An audience looks on at Poplar Hall as the Appleton documentary is shown.
Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Appleton was shown twice April 13 to nearly full houses at Poplar Hall in Appleton. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

The intertwining of the histories of Lawrence University and the City of Appleton is front and center in a new documentary produced by PBS Wisconsin as part of an ongoing series on Wisconsin communities.

The 56-minute documentary, Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Appleton, will air on PBS beginning April 24. Local residents were invited to two premiere showings on April 13, held at Poplar Hall, a venue overlooking the river that plays such a prominent role in Appleton’s deep and winding history.

A PBS team, led by producer Holly De Ruyter, spent months in Appleton, gathering footage, digging through archives, and talking to historians and other residents. Lawrentians are featured throughout the documentary—Antoinette Powell, a librarian, associate professor, and local historian, talking about early Appleton history; Jerald Podair, professor of history emeritus, on the city and Lawrence growing together; Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory, on how music has infused the culture of the community through the generations; and Robert Currie ’74 and the late Joseph Patterson ’69 on the Civil Rights activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s that helped push Lawrence and the Appleton community forward.

Appleton Mayor and Lawrence alumnus Jake Woodford ’13 welcomed the PBS team and the audience to Poplar Hall

Appleton Mayor Jake Woodford '13 addresses the crowd at Poplar Hall.
Appleton Mayor Jake Woodford '13 addresses the crowd at Poplar Hall. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

We create our history together every day,” Woodford said. “To the members of our community who contributed your stories, your photos, your passions, your funds, and your knowledge to this project, thank you.”

The documentary will hopefully spur new interest in the histories of Appleton and Lawrence. It also provides a reminder that our actions today will “reverberate” when future generations study this community, Woodford said.

“May those reverberations be increasingly harmonious and may those who come after us take similar pride in our good works as the pride we take in the good works of those who came before us,” he said.

It was on January 15, 1847, that Lawrence Institute was granted a charter, one year before Wisconsin became a state and six years before Appleton would be incorporated as a municipality. It was founded as one of the nation’s first co-educational institutions of higher learning, and in the ensuing years would see the establishment of a world-class music conservatory, a merger with Milwaukee-Downer College, and the emergence and growth of academic programs that now annually lands Lawrence University on lists of the best liberal arts colleges in the country.

The documentary explores how the decision of Amos A. Lawrence, a Boston merchant, to launch a college in a wilderness setting along the Fox River would lead to the development of a surrounding city, the taming of the Fox River through a series of elaborate locks and dams, the emergence of a burgeoning paper industry along the banks of the river, and the challenges and opportunities that flowed from there.

Lawrence celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2022.

PBS Wisconsin’s Hometown Stories series can be found here. Look for the Appleton edition beginning April 24.