(Laona related segment taken from)
Boosters, Bootleggers, and Bamboozlers:
Forest County, Wisconsin, in the 1920’s
by Mark Davis
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
At the University of Wisconsin – Madison
The third major community in Forest County was Laona, home of the Connor Lumber and Land Company. William Connor, Sr. came to Forest County in 1896 looking for hardwood timber land. He eventually purchased almost 100,000 acres, organized the Connor Lumber and Land Company, and established the Town of Laona. The new settlement took on aspects of a boom town. Connor erected a saw mill and laid down tracts for the Laona and Northern Railroad. In 1898, the Chicago and Northwestern extended their line from Wabeno and built a warehouse, turntable, and depot in Laona. Entrepreneurs put up hotels and opened saloons; the town’s first dance was held. Connor’s mill started cutting logs in 1901. Laona’s population quickly grew to 700; many people coming from other Connor operations to work in the new mill. The company built planning and lath mills, houses, a company store, and its own hotel. It donated land for churches, laid out sidewalks, and dug wells. A post office opened. A dentist came to town twice a month, and Laona, along with Wabeno and Crandon, tried to entice a preacher for $60.00 a month plus board.
The original plat of Laona, which came to be known as Lowertown, included several square blocks on the west side of the railroad tracks. At its northern edge stood the mill and beyond that, the Rat River. Over the next two decades, Laona expanded to the east of the mill, eventually crossing the river. The Connor Company left Lowertown to saloons, pool halls and illegal moonshine, but in the new additions tried “to develop a clean modern permanent manufacturing town.” It built a hospital in 1902, and an elementary school in 1903, followed by the telephone company, the electric power company, and the Laona State Bank. It purchased books for a public library. The company built a mill to produce hardwood flooring, and rebuilt its store and hotel, dubbing them “Connor’s Big Department Store” and “Hotel Gordon.” After the war, Connor invested in the Biever Motor Company, started The Forest County Tribune in Laona, and modernized the hospital.
A major part of the company’s investment in Laona went into housing. By 1929, it had constructed more than 150 individual family houses. The buildings varied in size. Most measured twenty by thirty-six feet and had a living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms. Larger dwellings contained a separate dining room, and three bedrooms; smaller ones had only one bedroom. The smallest houses were one room bungalows, measuring only twelve by eighteen feet, meant to be “fairly safe and livable for the common laboring families.” Better built houses sat on cement wall, others on ten inch cedar blocks. All were constructed of hemlock overlaid with cedar siding. No insulation was used, but to “make a warmer job
workers extended “the sheathing lumber 1” below (the floor) joist ...” A single wood burning stove provided heat. Cedar shingles covered the roof. Inside, the floor was made of birch and the walls of “pulp or of a cement plaster, applied in two coats, …. in a good workmanship manner.” The walls were painted, and the floor and interior trim varnished. Many houses lacked a furnace, bathroom, closets, and indoor plumbing. Rents ranged from $14.00 to $18.00 a month depending on the size of the building and whether or not it had a furnace.
The Connor Company also invested heavily in its production facilities. In the mid-1920’s, it remodeled the flooring plant and built a new sawmill. Construction began in July 1924 when the company closed down for six months. The next fall, it closed again to resolve a rash of technical glitches and to finish the work. Connor installed electric lights, new conveyors, bigger machinery, most of it purchased second-hand, and an “endless number of drives.” At the heart of the mill stood three band saws, each capable of cutting 30,000 feet a day. When completed in the spring of 1926, William Connor Jr. crowed that the plant was “the largest hardwood sawmill in the country."
The Connors substantial investment in Laona emulated the lumber barons before them, who took competitive pride in making their town the nicest around, and more importantly, believed a progressive looking town attracted and retained stable employees, families, and businessmen. To a remarkable extent the lumbermen established what little stability could be found in northern society. It came at cost. Along with their investment, the lumbermen demanded control over local politics, the local economy, and the lives of their workers. Many nineteenth century mill sites were company towns. Laona continued in this tradition. Company management served on the town board, library board, and the school board. William Connor Jr., was the Town Chairman from 1924 to 1930, as well as the President of the Laona State Bank, Laona Utility Company, the Biever Motor Company, and the Laona and Northern Railroad. He financed Laona’s newspaper, hired its editor, and used it as a company mouthpiece. The company resisted unionization and allowed only the Connor Protective Association to organize among the workers. When Connor became dissatisfied with the performance of the Presbyterian minister, he withheld his contribution “until the people wake up and get a live man in charge.” The company decided which workers lived in their houses, and what rent they paid. Connor selectively doled out credit at the store and at the Laona Bank to keep in line farmers, people who lived in their own homes, and those not otherwise tied to the company.
