I’ve been exploring some really interesting local history lately that’s right down the road from me. I live near Menominee Park in Oshkosh where there is a massive statue of Chief Oshkosh near the shores of Lake Winnebago. The bronze memorial to the chief was placed in the park in 1911, one of many statues generously donated by Col. John Hicks. What makes this memorial particularly interesting is that the remains of Chief Oshkosh were reinterred at the base of this statue 68 years after his death–or was he— and the city practically shut down to welcome the chief home with a huge celebration.
Just to give you a quick background on our city’s namesake. Oshkosh was a Menominee Indian born in 1795. Wisconsin, not yet a state, was still part of the Northwest Territory and mostly unsettled, and the Menominee had over 10 million acres of land to live off of and conduct trade with the French. It wasn’t long before British, Americans and even Eastern Native American tribes moved in and disrupted the Menominee way of life. Oshkosh was appointed chief of the Menominee in 1827 to negotiate treaties with the United States. During his time as the Menominee leader, he reluctantly signed treaties to cede millions of acres of land in Wisconsin away to the United States–he did this to protect his people. In 1840 the settlements along the Fox River known as “Athens” and “Brooklyn” merged together and formed the village they named “Oshkosh” in honor of the chieftain. The chief spent the rest of his life on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Northeast Wisconsin until his untimely death in 1858. You can check out the Wisconsin Historical Society for more history of Chief Oshkosh.
On May 25, 1926, the citizens of Oshkosh celebrated Chief Oshkosh Day. A Luncheon was held at the Hotel Athearn in downtown Oshkosh. Following that was a parade through the city featuring nearly 200 floats–one with the casket of Chief Oshkosh. Among the estimated 200 marchers were bands, city officials, the Wisconsin National Guard and members of the Menominee Indian tribe. Airplanes were reported to have been flying above the city doing aerobatics and dropping some sort of aerial ordinance in celebration.
This was a HUGE deal that day. A big enough deal that the mayor issued a proclamation that asked people to take the day off.
…I therefore request that the afternoon of Tuesday, May 25, 1926, be dedicated thruout [sic] the City of Oshkosh as a Special Day for expressing our Gratitude and honoring the great Chieftain whose name we bear. I urge all the people to observe the day. Let the outpouring of the people of Oshkosh indicate the measure of their gratitude and love,…to that Distinguished American–CHIEF OSHKOSH.
To promote the event outside of Oshkosh, airplanes flew over other towns and cities dropping leaflets by air. One account said that over 20,000 people attended the celebration in Oshkosh. Those who attended the event took home one of these Chief Oshkosh Day Memorial Exercises program booklets.
The program was planned and funded by local real estate mogul Alfred Craft McComb who spent an estimated $12,000 on the day’s festivities. McComb was born in 1857 near Hortonville, Wisconsin. He graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton in 1878 and spent his early years teaching at schools across the state and later served as superintendent of schools in Bozeman, Montana. in 1892 he moved to Oshkosh and soon after married Ella G. Wilson. McComb made a substantial amount of money buying and selling timberland in Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, Florida and a few other states. He also owned tracts of timberland in South America. It’s no wonder he was able to afford to pick up the bill!
The citizens of Oshkosh were grateful of Alfred McComb for his generosity. The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern wrote that Chief Oshkosh Day helped stir historical preservation and civic pride in Oshkosh. It prompted people to learn about their past and take interest in their city’s roots. This is so interesting in that this attitude has come full circle. Today, a boost in civic pride has led to newly designated historic districts, historical markers and a historic tourism program in Oshkosh. It’s great to see that pride in our local history is in our history here in Oshkosh. That same newspaper snippet from 1926 got it right when it said that historical awareness “…will surely make for the good future of this splendid city.”
Cross, Scott. 2002. Like a deer chased by the dogs: the life of Chief Oshkosh. Oshkosh, Wis: Oshkosh Public Museum.
Dawes, William, and Clara Dawes. 1938. History of Oshkosh, 1938. Oshkosh, Wis.: Service Print Shop.
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, May 22, 1926.
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, May 23, 1926.
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, May 25, 1926.