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Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Brillion, WI -- Small City; Big Heart"

It's been three weeks since I got married, and, as you know, I've been away from blogging since then. I've still posted daily updates on my Facebook page, but my blog has sat silent, waiting for my return. Now that I'm back, though, I've settled into my new home, I've unpacked my boxes, and I've set up my office. I'm ready to get back into the business of blogging.

Originally, I thought I'd begin with a simple post about my new city: Brillion, WI. As it just so happens, though, today was actually Brillion's 125th birthday celebration! And there was a day-long city-wide celebration to commemorate the event... filled with historical displays, nostalgic horse and wagon tours, an old car and tractor show, fire engines, a farmer's market, music, fireworks, lots of people, and an eight-foot-long birthday cake! It was a huge event, the whole city turned out, and I joined the fun.

What better way to get back into blogging, than with a huge party, right?!

I've only been here three weeks, and I'm already in love with this place. The 3,000 people that live here are passionate about their past, determined, hard-working, and extraordinarily welcoming. I can't tell you how many times -- since I've moved here -- that people I don't even know, wave or say hi as they pass. It's a wonderful change from the metropolis that is Milwaukee. There, people don't really care on a personal level. They're in their own little worlds. Go here. Go there. Get there, Get out. Get done. I love Milwaukee, don't get me wrong. I miss living there, but Brillion, it just grows on you. It's a welcoming city. It feels like home. And although I've only been here a short time, I already feel like part of the family.

When it comes to history, Brillion began as a settlement back in 1850. But it wasn't until 1885 that the settlement incorporated as a village and held it's first legal census. At that time, 577 people were living here. In April of 1944, a referendum reclassified Brillion as a city, and it's been thriving as such ever since.

A lot has changed in Brillion since 1885, though. A major fire wiped out much of the city in 1896. Many buildings were destroyed. But the city bounced back. On February 19, 1922, a major ice storm coated Brillion in ice. Lots of ice! Hundreds of poles and trees were knocked down, and telephone service was interrupted and not restored for over three months. And in 1993, the local Spring Creek flooded the city, with some roads under 3-4 feet of water. I've seen photos. It was pretty devastating.

But not all the changes were related to disasters. For many years there was a railroad through the city, connecting Manitowoc to the east with Appleton to the west. Brillion is directly in the middle. As a result, as many as thirty trains (and dozens of hobos) came through or stopped in Brillion each day. Over time, the rail line was sold, the company went out of business, and the trains no longer came through the city. Today, the depot is gone, and the rail line has been converted to a well-maintained hiking/biking trail. Large trucks now fill the role of transportation.

From the very beginning, Brillion has always been a manufacturing center -- which is somewhat unusual for a city that does not reside near a river or coastal harbor. But the once thriving rail line between Brillion's two major city neighbors (25 miles in both directions) helped support this factory center. And even with the railroad gone, manufacturing still manages to drive the local economy.

At one time, Brillion had the largest lime kiln in the entire United States. Perhaps even the world. Railroad trains loaded with air slack lime, perfect for making plaster, were shipped all over the country. By 1944, when the product was no longer used, the company closed. Today, the massive lime kiln facility no longer exists.

The year 1933 saw the founding of Ariens, a company with a long history of manufacturing snow blowers, farm machinery, and landscaping tractors. Today the Brillion-based company continues to serve as one of the "big three" international companies driving the local economy.

In 1941, when the United States entered World War II, the local Brillion Iron Works (founded in 1890) helped the war effort by manufacturing bomb tips and cast iron wheels for Oshkosh Trucks, a nearby company who made heavy-duty military vehicles for the US Military. The Brillion foundry and present-day manufacturer of farm implements continues to this day (as one of the "big three"), and produces roughly 145,000 tons of iron castings annually. They are ranked among the top ten independent foundries in the United States.

In 1970, Bob Endries and his wife, Pat, started a fastener distribution business in the basement of their Brillion home. By 1995, the company had changed it's name to Endries International Inc, and expanded into electrical parts, pipes, valves and fittings, fluid connectors, stampings, corrugated products, wire, and clamps. Today, Endries International has branches worldwide, employs over 600 people, and brings in over $200 million dollars each year. It remains as the third of the "big three" companies still operating here in Brillion.

