Looking Back on Life in Downtown Rhinelander in the 1930's

Oct 17, 2018

Downtown Rhinelander used to be very different.

This week on a Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells us about a fall festival that happened there in 1934.

U.S. Highway 8 used to pass directly through the city of Rhinelander.  This served to bring out-of-town visitors directly into the downtown area.  It was a boon for local business and helped maintain economic vitality for Brown Street merchants.  In the early 1990s the Wisconsin Department of Transportation constructed a bypass of Rhinelander south of town, which was opened to vehicle traffic in 1993.  The new Highway 8 bypass created what is known as an “Edge City”; that is, big box chain stores and fast food restaurants built along the Lincoln Street exit of the Route 17 portion of the bypass in order to take advantage of tourist traffic bypassing the city.  The economic center shifted to the Edge City, and downtown hasn’t been the same since.  It wasn’t always this way, and sometimes it is worth remembering what downtown meant to earlier generations.

On the evening of September 21, 1934, for example, the city of Rhinelander held a Fall Festival on Brown Street.  It was a celebration that attracted a large number of local residents.  A platform was constructed near the Central School on North Brown Street, and the evening’s entertainment included performances by the Rhinelander High School Band followed by acts from Tony Khoury’s 63 Club.  No businesses were open that evening, but while the music played downtown retailers one-by-one lifted curtains from their store window fronts to reveal their new lines of fall merchandise that would be available for purchase the following day.  This was the era when merchants took great care in making artistic window displays, and unveiling them became a must-see event.

A parade through downtown followed the musical acts, and everyone was having a wonderful time.  However, the feature event took place at 8:30 that evening.  Downtown businesses had joined together to donate prizes as a way of saying thank you to all the local residents who had shopped in the downtown area.  Raffle tickets for the drawing had been distributed to people making purchases throughout the summer.  Third prize was a new Philco Radio, second prize was a new Kelvinator refrigerator, and the first prize was a brand new 1934 Ford Tudor Sedan.

Needless to say, the excitement that night was palpable as officials on the platform pulled out the winning tickets.  The Joe Philips family won the Philco radio, while the A.C. Kubesh family won the Kelvinator refrigerator.  The winner of the Ford Sedan was Edith Kirk of East King Street.  Mrs. Kirk did not drive but after learning of her prize eagerly announced that “I’m going to learn now.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.