In the 1840s, millwright Jacob Spaulding and his partners built a sawmill at the twenty-foot cataract known as Black River Falls. Eventually a large complex of saw-, shingle, lathe, and gristmills and a sash and door factory supported a prosperous town. Around 1905, the forest was exhausted, bringing economic decline. Then in 1911, a flood washed out a series of dams that had been built to control the Black River for logging and milling, and a wave of destruction swept away most of the downtown.
Union High School was one of the few survivors. Perched atop Price Hill, visible from every direction, the former high school dominates the local skyline. The school’s Second Empire design, the work of Nichols of La Crosse and constructed by Dudley J. Spaulding, was a sign of sophistication, urbanity, and prestige. The school is an elaborate example for such a small community, suggesting the high value that the townspeople placed on public education. The three-story brick building culminates in a mansard roof with gambrel-roofed dormers lighting the attic. On the second story, a brick stringcourse runs around the schoolhouse, curving over round-arched windows. A central four-story bell tower rises high above the building, ending with a mansard roof crowned by an iron railing. The tower’s top story features trios of arched windows and is trimmed above and below by pronounced cornices with scroll brackets. Originally, clocks filled the tower’s gambreled gables, but the circular openings have since been filled with brick.