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Menasha History

Here is the abbreviated happenings of how Menasha came to be. 

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"The Settlement on the Island"

Native Americans were the first settlers and Doty Island was the first part of Menasha to be settled. In the 1630's the Winnebago Indians of the Fox River Valley had villages on Doty Island. Later, the Fox (Outagamie) settled on Doty Island. Eventually, the Winnebago and Fox tribes moved away. The Menominee Tribe moved in. 

Territorial governor, James Doty, was one of the first investors in the land. Neenah and Menasha were both named by Sarah Doty (wife of Governor James Doty). Menasha translates from the Native American language to "the settlement on the island." 

PICTURED: Mrs. Sarah Collins Doty, the wife of Governor James Doty. Picture courtesy of the Menasha Historical Society. 

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"The Father of Menasha"

Curtis Reed and Governor James Doty convinced the United States to place the navigational channel of the Fox-Wisconsin waterway through the north channel in Menasha. In 1847 James Doty and Curtis Reed dammed the north channel of Doty Island (Menasha). The southern channel of Doty Island (Neenah) was dammed at the same time by Harrison Reed, Curtis' older brother. 


In 1848, Governor Doty and his associates - including Curtis Reed - officially formed the town of Menasha on the channel north of Doty Island. The Village of Menasha was incorporated in 1853. Curtis Reed became the first Village President, served as alderman, and as postmaster. When he was 75 years old, he served as the 8th mayor from 1890-1891. 

  • The first home ("slab house") in Menasha was constructed by Corydon Northrup in the forest north of the river (center of Milwaukee Street). He lived with his parents and their children.

  • The first manufacturing establishment was a sawmill was built in 1849 by Harrison Reed and Cornelius Northrup.  

  • Between 1848-1857, the population of Menasha was a little over 2,000 residents. 

A float bridge was built in 1856 along the channel of the Fox River, connecting the island and the mainland. It was quickly replaced by a wooden drawbridge in 1860 which fell into the water. In 1886 the city bought a swing bridge from Milwaukee which partially collapsed a few years later. A riveted iron bridge was purchased completing the Mill Street bridge which was in place until 1951. The new Racine Street bridge was dedicated to Curtis Reed and the old bridge demolished. 


Curtis Reed is credited with building the first dam, creating the first building, putting in the town square and helped to organize the Wisconsin Central Railroad.  

PICTURED: Curtis Reed's mayor photo courtesy of Menasha City Hall. 

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The City of Menasha

The city of Menasha was incorporated on March 5, 1874. O.J. Hall was elected the first mayor.  The population in 1898 was approximately 7,000 residents and there were 30 factories. Menasha had a paid fire department. P.V. Lawson, Sr. is credited with leading the first fire brigade and donating the first fire truck to the city.  

  • 1852 - Elisha D. Smith purchases a struggling wooden pail factory. During the Civil War (1861-65), the Pail Factory becomes the largest manufacturer of woodenware in Wisconsin. In 1872, the Pail Factory is incorporated under the name Menasha Wooden Ware.

  • 1887 - William M. Gilbert began his one-machine paper mill which manufactured bond paper composed partly of rag and partly of sulphite or wood pulp.

  • 1888 - John Strange organized a paper mill. It is the oldest maker of kraft paper in the country. 

  • 1882 - George A. Whiting bought out the Gilbert family. 

  • 1888 - P.V. Lawson, Jr. incorporated the Menasha Wood Split Pulley Company. It manufactured pulleys, broke trucks and other wood products. 

  • 1888 - Walther Bros. Brewing Company was founded. Incorporated in 1894.

  • 1898 - Menasha had two newspapers: The Daily Press and the Evening Breeze (later became The Menasha Record). The newspapers were later combined to form The Twin City News-Record. 

PICTURED: Menasha Woolen Mills (1887). Picture courtesy of the Menasha Public Library. 


"The Industrial City of the North"

Menasha was known at this time as "The Industrial city of the North" due to the large number of industrial facilities located within the city. During this time paved roads took the place of the muddy, rutted wagon paths. Automobiles, busses, airplanes, and trains come of age to impact the community. 

  • 1901 - George Banta Publishing Company printed newspapers, educational books and magazines. 

  • 1905 - Menasha began to manufacture its own electric power. It started servicing its residents in 1911.

  • 1927 - Menasha's largest employer at this time was Marathon Corporation. It purchased the Menasha Printing & Carton Company and renamed it the Menasha Products Company. The company specialized in the development of food packaging. 

  • There were three public grade schools at this time: Nicolet (1927), Butte des Morts (1928) and Jefferson (1933). In 1936 the high school was destroyed by fire and it took two years for the new high school to be built.

PICTURED: Transporting logs in winter. Photo courtesy of Menasha Public Library. 

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"Your Place on the Water" 

Today Menasha has a population over 18,000 and is home to many a thriving commercial sector, high end manufacturing facilities, and a myriad of local shops, cafes, and boutiques. Recent developments have occurred in the downtown, including an eight story commercial high rise completed in 2017, numerous townhome and condo style residential units along the riverfront, and the redevelopment of the City’s former City Hall. In addition, two large developments are underway. The Brin and Banta, two mixed use commercial/residential developments, will bookend Menasha’s west and southeast portions of the downtown; bringing over 70 high end residential units and over 10,000 square feet of new commercial space to the downtown.

In addition, substantial investments have been made in recreation opportunities in the City and throughout the region. In recent years the City partnered in two large trail projects. The first being a tri-community endeavor to provide a continuance trail around Little Lake Butte Des Morts was completed in 2018. Nicknamed “Loop the Little Lake”, this 3.5 mile long trail system is a series of boardwalks, trestle trails, and paved footpaths that encompasses Little Lake Butte Des Morts and links the City of Neenah, Village of Fox Crossing, and City of Menasha. The second being a roughly 1,300 foot long board walk through the Menasha Conservancy.

Menasha has seen a lot of change over the years and seeks to continue recent progress. Whether an individual is staying for a short time or their entire life, Menasha strives to be a welcoming community with a myriad of opportunities to live, play, and work.

Pictured: Photo taken by David Park on 9.17.2023 from the Racine Street Bridge. 

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