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Brunet Island State Park History

Jean Brunet

The park is named for Jean Brunet, who was born in France in 1791 of nobility and came to America in 1818 and settled in St. Louis. Called a man of “considerable note,” he served as an officer in the U.S. Army and participated in the building of Fort Crawford. Later he moved to Prairie Du Chien and then, in 1828, to present-day Chippewa Falls.

Brunet was directly responsible for establishing the first dam and sawmill in Chippewa Falls in 1836. The mill quickly opened this area of the Chippewa Valley to an expanding lumber trade. He piloted the first raft of lumber produced at his new mill down the Chippewa and Mississippi Rivers to Prairie Du Chien.

He also served as the first judge and legislator in the Chippewa Falls area.

As time passed, the pioneer spirit of Jean Brunet rekindled and he pushed farther north along the Chippewa River, which previously had been undeveloped and relatively unexplored. Brunet stopped below a falls 30 miles upstream on the river and built a log building, which served as his home as well as a trading post, supply depot and a popular meeting place for travelers to the area. (The Brunet trading post was near the historical marker you can see today on State Highway 178 south of Cornell).

A ferry service across the river was also established at this point. Foundation stones from the original building are slowly being lost, but the spot is about a mile downstream from the present day dam on the west shore. The man was respected by all that knew him and served as a peacemaker between Native Americans and European-Americans.

Brunet worked as a teacher, missionary, guide and explorer, as well, as a brilliant engineer. The wooden dam, which he engineered and built with skilled labor over the rough riverbed, survived floods on the Chippewa for 60 years and was still sound when removed to make way for the present structure in 1911.

Ezra Cornell

Jean Brunet died in 1877. The town of Cornell was first named Brunet Falls after its founder.

The community later was named after Ezra Cornell, for whom Cornell University in New York also was named. He was a businessman from New York that convinced that state's legislature to purchase thousands of acres of then-public lands in Wisconsin to help support the development of the state-run university in Ithaca, N.Y. Later, the lumbering and sales of those lands enriched the university by some $7 million and Cornell's part in that brought about the renaming of the university.

Cornell, in his land-claiming activities, was a frequent guest at Jean Brunet's inn. Brunet did a great deal of timber scouting and cruising for Cornell.

The Industrial Era

A permanent dam was built on the Chippewa River at Cornell in 1911, about the same time that the Cornell Wood Products Company was founded. This mill guaranteed steady employmen for the area The company made paper products, cardboard and wallboard.

The mill installed the huge stacker that still stands in Cornell Mill Yard Park. Stacker operations continued year around. Pulpwood came in on railroad cars and was unloaded into the millpond, which was kept from freezing by steam pipes coming in under the water. These logs were then sawed into two foot chunks. The stacker was a mechanical conveyor that carried these pulpwood chunks high into the air on v-­shaped metal troughs and dumped it, through adjustable chutes, into large piles. Certain types of wood were kept in separate piles because they were used for different grades of paper. The pulpwood was then placed in waterways and floated to a nearby paper mill.

The stacker operated until 1971, a victim of obsolescence brought on by modern hydraulics and hastened by an economic slump in the paper industry. When the stacker ceased operation, the pond beneath was filled in, but portions of its concrete walls are still visible. The land was then converted to the present park.

The State Park

Northern States Power Company donated the 179-acre island to the state in 1936 and the state park was dedicated to Brunet's memory in 1940. The log shelter was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938 and renovated in 2003.

A storm which some claimed was a tornado flattened and uprooted hundreds of trees in the park on July 2, 1970. More than 25 volunteers answered a call to help clean up fallen trees and debris.

In the early years, there was a beach on the west side of the island, near the campgrounds. In 1973-74, the power company drew down the water level in the flowage in order to work on the dam, causing a dangerous drop off at the beach. A new beach was developed at its present location on the south end of the island.

In 1977, another tornado touched down and leveled an 18-acre plot of hemlock trees in the center of the island. Due to all the debris, the park remained closed until the spring of 1978. Today, the impact of the tornado can still be seen. Birch trees have regenerated in the area that was once home to huge hemlocks.

Last revised: Friday October 17 2014