The History of Rice Lake, Wisconsin

Rice Lake is located in the Northwoods of Barron County Wisconsin, about 48 miles northwest of Chippewa Falls. Today, Rice Lake, Wisconsin is a friendly small-town with quality accommodations, exceptional dining, and the warmest of hospitality in Wisconsin. But how did Rice Lake get to where it is today?


Downtown Rice Lake, WI in the early 1930's Main & Eau Claire Streets

Downtown Rice Lake, WI in the early 1930’s. Main & Eau Claire Streets


In the 1800s

The town of Rice Lake had its first beginnings around 1864-1867. During this time, John Knapp purchased acres of forest land that became part of the property owned by the largest lumber company in the world; Knapp, Stout & Co. Prior to the lumber company, the land was inhabited by the Chippewa and other American Indian groups. They lived on the land through trapping and gathering wild rice in the lakes and bogs.


In 1870, Knapp, Stout & Co. dammed the Red Cedar River to create a lake for use as a holding pond. This subsequently flooded the region’s wild rice beds. In 1870, 1875 and 1884 the company platted the village and left a 100-foot wide thoroughfare that later became Rice Lake’s business district. By 1880, the firm owned 115,000 acres and produced 90 million feet of cut lumber annually.


Knapp-Stout Co. - Late 1800's Near Rice Lake,Wi.  Supt. James Bracklin in center (fur coat).

Knapp, Stout & Co. – Late 1800’s Near Rice Lake,Wi.
Supt. James Bracklin in center (fur coat). He joined Knapp, Stout Co. in 1876 and was the mayor of Rice Lake for 3 separate 1-year terms – 1889,1891 & 1893.


M.W. Heller was the first permanent settler to live in the area with his family. He started a mill at the dam in 1871. He was also in charge of the first store, hotel, and blacksmith shop. The first newspaper in Barron County, The Chronotype, began printing on September 8, 1874. The same year, the first school opened up. In 1882 the Chippewa Falls and Northern Railroad built its tracks through the city. The following year, tracks were laid for what is now part of the Soo Line System. That same year, the first Barron County bank was opened in Rice Lake.

The State Legislature passed a municipal charter for the city of Rice Lake in 1887. D. W. Montieth became the first mayor. A volunteer fire department was formed in 1889, and electric lights and water utility were established by the lumbering firms in 1892. The first city library opened up in the Carnegie financed structure in 1897.


Knapp, Stout & Co. mill around 1908 in Rice Lake, WI

Knapp, Stout & Co. mill around 1908



In the 1900s and Today

In 1904 the city opened a vocational school. Since then, the institution has expanded to become the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College. The Barron County Normal School opened in the city in 1907. It was succeeded in 1966 by the Barron County Branch Campus of Stout State University, which in 1972, become the University of Wisconsin Center-Barron county.

Electricity and water were taken over as municipal utilities in 1910. The first radio station of the area, WJMC, was established by the McGentry brothers in 1938. In 1976 the city library relocated to its current-day location on North Main Street.


Downtown Rice Lake, WI in the 1960's

Downtown Rice Lake, WI in the 1960’s


Today, Rice Lake is home to over 8,400 people and is a tourist and commercial center. Rice Lake is well known for its surrounding, vast expanse of trail networks that are perfect for skiing, hiking, biking, and snowmobiling. Whether you’re looking for unique shopping, cultural entertainment, or anything in between, Rice Lake has a exclusive experience that’s awaiting you. Browse the many resorts and hotels in the area and book your trip today.


Photos via Old School Rice Lake


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