Sacrificing Scrap Metal: Rhinelander's WWII Response

Mar 24, 2021

Farmers unload scrap metals from a truck.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

During the Second World War, raw materials were in high demand and difficult to obtain.  This made recycling of metal, rubber, and paper more important than ever.  Oneida County met its scrap collection goal but had to sacrifice an historic treasure to do it.  

When Congress declared war in December 1941, the nation had to mobilize industry quickly for full-time military production.  The U.S. needed raw material to manufacture the steel and rubber necessary to construct ships, tanks, guns, and other equipment.  Without enough stockpiles of raw materials, the nation turned to recycling.  Americans were asked to scour their towns and farms for spare rubber, paper, and metal. Nearly any object was considered valuable to the war effort, including old pots, metal toys, tires, and wrought iron fences, to name just a few.

Drives for rubber, paper, and metal took place throughout the summer, but the Northwoods became heavily involved in drives that took place in the fall of 1942.  Not all the metal collected was useful, but the drives galvanized communities across the Northwoods and provided small towns with a sense of patriotic duty.

In September 1942, the city of Rhinelander alone collected eight tons of scrap.  September’s drive was more anemic than hoped, so a second rubber and metal scrap drive was scheduled for October.  The goal set for the October drive was 100 pounds of scrap per capita; that is, 100 pounds for each person living in the city.  In 1942, Rhinelander had a population of 8,501 people, which meant a scrap goal of 850,100 pounds.  Oneida County had a population of 18,938, so the county goal was 1,893,000 pounds of scrap.

To inspire the population to make the appropriate sacrifices, the Oneida County Board’s Public Property Committee made a rather momentous decision.  Ever since the end of the First World War, a military cannon had held a place of prominence in front of the Oneida County Courthouse.  The cannon had been in Rhinelander since 1919 and bore a small plate on its side that said it was cannon No. 49, model of 1895, manufactured in the Watertown Arsenal in 1902.  The Committee on Public Property voted unanimously to contribute the cannon to the scrap harvest in the hope that it would inspire others to give up once treasured items for the greater good.  The cannon alone contributed 2 tons of metal to the scrap drive.  It was given an appropriate sendoff as a large gang of local boys was recruited to tow the cannon down Davenport and Stevens Streets to the train depot.

The WPA used its trucks to haul scrap from farms to help the county meet its goal.  In towns, scrap was dropped off at designated collection points.  The Rhinelander Paper Company donated 123 tons of scrap to the cause while other business did their part too.

The climax of the drive came in late October when 16 trucks made an all-day sweep through the city, collecting as much as possible.  Similar drives took place in Three Lakes, Minocqua, and other Oneida County communities.  With everything collected from towns and farms across the area, Oneida County met its scrap metal goal.

While successful, the October 1942 salvage drive was only the beginning.  As reporters said in 1942, “the work of salvage is not over, and will not be done till the war is won.”