In 1920, the Connor Lumber and Land Company was well established in Forest County. It was profitable and it was powerful. For many workers, it provided steady and secure employment. Families had been with the Connor Company for years, had a personal investment in it, and had come to depend upon it. Among them, the company inspired a great deal of loyalty. The company also inspired a great amount of animosity. Because its headquarters remained at the R. Connor Company in Marshfield, its foes damned it as an outside corporation. Then too, William Connor, Sr. could be ruthless against those who opposed him or whom he considered to be slackers or “second or third class men.” Hostility to the Connors probably existed in Forest County from the day the family arrived in 1896, but the first evidence of it the 1920’s is in William Connor, Jr.’s relationship with Frank and Phil Flanner of Blackwell.
At the end of the war, Frank Flanner was general manager of his father’s sawmill, the Flanner-Stegler Lumber Company. The mill was located in Blackwell, an unincorporated hamlet within the Town of Laona. In 1918, Laona voters elected Flanner their town chairman and representative on the County Board. William Connor Sr. offered him stock in the Laona State Bank and a seat on its Board of Directors. Connor hoped Flanner and his younger brother “would put their shoulder to the wheel and co-operate with the organization at every turn.” Instead, Frank Flanner “caused considerable dissatisfaction” on the bank board, among Laona politicos, and within the Connor Company. Details of what Flanner did are lost, but his activities angered William Connor Jr. When Connor moved to Laona as resident manager in 1920, he plotted to buy back Flanner’s stock and force him off the board. His father at Marshfield told him to drop the entire matter. “Do not do anything that will widen the breach any more,” he wrote. “They trade at the store – we must have their co-operation in town affairs.”
William Connor Sr. saw that the differences between his son and Flanner were personal. What caused the ill-feeling between them is conjectural. Flanner most likely chafed under the influence of the bigger and more powerful Connor Company and tried to act independently of it. On the other hand, Connor disliked the way Flanner used his political power. He complained that the Blackwell people “have had more to say about the Town Government than anyone else,” and “have unusual proportion of the town money in their district.” Connor pointed to a new school building, cement sidewalks in the village, roads graded “in a most reckless fashion, and a $10,000 expense for removing a hill on a road to the Flanner farm. Both men, it seems, resented sharing their political power base with a rival.
Sometime before 1921, Flanner proposed organizing parts of Laona and Wabeno into a new town of Blackwell. Connor believed the idea originated with County Judge James Walsh and other leaders of the Crandon Bunch who saw the feud between Connor and Flanner as an opportunity for the “Crandon Bunch” to control county politics and force a higher tax levy on Connor Company property. Connor suggested that Flanner, who would certainly represent Blackwell on the County Board, had agreed to vote with Walsh’s friends on the Board if the Judge helped organize the new town. At one point Connor said that he did not oppose Blackwell, but other letters and his actions in regard to it belie his intentions. Connor noted: “Both Wabeno and Laona have a lot of expenses, and naturally we want to keep as much of the territory as we always had …..” Saying he would not allow Flanner to dictate the terms of the separation, he demanded an agreement on splitting the school district, town road debts, and the repayment of a $60,000 high school bond issue.
