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Rhinelander’s Memorial Building

Rhinelander was founded as a sawmill town, and in its earliest years little thought was given to the need for a National Guard unit. When one was established, an armory was needed as a storage and training facility. For most of its history, Rhinelander’s armory served as an important community center.

Rhinelander had no formal National Guard unit until 1898 when the U.S. went to war with Spain in the Spanish-American War. Company H of the Fifth Wisconsin National Guard was formed in 1898 as a Spanish-American War company but never saw service overseas. It became Company L of the Second Wisconsin National Guard in 1899, and the experience of a hurried mustering for war brought home the point that Rhinelander needed an armory.

Fundraising took place throughout 1899, and the new building was erected on N. Stevens Street in 1900. In addition to housing Company L, which became Company B in 1917, the armory hosted musical events, public orators, labor meetings, dances, and memorial services. It was an all-around community center and served Rhinelander well during the 28 years of its existence.

Problems with the old armory began to appear by the mid-1920s. Primarily, it was too small to serve as a true convention center. In 1927, the Wisconsin Potato Growers’ Association held its annual convention in Rhinelander’s armory. The armory was not large enough for a gathering of this size, so a tent had to be erected alongside the building. The tent was wet and cold, and the only way for convention-goers to access it was by crawling through an open window in the armory. The convention was declared a success, but everyone knew that without a suitable space future conventions would not consider Rhinelander.

Talk began immediately about replacing the old armory. Fundraising began in earnest in 1928, but plans were accelerated in November when a carelessly tossed cigarette ignited the armory and burned it to the ground. The Oneida County Memorial Association took charge of fundraising efforts and collected donations for a new building throughout 1929. Early in 1930 the association had $30,000 and in April secured a $20,000 loan from the state. With $50,000 available, the Memorial Association announced that construction on a new building would begin that summer.

The new Memorial Building on Stevens Street was mostly completed and ready for use by November. It became an instant source of pride for the community. Not only did it house the American Legion and Company B of the 127th infantry, but it also served as a memorial for the county’s war dead and as an all-purpose community center for the living. It had a drill floor, gymnasium, offices, and meeting spaces.

The first major event the new building hosted was the 1931 Potato Growers’ Association convention, which was remarkably successful in a fully heated building. Throughout its lifetime, the Memorial Building hosted basketball games, indoor baseball games, public speakers, car shows, community dances, parties and just about anything that brought people together. Even as late as 1985, a new radio station called WXPR used the building to host the White Pine Jamboree.

In the 1980s the National Guard constructed a new armory and moved out of the Memorial Building. The city lost interest in maintaining an old building that was seen as getting minimal use. The Memorial Building was torn down and turned into a parking lot in 1989.

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In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.