French fur traders first found Indians at mouth of Sheboygan River

Echoes of our past
William & Joy Wangemann  for The

On June 15, 2013 from 10 am til 3 pm, the Sheboygan County Historical Society will hold its monthly third Saturday program. The theme this month is the Sheboygan River.

The Sheboygan River runs a meandering and winding course through four counties, Fond du Lac, Calumet, Manitowoc and Sheboygan. It is approximately 80 miles long and runs thru the village of St. Cloud the cities of Kiel and Sheboygan Falls, the Village of Kohler and the City of Sheboygan where it enters the clear blue waters of Lake Michigan.

In the early 1600’s French fur traders in their massive canoes, some of which were large enough to transport several tons of goods and equipment, became familiar with the mouth of the Sheboygan River where they encountered a large Indian village. I have no doubt that they also explored up the Sheboygan River where they encountered the first rapids in the River near today’s busy intersection of Taylor Drive and Indiana Avenue. For several hundred years after their discovery fur traders and explorers passed through this area including William Farnsworth, whom many historians have named as the founder of the City of Sheboygan.

The large Native American village that the French fur traders encountered at the mouth of the river had existed for unknown hundreds of years. There is some evidence to indicate that the word Sheboygan is derived from the Indian language meaning “where the waters meet” referring to where the river meets Lake Michigan. To the Indians who lived all along the course of the Sheboygan River the river provided them with a bountiful source of food such as fish, water fowl and certain edible plants along with an endless supply of fresh water. To the Indians the Sheboygan River was the I43 of their day, providing them with a watery highway west almost as far as the southern end of Lake Winnebago. It must be remembered that the forests that covered Sheboygan County and the surrounding area was so dense that it made travel through them very difficult and the river was the most convenient mode of transportation. It might also be noted that well worn footpaths could also be found along the banks of the river.

By the year 1836 a small cluster of homes, approximately 12 in number were built by early settlers close to the mouth of the river. Sheboygan received its charter as a village in 1836 but for many years after residents of the area simply referred to this tiny village as “the mouth”. One of the first commercial ventures in Sheboygan was fishing and the first product shipped out of the city was Smoked Fish. This small beginning of industry along the river was to expand into many large factories which used the river as a convenient method of shipping out manufactured goods. The furniture industry, which made Sheboygan quite famous, grew up all along the river due to the abundant supply of hardwood which was close at hand in the forests that surrounded the area. In the mid 1880’s the harbor master, whose job it was to keep track of commerce on the river, in his annual report indicated that 880,000 pieces of furniture were shipped out of Sheboygan in just one year! But furniture wasn’t the only thing shipped out of our city the report also indicated that tons of salt pork, cheese, eggs and an endless variety of other manufactured goods were all shipped out from factories along the river. In looking at old photographs taken along the banks of the river sailing ships can be seen docked, sometimes two and three abreast, unloading or taking on cargo and creating a virtual forest of masts. Not only the manufacture of furniture took place along the river but for many years a thriving shipyard existed on what is now known as the Peninsula. I’m sure many older residents remember the Reiss Coal Company’s large facility along the river with its huge piles of coal. It was here that before the coal yards existed that over 200 ships were built, both steamers and sailing vessels. But even before it was a shipyard the peninsula was homesteaded by the Groh family who ran a hotel known as “The Steamboat Hotel” and the Sheboygan Tug Boat Lines. It might be noted that the Groh family, many of whom were sailors, sold their holdings on the peninsula, moved into the city and today direct descendants of this family still live in Sheboygan and Rocky Groh and his two sons are still sailing on the Great Lakes. One of the most diverse industries that could be found along the river was the Sheboygan Mineral Water Company and the Aladdin Soap Company along with the Garton Toy Company all using the Sheboygan River as a means of shipment for their products. It also might be noted that the mineral water that was bottled by the Sheboygan Mineral Water Co. came from the same vein of water that used to be found at the fountain of Fountain Park. Many people thought that this water had curative powers and drank it regularly including the President of the United States who ordered many cases of the mineral water shipped to the White House. It might be noted the mineral water tasted a bit like it came out of a rusty tin can and had a extremely strong mineral taste. I guess people felt that anything that tasted that bad just had to be good for you!

But sailing ships were not the only means of transport in and out of Sheboygan. Sturdy steamboats could also be seen tied up along the docks. One of the best ways to travel say to Milwaukee, Chicago or even further was by Lake Steamer. Steamers almost exclusively carried passengers, mail and freight because of the fact that a steamboat could adhere to a schedule where a sailing ship could not. One of the best known Steamboat companies was the Goodrich Transportation Company out of Chicago. The Goodrich Company had ticket offices and docks at many cities throughout the Great Lakes, including Sheboygan. The Goodrich docks in Sheboygan were located directly across from the Sheboygan Armory where now stands an apartment building. For instance if you wanted to travel to Chicago you could book passage on a Goodrich steamer for perhaps $2 or $3 dollars. While this may seem a high price for a ticket in those days it did include several meals served in a large dining room which rivaled the finest restaurants of the day. The Steamboats, which were mostly side wheeled paddleboats, were often named after cities. One of the more famous was the steamer Sheboygan. Many old timers fondly recalled taking a long honeymoon cruise on an elegant steamer owned by the Goodrich line.

Most of the industry and the beautiful steamers that used the river are now gone but even though this is the case today the river is a very popular place with dozens shops and restaurants as well as pleasure crafts tied up at docks along the scenic river boardwalk. Even though the riverfront area has vastly changed over the years the Sheboygan River is still the heart of Sheboygan just as it was many years ago.

Today’s tidbit: There were at least 6 ships named Sheboygan from three-masted schooner to a World War II Coast Guard Frigate


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