Marshfield, September 1887
By Kris Leonhardt
Months earlier, as the city lay in ruins, locals wondered if it would ever be rebuilt. Residents had watched as building after building disappeared before their eyes. Like “snow on the volcano’s lips,” the business district disintegrated quickly as property owners rushed to protect what they owned.
The great fire began on a dry, windy day with little warning. As the switch engine sat beside the Upham Manufacturing Company saw mill, the fire box was undergoing a cleaning when a spark flew into the sawdust.
The heavy winds took hold of the small fire, dancing it around while spilling licks of it here and there. Within minutes a firestorm erupted that threatened the “boomtown” and its 3,000 residents.
Firefighters hurried to control the fire. However, once the two power houses were destroyed, the department and those aiding them were reduced to a bucket brigade. Residents and surrounding communities joined in the brigade and did what they could to prevent other property from being destroyed.
The city’s wood structures, built from the vast timber available, did not have a fighting chance. By the time the fire was under control, the railroad engine that had been responsible for building the town was responsible for destroying its life source. In total 14 blocks and 250 buildings were burned, including the Upham Manufacturing Company and a great deal of the business district.
Within days, the stars and stripes rose up the Upham Company flagpole, somehow symbolizing a rebirth to the city’s residents. The city began visualizing a bigger and better Marshfield.
William Upham announced a rebuilding of his manufacturing company to include a store, a five-story grain elevator, a planning mill, a saw mill, a furniture factory, two large warehouses, and a flouring mill. The structures were to be as big, if not bigger, than the ones he had lost and would put 600 men back into employment by October 1.
53 new brick structures were being constructed within the city limits this week in 1887, including two three-story hotels. Also in progress was a new Wisconsin Central Depot that would measure 25 feet by 125 feet.
The city was also seeing some growth with real estate sales increasing by 50 percent, and businesses envisioned a bigger and better future.
The Upham Company ran the following ad in a weekly newspaper, again signaling perseverance:
The flag still flies
The Upham Mf’g Co will sell
groceries, dry goods, etc at store
lumber in yard
and oats at companies barn
All at same prices before the fire
Surrounding communities reached out to Marshfield businesses and residents, helping them physically and financially. However, with the good there sometimes comes the bad. The La Crosse Chronicle reported during this time that there were swindlers in the area soliciting donations for the victims of the Marshfield fire.
The City of Marshfield and its businesses addressed this problem, assuring that they had attained everything the city and its residents needed long ago, and they were up and running with business as usual within weeks.
The city was now experiencing a rebirth that may not have been possible had it not been for the great fire.