Appleton has long been a center of industrial development, thanks to its location at the Grand Chute waterfall on the Fox River. In the mid-nineteenth century, the city’s major industries were flour and lumber milling, but by the late 1890s, loggers had run out of white pine to cut, and farmers had depleted the once-rich soils, forcing those industries to move elsewhere. Appleton and the entire Fox River Valley found new life in the paper industry, which drew on the Northwoods’ stands of spruce and balsam, as well as on cloth rags and, later, wood pulp. The years 1882 to 1902 witnessed a boom in Fox River paper manufacturing, with eighty-one new producers expanding into twenty-four new communities. In 1884, seven paper mills operated in Appleton alone.
The Fox River Flour and Paper Company was founded in 1883. Declining wheat production required the company to drop “Flour” from its name four years after opening, but there was no shortage of rag pulp, and the paper part of the business flourished. The company spread its mill complex along the west bank of the Fox River, adjacent to the Oneida Street Bridge. This complex encompasses three groups of buildings, the most important clustered at the west end. All were constructed in the utilitarian mode common for industrial buildings at the time, though some reflect Italianate or Colonial Revival influences.
Jones, a paper mill architect from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, designed the western-most group, built of cream brick. The four-story Rag Mill (1893), just west of the bridge, is among the most stylish. Its ornate corbeled cornice along two elevations and small wooden brackets along another are Italianate. Multipaned sashes fill segmental-arched window openings. Inside this mill, workers stored, sorted, and cut cloth rags, which were used to make fine writing, ledger, and book papers. Many of America’s nineteenth-century urban poor eked out their meager subsistence as “rag pickers,” collecting scraps of cloth and cast-off clothing for sale to companies like this one.
To the west of the Rag Mill is the similar-looking Ravine Mill (1884), the oldest surviving building in the complex. Here, workers beat bits of rag to remove dirt, boiled them in a bleach solution, and placed them in Hollander machines, which extracted the fine rag fibers. The fibers, once combined with water, coloring, and sizing, flowed into a Fourdrinier machine, which pressed out the water and turned the pulpy mix into paper. As the paper emerged, workers cut the sheets, dried them on racks or on iron cylinders, and packed them for shipment.
South of the Ravine and Rag mills is the three-story, U-shaped Lincoln Mill (1889), whose gabled dormers rhythmically punctuating the roofline, classically inspired cornice returns, and segmental-arched windows reflect Colonial and Federal revivals. Incongruously, along the northeast side of the building, a square five-story tower terminates with a tall mansard roof. Additions of red brick and concrete block took place incrementally between 1911 and 1934. During those same years, the company built the new Fox River Mill complex east of the bridge, bringing the firm’s productive capacity to thirty tons of paper per day.