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The Fairwater Water Wheel


FAIRWATER, P.V., Fond du Lac county, on section 31, town 15 N., of range 14 E.; being in the town of Metomen, 22 miles west from Fond du Lac, and 65 miles northeast from Madison. It is situated on the road from Watertown to Ceresco and Berlin, in a fine and healthy section, of good farming land, on the north branch of Grand river. It has two good water powers, one of which is improved by a fine flouring mill; the other is unimproved, with 28 feet head, and sufficient water for three run of stone. Population 40, 5 dwellings, 1 store, and 1 hotel. (Madison: B. Brown, Wisconsin Gazeteer, 1853)


Wisconsin's Grand River rises from prairie springs in Fond du Lac County and flows westerly through a picturesque 30-mile valley until it joins the Fox River between Lake Puckaway and Montello in Marquette County. Along the way it forms mill ponds in Fairwater and Manchester, Grand Lake in Kingston, and the Grand River Marsh, a state wildlife area, in western Green Lake County. Never among the state's major water powers, its water flow nevertheless has been sufficient to turn mill wheels in four communities spanning two counties since the area was settled in the 1840's

The power of the river was first harnessed in 1847 when two of the area's early entrepreneurs, William Dakin and Franklin Lathrop, constructed a dam at a 10-foot limestone narrows and created the Fairwater mill pond. One hundred yards downstream, they erected a flour mill and a 5-foot water wheel that stimulated the development of West Fairwater, one of Fond du Lac County's first communities. The mill served the area continuously for the next 45 years, until it finally burned to the ground in the early 1890's. Over those years it was operated by Lathrop, A. C. Bisbee, Chicagoan N. C. Hurlburt, and finally by German immigrant Gottlieb Stelter.

When the mill burned shortly after being sold to Stelter, the river's productive role in the village had apparently come to an end, and Stelter sold the mill property to another German, John Laper. Water flowed over the Fairwater dam, its power unused, for the next twenty years until Laper's son, twenty-year-old Jesse Laper, took a notion to put it to work again to generate electricity on the site of the old mill in 1912.

According to the younger Laper's son, Florian, "Jess got it in his head he was going to light the town. He had the waterpower, and he set up the generator and got the batteries. As soon as the building was completed and the water turbine was installed, it was connected to a direct current generator and a bank of batteries. These really were the voltage regulating device. The governors of that time were not good enough to hold the speed required for the generator to maintain a voltage within +/- 5 V. The batteries were charged and discharged as the speed of the turbine varied with the water head. It also had the advantage, at that time, of being able to supply current when the turbine was shut down."

Although the water power was productive in concept, the river's 20-foot drop to the site of the original mill proved inadequate in reality to generate enough electricity to keep up with the village's demands. By 1917, Laper was forced to supplement  his water power with a diesel engine. As Laper's associate Ben Card later recalled, they installed a  "big Fairbanks Morse diesel and generator. The big flywheels weighed 11 tons each and were set up in the lower level of the power house."

The same year, Laper and his father-in-law, W. R. Abercrombie, built  the Badger Hemp Company plant across the river from the old mill site and began burning hemp herds to furnish steam for a turbine installed in the power plant.

By 1918, Fairwater Electric was beginning to furnish electricity for the neighboring communities of Brandon and Alto, further straining the company's capacity. Card recalled that that was the year "Jess and I went down to Milwaukee and we found the biggest engine we could find, an eight cylinder Cadillac engine. We brought it home, mounted it, and set it up; and it generated power for a long time. Boy! we had a conglomeration of everything in there. We had water power, steam engine, Cadillac high speed gas engine, the big VenSevern vertical diesel and the Fairbanks Morse diesel. When we were running during a heavy load period, there was so much noise you couldn't hear yourself think."

Capacity continued to be a problem for Fairwater Electric, and In 1924, amid comments that perhaps he had been working too hard, Laper decided to try the river again. He selected a new site for another power plant a half mile downstream from the original mill in a location that would give him a water column 50 feet in height. He developed plans for a massive 50-foot wheel to take maximum advantage of the power. According to Florian Laper, the resulting "29 ton wheel, which is 10 feet wide, produced about 140 horsepower. It is one of the largest and most powerful waterwheels ever built. It was shipped unassembled by railroad from the Fitz Waterwheel Company of Hanover, Pennsylvania, to Fairwater, where it was erected near the Grand River to generate electricity."

