Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA
Created | Updated Mar 21, 2006
The city of Oshkosh is located where the Fox River enters Lake Winnebago in Winnebago County, Wisconsin. Lying on the western shore of the lake, it is served by Wittman Regional Airport and can be found by road off Highway 41. With a population of 63,000 (according to the census of 2003), it is named after Menominee chief Oskosh, this being the Menominee word for 'claw'. Born in 1795, Oskosh became leader of the Menominee people at the age of 32 and passed away in 1858.
French fur traders settled in the Menominee area as early as 1818, among them the first European inhabitant of the region, Robert Grignon, who established a trading post on Lake Butte des Morts. Grignon moved his trading post on to the land which would eventually become part of Oshkosh in 1821.
In 1839, the residents of the towns of Brooklyn and Athens, located on the south and north sides of the Fox River respectively, decided to select a name for their newly-merging city from the following list: Athens, Stanford, Oseola and Oskosh. Oskosh was the favourite, although the spelling later changed to Oshkosh, this being the Menominee word for 'brave'. In 1840, Oshkosh received a Post Office: John P Gallup was the postmaster and by 1842 Winnebago County was chartered. In 1847, Morris Firman began operating the first sawmill in Oshkosh. Within a few years, sawmills were lining the Fox River and in 1848 Oshkosh, with a population now exceeding 2,000, was named the county seat when Wisconsin became a state. The Paine Lumber Company was established by Edward L Paine in 1853 and Philetus Sawyer - the 1860s Mayor of Oshkosh who went on to become a Congressman and a Senator - worked in the lumber industry in his youth.
1859 saw the railroad come through the city, and by 1870 Oshkosh was the third-largest city in the state with a population of over 12,000. Also in 1870, a huge fire burned down most of downtown Oshkosh: arson was suspected in one of the many lumber yards. This fire together with the great Chicago fire of 1871 led to a boom in Oshkosh's lumber trade, as much of the lumber used to rebuild Chicago was produced by Oshkosh sawmills. By 1873, 24 sawmills, 15 shingle mills and seven sash and door companies were in operation and Oshkosh became known as 'Sawdust City'.
In 1873, the Northern Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane was founded on the shores of Lake Winnebago near Oshkosh. Now called the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, it is a residential hospital, with over 250 beds, treating a whole spectrum of mental illnesses, with patients being both forensic and civil cases.
In 1895, a small clothing business established itself in Oshkosh. OshKosh B'Gosh Overalls soon grew from a small-town manufacturer of adult workwear into a global marketer of children's clothing and accessories. Best known for their rugged, hickory-striped men's bib overalls, the company began making a pint-sized version in the early 1900s, so that children could dress like their fathers. It wasn't until Miles Kimball (a local mail order firm) featured a pair of children's bib overalls in its national catalogue that sales of the item took off. Prompted by the strong response, OshKosh B'Gosh expanded distribution into speciality and department stores, and gradually broadened their childrenswear line. Hardy, colourful and relatively inexpensive, with the well-known brand-name embossed upon the brass buttons, the clothes were and still are a hit with both children and parents.
Fully established as a centre for trade and tourism, Oshkosh is also home to Oshkosh Truck, one of the world's leading manufacturers of emergency, utility and military vehicles, as well as two well-known chocolate companies: Hughes Homemade Chocolate and Oaks Chocolates.
One of the more interesting historical sights in Oshkosh is the Oshkosh Public Museum. Housed in the former home of Philetus Sawyer, there are displays of many types in the museum. One of the most fun to watch is the Apostles Clock, built by Matthias Kitz in the late 1800s. The clock has a large metal disk that plays music as the 12 Apostles file out of the doors on one side, turn and nod to the figure of Christ and file into the doors on the other side, with Judas turning away. The museum also has a miniature version of the Paine Lumber Company's buildings, many natural artefacts and an archive of city history, photos and art work.
Across Congress Street diagonally is the Paine Art Center and Gardens. This is something of a tribute to the Paine family and is run by a private trust, but it is quite impressive to visit. Also worth a look is Menominee Park on the shore of Lake Winnebago. The park has a small zoo, a miniature train to ride, a carousel and 'Little Oshkosh' - a community-built children's playground. There are also several shelters you can reserve for family or business picnics. During the 'Sawdust Days' Carnival, Menominee Park holds the Fireworks Display on 4 July, and these are best seen from the islands in Miller's Bay as all the colours reflect in the waters around them.
Experimental Aircraft Convention
Oshkosh is also the home of EAA AirVenture - 'The World's Greatest Aviation Celebration' - held by the Experimental Aircraft Association. Conducted every summer in late July, AirVenture is the world's largest airshow, with hotels in the area full to bursting and private homes making themselves available for the overflow.
For just one week each year, Oshkosh grows a whole southern suburb around Wittman Regional Airport, and the air traffic rivals that of O'Hare International in Chicago. The best part of the show is usually the Stealth Aircraft flying over, or the Warbirds in formation. It's quite a sight even if you don't like military shows of force or air shows in general.
The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, the third-largest university in the state, has its campus at Oshkosh. Founded as a State Normal School dedicated to training teachers in 1871, the state's first kindergarten was started there and for many years, until around 1980, a campus school provided a facility for teachers to carry out their student teaching. Today it is one of the larger campuses in the Wisconsin university system with a strong men's basketball team, the Titans.
Eating in Oshkosh
Along with a university comes a more diverse population than might otherwise be the case and there are a wide variety of restaurants in the Fox Valley. Oshkosh has several Oriental restaurants, with the typical buffet offered, and two or three Mexican restaraunts. Lara's Tortilla Flats has been on Main Street for at least 30 years and offers a wide variety of Mexican foods. There are also some newer places, such as Mazatlan on the frontage road by Highway 41, and Mario's on 24th and Oregon St, near Oshkosh Truck Inc. This is, of course, only a small list of the variety of cuisines available.
Sport and Leisure
Fishing is a popular sport in the area due to Oshkosh's proximity to Fox River and Lake Winnebago. A wide variety of fish are easily caught, including perch (recently over-fished and not as plentiful), walleye, white bass and trout. These are all common in several small lakes in the area, but Lake Winnebago is known for its sturgeon-spearing season in February each year.
Hunting is also available, with rabbits, ducks, canada geese and whitetail deer the most common quarry. However, by far the most popular recreational pursuits in Oshkosh are the many water-based sports and activities on offer, from swimming through to windsurfing. With the Fox River running through the city and lying as it does on the western shore of Lake Winnebago, there are also many marinas and yachting clubs.
Art and Culture
Oshkosh offers concerts and musical entertainment at The Grand Opera House, which is located downtown and has regular events like 'Riders Radio Theater', 'The Chenelle Sisters', and many more.
Oshkosh also holds the annual music festival Waterfest, offering a variety of music from rock, to jazz, to blues, to folk, to cuban - you think of it, it'll be there.
Oshkosh has a sister city in Oshkosh, Nebraska, which was established by a group of settlers who travelled from the original Oshkosh in Wisconsin to create a homestead.