From the area’s earliest Native American inhabitants to the early French and British explorers, all who passed through this area impressed upon the emerging city the values, innovations, and traditions that Wisconsin Rapids still holds so esteemed today.
Early on, the Native Americans who settled here referred to this area as “Ah-da-wa-gam,” which means “two-sided rapids.” It was named this because of a large boulder in the Wisconsin River that essentially split the water in two.
The powerful flow of the river provided convenient access for fur traders from as far away as Canada, leading to the establishment of several trading posts in the early 1820’s. Eventually, the incredible resource of the river lured many into starting permanent settlements along the shores, creating the town of Grand Rapids on the east bank, and Centralia on the west. As each began to prosper with the advent of logging and papermaking, the two cities joined together and became the town of Grand Rapids in 1900. However, there was much confusion with the much larger Grand Rapids, Michigan, and many mail delivery mix-ups plagued the town. Eventually, the town changed its name to Wisconsin Rapids, to honor the 45-foot decent the river makes at this point in its journey.
Shortly after, the rapids were tamed with a series of five dams stretching from Stevens Point to Nekoosa, and the immense power of the Wisconsin River was harnessed and used to help shape the growth and development of the Rapids area. It allowed for the creation and vitality of papermaking, as seen in the longevity of Consolidated Papers (now New Page), and also impacted the farming and agricultural industries that have long been a tradition in this area.
Probably the most significant of all of the area’s agricultural boastings are the cranberries. Our early local residents discovered the cranberry, one of three fruits native only to North America, and used the region’s fertile wetlands to grow, harvest and export this tangy fruit, and create a whole new chapter in Wisconsin Rapids history. Cranberries are a way of life here in Central Wisconsin, so much so that Grand Ave used to be known as Cranberry Street!
Annually, Wisconsin exports more than 300 million pounds of cranberries, making our state the leading cranberry producer in the country. Visitors and guests can still experience the excitement of the cranberry harvest firsthand by driving the 50-mile Cranberry Highway and seeing the spectacular beauty of a cranberry bog at the peak of the season – and taking in some of our breathtaking scenery along the way!
An area rich in tradition, heritage and scenery, the Wisconsin Rapids Area continues to develop and thrive, never forgetting its humble beginnings and those who helped it grow into what it is today.