Water from the mill pond was directed to the wheel house by one-half mile of 36-inch diameter wooden pipeline constructed from western red cedar stave. "The route of the pipe," according to Laper, "was over a valley and through a cut in a hill, then down a hill across a marsh to the new plant. The local people said, 'Jess has lost his mind; he's trying to make water run up hill.' What they couldn't see was that the height of the pipe through the cut was lower than the height of the pond, even though the pipe in between was lower and made it appear that the water had to run up hill."

The design of the wheel house power plant was inventive. The building was built around the wheel, and its gear-and-belt, speed-increasing transmission system. The building was 60 feet high by 80 feet wide by 100 feet long. It was constructed of 2x6 boards covered with galvanized corrugated sheet metal. The wheel pit and the side piers were of cement and stood twenty-five feet high. The piers for the gear trail and belt pulleys were the same height. The belts were endless leather belting 12" wide. Three belts were used to bring the speed up from two and a half rpm, the speed of the water wheel, to 1200 rpm, the speed of the 75 K.W. 2400 V. generator. The 12" diameter steel main axle for the wheel itself was laid across the wheel piers, and the water wheel was built onto it. The wheel was fifty feet high and ten feet wide. On the circumference of the wheel there was a continuous series of cups the full width of the wheel. They were located every six inches around the wheel. Each cup would hold twenty gallons of water. That's 160 pounds in every cup.

The operations of the wheel, the largest overshot water wheel in the country and thought to be the second largest ever built, were destined to be short-lived. Florian Laper describes its early demise in 1926:

"The Fair Water Electric Company big wheel operated successfully for six months, when one night tragedy struck. While Jess was oiling the large gear and pinion, he noticed a tooth on the large gear had broken and fallen off.  He jumped from the ladder and ran for the water shutoff valve. He realized that as soon as the broken tooth hit the pinion something would break. Before he could get the water shut off the misalignment occurred and the large gear split in half and fell to the floor. The 50 foot waterwheel, freed from the gear train, began to spin uncontrollably at a rapid speed until it was only a blur! The building began to shake, and Jess feared the wheel might jump off its bearings, crash through the wheelhouse and race helter-skelter through the surrounding countryside! Luckily, the wheel's momentum finally slowed to a stop after spraying water all over the inside of the wheelhouse. A new gear was ordered and installed, but while installing the gear it was found that the main axle had developed a one-quarter twist.  It was apparent that the axle was not strong enough for the torque created by the big wheel. The Fitz Water Wheel Company then supplied a new high carbon steel axle, but since the wheel had been built on the original axle there was no way to hold everything in alignment while it was installed.  A steel case turbine was then supplied to be direct connected to a vertical generator which ran for over twenty years."

Jesse Laper continued running the new diesel operation and went on to build power plants at Kingston and Oxford. The big wheel in Fairwater, however, remains his monument to the inventiveness of early technology in the state.

Today, the big wheel, its gearing system, and much of the old power plant structure are still standing, secluded in trees along a remote stretch of the Grand River. 

Fairwater mill pond photo courtesy David Schuster. All others courtesy Florian Laper. Originally published by the Wisconsin Local History Network's Wisconsonian electronic journal, 1999.


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millpond.jpg (4476 bytes)
Fairwater's Grand River mill pond.

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The Fairwater dam, 1912. Its buttress construction is visible to the right of the raceway.

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Excess water power below the dam during spring flooding, 1918.

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Jesse W. Laper, ca. 1915

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Construction photos from the spring and summer of 1925; from top: wheelbarrow ramp for hauling cement, Oshkosh truck and pulleys for lifting wheel assembly; the finished wheel pit, wheel house and mechanicals nearing completion; the pipeline completed to the top of the wheel.

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Pipeline photos,spring,1925; the open pipe ends enticed the village's youngest residents to crawl through the entire half mile length; the bottom photo pictures one of them, six-year-old Florian Laper, standing in front of the finished wheel house.

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The big wheel today; from top: the wheel's buckets and spokes, the wheel's gearing system, the wheel and main gear "on the way up from two and one-half rpm to twelve hundred rpm."