40 Acre collection of some of Green Bay's most historic structures
The French were the first settlers in the area, mostly trappers and traders. Voyageurs traversed the Fox River to the Mississippi River via the Wisconsin River. The only interruption was a portage between the Fox and Wisconsin at the location of today's city of Portage.
At the end of the French and Indian War (1763) France was forced to leave North America and all the land east of the Mississippi River came under British control. That lasted until 1783 when the Treaty of Paris granted the land to the new United States.
The French had built a fort here and abandoned it, the British took over but abandoned it, and the Americans built Fort Howard on the site in 1816. The area continued to grow with the influx of settlers through Lake Michigan. Europeans continued to arrive, including Belgian farmers and Norwegians.
Wisconsin was granted statehood in 1848. Fort Howard closed in 1852, and remains only as a memory and the name of paper products. Green Bay became an industrial city with iron works, lumber processing and paper making. The Fox River began to lose its importance as a highway with the growth of the railroads, in fact, the site of Fort Howard was sold to the Chicago & Northwestern Railway in 1868 for a depot and yards.
Much of Fort Howard was demolished but a few structures were moved to a Green Bay neighborhood for preservation. Other structures that represented the colorful history of Green Bay were in danger of neglect and vandalism at best, or demolition at worst.
Those structures from Fort Howard were moved again, floated on barges up the Fox River, to Heritage Hill. Two are on the National Register of Historic Places and other Fort Howard structures were reproduced here. Of the several other buildings at Heritage Hill, three are listed on the NRHP including the Moravian Church, the Cotton House, and the oldest extant residence in Wisconsin, the Tank Cottage.
When the Wisconsin State Reformatory was built at the turn of the 20th Century, it was built on a 200 acre site south of the city, in today's Village of Allouez. It included a forty acre site, north of the prison that was used as a hayfield, truck farm, and orchard with labor provided by inmates. The land included of the site of the first courthouse built in Wisconsin.
In 1934, the "reformatory boys" built a memorial on that site to commemorate the location of that first courthouse. In 1819, part of the land had been known as "Camp Smith" in honor of Colonel Joseph Lee Smith who brought troops here from Fort Howard, apparently during an epidemic. He moved the garrison to Camp Smith in 1819 but by 1822, the garrison was back in Fort Howard. After the fort closed in 1852, several of the buildings were moved into Green Bay residential neighborhoods.
Interest in the preservation of history in Green Bay is not a recent idea, in fact, the first discussion of creating a park for historic structures was in the 1950s. The prison farmland was a logical choice. When the Cotton House was given to the Brown County Historical Society by the Archdiocese in 1938, between 1938 and 1941 the house was moved to this site and opened as a museum.
In 1960, discussions between stakeholders took place. A referendum was passed, further encouraging creation of a park. The construction of Wisconsin Highway 172 separated the reformatory from the site, rendering the land virtually surplus to the prison.
In 1971, action was taken by the State of Wisconsin because of the developments. The Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services transferred ownership of the site to the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR operates state parks, and Heritage Hill State Park came to fruition as a cooperative effort between the DNR and the Brown County Historical Society.
With the Cotton House already on the site, it was a matter of moving several other historic buildings in Green Bay to the new Heritage Hill State Park. Today, the park is open for touring (for a nominal fee) and is a popular site for school field trips and anyone interested the fascinating history of Fort Howard and the growth of the Green Bay area.