from a town in 1852 to a city in 1872.

The railroad arrived in 1874 and Marathon County became more accessible to people and industry. The large influx of German immigrants brought with them more media people. Churches and social organizations began to flourish. At the turn of the century, Marathon County had 4,169 farms out of 7,721 dwellings.

As the logging era ended, an agricultural era began. Initially wheat farmers broke the land and by the 1930’s the dairy industry prevailed. As “The Pinery” disappeared, papermaking replaced lumber. In 1907 the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company was established as a group of private interests to manage and regulate the flow of the Wisconsin River so that hydroelectric energy and the papermaking industry could develop and flourish.

Photo courtesy of the Marathon County Historical SocietyAs Marathon County and the City of Wausau struggled to adapt to 20th Century technology economic disaster loomed. In effort to save the economy an exceptional group of citizens, known as the Wausau Group, formed to transform the area’s economy; and preserve and grow our community. In 1911 Employers Mutual Liability Insurance Company of Wisconsin began selling insurance to meet the paper industry’s needs. This company which became known as Wausau Insurance helped make Wausau a nationally recognized name. The company issued the nation’s first workers compensation policy in 1928 to Wausau Sulfate Fibre Company (Mosinee Paper Mill). As worker’s compensation laws spread to most other states, these industrial leaders were early advocates of workplace safety programs transforming and diversifying Marathon County’s economy once again. The insurance industry became a mainstay of Marathon County’s economy through the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Photo courtesy of the Marathon County Historical SocietyMarathon County has a long tradition of civic minded individuals who are committed to the success and prosperity of our community with a reliance on a spirit of innovation and melding of new ideas to respond to changing economic realities. This tradition continues today as our community again transforms our economy in response to global competition through innovation. Welcome to Wisconsin Central Time!!

To find out even more please visit the Marathon County Historical Society