|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
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
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.
to Fairwater Local History Web home
Fairwater's Grand River mill
The Fairwater dam, 1912. Its
buttress construction is visible to the right of the raceway.
Excess water power below the
dam during spring flooding, 1918.
Jesse W. Laper, ca. 1915
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
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.
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."