The question of Blackwell came up for debate before the County Board several times in 1921. In February, six residents of Wabeno complained about being included in the new town. They wrote the Board that there was no direct route from their residence to Blackwell, whereas it is “easy and convenient to go Wabeno.” Fifty-eight signatories of a second petition protested that Blackwell did not have a high school, and Wabeno did; they helped pay for it, and now they wanted to enjoy “the benefit of the same without paying tuition.” On the other side of the issue, a petition presented by citizens in the vicinity of the village of Blackwell pointed out that they had met all the legal requirements and had a right to their own town. In November, the Board agreed with them, passed a resolution creating Blackwell, and sent it to the Circuit Court in Marinette for final approval. The Board required Blackwell voters to elect town officials who would then meet with representatives from Wabeno and Laona and settle their accounts. Frank Flanner resigned his seat on the County Board, and in January 1922, voters in Blackwell selected his brother Phil to be town chairman and represent them on the County Board. He had no opposition.
In the meetings between the towns, Connor tried to find some reason for the Circuit Court to withhold its final approval. He grumbled that the final split, in which Laona lost 38 percent of its assessed valuation, gave too much valuable territory to Blackwell. He argued that the County Board had not given property owners in either Laona or Wabeno a voice in the decision, and thus the separation was illegal. The Circuit Court accepted some of Connor’s points and required the backers of Blackwell to begin again and organize itself “in a regular way …. and bring the matter before the court in the right way.” When they did, Judge William Quinlan approved the separation. Officials from the three towns continued to meet to iron out the differences, and in the summer of 1922, reached a “final settlement.”
While Blackwell succeeded in its bid for town status, another attempt to separate from Laona failed. After Frank Flanner resigned from the County Board, Laona supervisors named Chet Irish as his successor. Connor approved of the appointment, but sometime before the spring of 1923, he withdrew his support. He wrote that Irish “is … not doing the right thing, … is quite open in his opposition to the company’s interest, (and) is certainly not protecting the best interests of Laona on the County Board.” Irish ran for re-election in April, but without Connor’s support, he lost. Shortly thereafter, he circulated a petition to organize the Town of Independence. State law required Irish to obtain twenty-three signatures. He secured twenty-eight and submitted the petition to the Circuit Court for approval.
The Connors vigorously opposed another new town. They believed the Crandon Bunch tried to make the same type of deal with Irish as they had with Flanner, and unlike Blackwell, which was mostly woods and cutover, Independence lay just outside the village of Laona, and included taxable farm land and tracts the Connor Company hoped to develop. William Connor, Jr. tried to disqualify Irish’s signatories. He checked their residence, made sure they had lived in the proposed town for at least a year, as the law required, and circulated an affidavit among them. It read, in part: “the undersigned petitioners did not clearly understand the nature of the petition, or the effect of their signing the same; That (it) was not fully explained, … and … they no longer desire the creation of the proposed new town.” Eight electors signed the affidavit leaving Irish’s petition less than the required number of names.
In the Circuit Court hearing, Irish challenged the right of those who had signed the petition to remove their named. Judge Quinlan did not accept his argument. Irish was furious and shouted that the affidavits had been secured by fraud and duress, and “that serous threats were … made if certain men did not with-draw (their) names.” He threatened to circulate a new petition for a larger town that would include Lowertown and the Connor mill. Quinlan quickly responded and demanded that Irish bring witnesses to court the next day to support his accusations. Irish failed to show, and Quinlan set the Independence petition aside. Connor supposed Irish had been completely discredited, but in order to squelch any new petition, he thought the company could start “some sort of action” against Irish. He concluded: “We might put off the trial in such a case, holding it over his head, and he might want to keep pretty quiet.”
Residents in Forest County organized four other new towns during the 1920’s. Details on their creation are not available. However, it is fair to assume that the motives underlying them were not much different than those in Blackwell and Independence. Neither town arose as a result of popular dissatisfaction with government, but rather out of personal animosity, factionalism, and the desire of local politicos to build a personal fiefdom. Local government became top heavy with factions whose personal hostilities, petty vendettas, and battles over territory compounded the depressed market for forest products and the almost complete failure of agriculture in the Cutover.
~ End of Story ~
Notes: The Town of Independence would have included all of T 35 N, R 14 E, & sections 31-35 in T 36 N, R 14 E. After the failed attempt to create the Town of Independence, Chet Irish returned to logging, farming, served as Laona Justice of the Peace, and was elected as Forest County Highway Commissioner twice. Chet served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago in 1952. He also worked on several occasions for the Connor Lumber and Land Company both as a woods foreman and in the mill.