As I further explored the history of my new home city today, I discovered another interesting thing about Brillion... it has (and continues to) provide the US Military with an unusually strong supply of servicemen and women. A veterans memorial standing just outside the city commemorates the service of these individuals. It also memorializes the 15 men who died in combat in WWI, WWII, Vietnam, and The Korean War, as well as the three who died during peacetime... and one man who died during the Civil War.

I stopped at the memorial today, and there looked to be around one hundred names -- each name on a single brick that paved the memorial. For a small city of 3,000 people, that's a long history of service. And to be completely honest, I'm proud to live in a city with such a history. With four siblings in the military, I come from a proud military family too.

And there's one other fascinating thing I discovered about Brillion. This city has had a world-renowned impact upon the design world. Many years back, a stunning collection of over 4,500 rolls, and 1,377 patterns of antique wallpaper dating back to 1850 was discovered and salvaged from a storage building here in Brillion. The papers had never been unrolled, and, as a result, still maintained their original brilliance of color -- unlike most faded specimens in museums. All of the papers were manufactured by American wallpaper companies, deacidified, and encapsulated in Mylar (to preserve the original colors).

Since it's discovery, museums and collections world-wide have taken an interest in this collection of wallpapers. The Cooper-Hewitt Museum -- the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design -- has a sample collection, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England has also purchased a quantity of originals. Additional wallpaper donations have been made to Old World Wisconsin, various collections across the United States, and a few in Canada.

To this day, these rare wallpapers are known as "The Brillion Collection."

Brillion, as I have been learning, is a fascinating little city. It contains unexpected stories down every street, a cultural impact that, in my opinion, rivals that of Milwaukee (although on a much smaller scale), and it has its very own historical society that maintains a significant museum (not typical of a city this size) to exhibit everything.

It's not the small Wisconsin farm town that I expected when I was preparing to move here. No. It's a thriving manufacturing center. A vibrant city of 3,000 people. And, yet, ironically, a sleepy bedroom community providing large classy homes for those who commute to work in Manitowoc, Appleton, and other local outlying areas. It's Milwaukee, only smaller, friendlier, and far quieter.

It's a city, but not a rushing metropolis. It's a small town, but not a grain silo with a few storefronts. It truly is -- as the city's slogan suggests: "Small City, Big Heart".

And for me, Jon Baas -- the latest immigrant -- it's home.

To learn more about Brillion, check out the Brillion, Wisconsin Facebook page!


 I  link to this post  I  4 comments


Hello Jon and welcome to Brillion. I was doing some research for a book we are printing and found your blog. It was very refreshing to see such positive comments about Brillion. In 1985 we published the book, Brillion-The First 100 Years. We are now in the process of updating the book and adding the last 25 years. It should be out in time for Christmas! The book is fascinating and a great read for someone who enjoys history! Especially since this is your new home! Call us at Zander Press Inc. if you are interested in purchasing one. There will be ads in the Shopper when it is completed. Kris

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:41 PM, November 16, 2010  

Oh, my e-mail is if you want to get a hold of me.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:43 PM, November 16, 2010  

Hi Jon--

It's Sunday morning and I'm enjoying a fresh cup of coffee while I surf the net looking for some interesting reading material. Just for grins, I googled "blogs from Brillion, WI" and I came across your website with the story about Brillion.

We moved from Brillion in 1978 but the town still holds a warm spot in my memories. Thanks for the great article. I've marked you in my "favorites" so will check back now and again as I look forward to hearing about your adventures in Brillion. If you get a chance, look up some very dear friends for us...Warren & Sandy Belanger or Gaylord & Dottie Unbehaun.

By Blogger Sue Hepler, at 11:20 AM, January 30, 2011  

You're welcome, Sue! I'm glad you enjoyed my little history lesson. Thanks for stopping by! :)


By Blogger Jon, at 10:41 AM, February 04, 2011  

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