‘Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Appleton’ premieres April 24 – read a Q&A!

March 16, 2023 Tara Lovdahl Leave a Comment

The newest installment in PBS Wisconsin’s ongoing local history project, Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Appleton tells the story of a city built by the power of the Fox River and reinvented by generations of its people.

Watch the premiere 8 p.m. Monday, April 24 on PBS Wisconsin or stream it for free on the PBS Video App and at pbswisconsin.org/hometownstories.

In anticipation of the premiere, PBS Wisconsin spoke with producer Holly De Ruyter about her experience creating the documentary.

PBS Wisconsin: What surprised you the most about making Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Appleton?

De Ruyter: Being from the area, I knew with Appleton that paper was going to be a big story, but it really surprised me how many other businesses in the area supported that industry. For example, Boldt, that’s a huge construction company, helped build some of the big paper companies in Appleton.

The Institute of Paper Chemistry that was at Lawrence University was a great example of the university helping to support the growth of paper, not only in Wisconsin but the whole world. I knew Lawrence University was in Appleton, but I had no idea it was there before the city was established or how tightly connected to the city it is. They were an essential resource for this documentary.

The hydroelectric history was also fun and surprising. When you look at Wisconsin, hydroelectricity is all over the state, and Appleton is where it all began. I did not know that it was there, and you can explore it today in the Hearthstone Historic House Museum.

An archival photo of a victorian style mansion

Image courtesy of Hearthstone Historic House Museum.

PBS Wisconsin: It sounds like Appleton is particularly interested in their history and they try to make it accessible to the public.

De Ruyter: There’s so many great organizations that allow you to explore their history in different ways. The Appleton Historical Society has a museum that holds a variety of events throughout the year and partners with the City of Appleton to offer tours of the Vulcan Replica.

The History Museum at the Castle provides a great way to explore not only Appleton’s history but also Outagamie County history. They collaborated with African Heritage Inc. to put together a really powerful traveling museum about Black experiences in the Fox Cities called “A Stone of Hope,” which is outstanding.

Then you have places like the Hearthstone Historic House Museum. There you can explore a beautifully preserved historic home tied to early hydroelectric history.

There’s also the Atlas Science Center — formerly the Paper Discovery Center — which is a great place to explore paper history. So there’s just so many ways in Appleton for you to explore the history of the city and the region that I think makes it stand out.

20th century paper mill workers pose in front of large equipment.

Paper mill workers. Image courtesy of Barbara Hirn.

PBS Wisconsin: Favorite local places to eat while you visited?

De Ruyter: Basil Café, definitely. I love Thai food, and they have the best I have had in Wisconsin. Mill City Public House is a newer restaurant that someone recommended to us, and it was amazing! We always loved getting recommendations from people. It’s a great way to find the best places in town!

PBS Wisconsin: What delighted you the most about making Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Appleton?

De Ruyter: I really enjoyed working with the people in Appleton. Appleton was a place where people were asking us, “How can we help you?” and that’s really important when we’re working on a program like this because we couldn’t do it without the community, the people and the organizations.

We rely heavily on the community knowledge and projects that have already been worked on. They help us find the stories we are going to tell. For example, when we explore Appleton’s history before and during the civil rights era and how it affected Black students who came to Lawrence University in the ’60s and ’70s, we couldn’t have told that story without the work that had already been done before we came up. There was research that had already been done and people to interview who knew that history. So it’s really important that we have these close connections in the community so we can help them tell their story.

A group of Black students pose on Lawrence University's campus in the 1960s.

Lawrence University students in the 1960s. Image courtesy of Lawrence University archives.

PBS Wisconsin: What was the most inspiring story you came across while researching the history of Appleton?

De Ruyter: I grew up in Northeast Wisconsin and was not aware of the breadth of civil rights history that took place in that part of the state. Through the “Stone of Hope” traveling museum at the History Museum at the Castle, I learned how Martin L. King Jr. visited UW Fox Valley in 1966 to speak out against racist practices around housing and employment that were happening in the area, like in many other communities across the country. 

When looking into Appleton’s history I learned how Lawrence University started recruiting Black students in the ’60s and ’70s. Those students encountered racism on and off campus, and they came together to protest unfair treatment and to push for change. I got to speak to some of those former students about their experiences, and they are included in the program. 

It was inspiring to see the work that has been done by the Lawrence alumni and the university to discuss this history and make things better for future generations of Black students, and thus the larger community.

A vintage postcard of Lawrence University campus, in a soft watercolor style.

Vintage postcard of Lawrence University campus. Image courtesy of Steve Smits.

PBS Wisconsin:
What do you hope people take away from the documentary?

De Ruyter: When we work on a Hometown Stories episode, I always hope that it just whets people’s appetites for more because there’s so much that we can’t cover. We can’t possibly talk about everything.

It makes me feel good when I work on these episodes and I hear about people reaching out to the local museums or the historical societies because they want to know more. These are really valuable resources in their community to explore that history. I hope the documentary gets people more interested in their community’s history. By understanding your past you can build a stronger future.

Featured image of vintage Appleton postcard courtesy of Ann Kloehn.

1 thought on “‘Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Appleton’ premieres April 24 – read a Q&A!”

  • Laura Leimer says:

    It was a joy to work with you here. Looking forward to seeing the “finished product” in April>
    Laura & Milt “Your Vulcan hosts”

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