Koehnke’s Woods — Grand Chute, Wisconsin

(This page consists of podcast notes and is not intended to be a fully fleshed-out article.)

Ervin Herbert Koehnke was born November 1, 1890 in Appleton to Henry and Sadie (Krohn) Koehnke.

July 8, 1918, was sent to the barracks at Columbus, Ohio for training, with the plan to be in France after. He does seem to have made it, though by the time he arrived the war was in its final stages.

On November 17, 1931, he married Arvilla Hill at the courthouse in Appleton. She was an Oneida woman. They had one child, Earl Koehnke. In May 1932, he opened a blacksmith shop at his house at 1321 North Bennett.

March 1937, Koehnke incorporated the Koehnke and Fuerst Company, specializing in agricultural tools and equipment. The other incorporators were Arthur Fuerst and prominent attorney Lester H. Chudacoff. (Chudacoff’s wife was Mollie Goldin, part of prominent family in Kaukauna.) A March 1940 ad had McC Deering tractors on deep discount.

1941, purchased the 8 acres of Koehnke’s woods for $1,500 and began building what he called “cottages.”

January 1961, Koehnke offered 4.5 lots of land at the corner of Bennett and Kamps in the Bell Heights neighborhood to Appleton for a fire station for $34,500. The city rejected the offer.

Arvilla Hill Koehnke passed away in Chicago on March 13, 1961 at 50 years old.

May 1965, Koehnke was pulled over for driving with a revoked license. At this time he lived at 1922 West Second Street. This was on the edge of his woods. At the time, it was in Grand Chute and not Appleton, so fell under county jurisdiction.

March 1967, the county board moved to take action against Koehnke when they found he had built two shacks and a mobile home on his property. Not only did he not get permits, but the area was zoned for “heavy industry” and not residential. The order does not say that anyone was living in the shacks, but they presumably were. It also does not say how long they were there before the county noticed.

Around 1969, Father Timon Costello would visit the poor in Koehnke’s woods. He was appalled by what he saw and how Appleton denied there was a poverty issue. Then, he says, a resident froze to death, so he received permission to open a halfway house called the Villa Hope (116 South Walnut) in January 1970 to take in the poor. A year later, authorities tried to push Costello out and failed when residents came to his aid – but that’s another story.

During the 1969-1970 winter, a baby had to be brought to the hospital for dehydration due to cold and breathing in radiator fumes. The shack was so cold the baby wasn’t allowed on the floor and had no room or ability to crawl.

July 2, 1970: The Community Organization on Koehnke’s Woods, lead by Lawrence Longley, announced they would be working on a referral program to get low income people from the woods to assistance from the state and federal government. Commitee member Marilyn Taylor was gathering materials and information, while others were actively trying to physically clean up the woods for safety and health. This group had formed on March 15 and saw Koehnke as a slumlord, renting out his shacks for $15-50 a month. Koehnke said he was a humanitarian, providing housing when no one else would – low-income housing was practically unheard of in the area.

July 10, 1970, Ervin’s son Earl was in a boat on Lake Winnebago when he stood up and lost his balance. He fell in the lake and drowned, age 38. The news reported this was the fourth drowning in the Menasha area within two weeks.

On the afternoon of August 28, 1970, Alvin Sam Carlson, 47, who lived in the woods, fired a shot at Officer ???. He was arrested for endangering safety and brought before Judge Nick Schaefer. Attorney Jerome Block, appointed for Carlson, said Carlson had only 8 cents to his name, and a 1956 Dodge that did not run. He was held in jail on $1,000 bond he couldn’t pay. Carlson told the judge he suffered from a “rupture” and had not worked in a year while he waited to get put on disability. His mother was in a nursing home and his brother was in Los Angeles.

For the last two weeks, Carlson had been receiving help from the town of Grand Chute, including groceries. But then the town inspectors stopped by and ordered the trailer Carlson was living in condemned because it was infested with rats and overflowing with junk. Carlson had actually been renting the trailer from Koehnke for seven years at that point, and the town said its poor condition was “indescribable.” Authorities were going to raze the trailer, so Carlson burned it down. Sheriff’s deputies George Hanlon and Joseph VandenOever arrived and found Carlson in the car, so full of junk he could barely fit in the front seat. This is when he fired upon the officers with his .25 pistol, which jammed after the first shot. He was arrested and the burned trailer was demolished.

On September 2, Judge Schaefer sent Carlson to Central State Hospital for a 60-day mental evaluation. 22 days later, doctors there said he had a “personality disorder” but was competent and was returned to the Outagamie Jail, with trial scheduled before Judge Andrew Parnell. On October 28, Parnell reduced the charge to carrying a concealed weapon, sentencing Carlson to 9 months of probation.

March 6, 1973, the town was still trying to clean up Koehnke’s woods. They found 18 shacks among the 8 acres of woods, with garbage everywhere. The shacks were made of pressed paper, had no running water and no toilets. The hope was to get them condemned and torn down, but if that failed, they would try to make the 82-year old Koehnke obey the minimum housing codes. (Why it was such a challenge for the town is not clear. News articles don’t go into detail on the legal challenges, but I suspect there’s a lot more hurdles involved when you’re displacing people – both legal hurdles, and the general public not approving.)

By November 1974, Alvin Carlson was back in the woods, this time living in a chicken coop. (He had been in a shack, but couldn’t afford Koehnke’s rent.) When social worker Al Welch checked up on him, he was vomiting blood, in great pain and too weak to carry wood to keep him warm. At St. Elizabeth Hospital, 51-year old Carlson was found to have terminal cancer, and likely had it for years. He had been living off of $46 per month because he could not get disability benefits. One doctor had told the SSA that Carlson was “just lazy.” His diet was primarily cold macaroni and cheese. Alvin Carlson died January 29, 1975. He was buried in Shawano – the $525 funeral bill and $6,028 hospital bill was sent to the town of Grand Chute. Town chairman Ira Livingston said they might pay the funeral home but would deny the hospital bill and make St. Elizabeth eat it.

Ervin Koehnke passed May 1, 1979 in Menasha.

March 1980, following the death of Koehnke, Appleton voted 18-2 to annex the woods. They wanted to condemn and develop it. Alderman Glenn Thompson said Grand Chute was getting rid of a slum and gaining a shopping mall – what did Appleton gain? One hurdle was that Koehnke’s will gave the woods to his 5 grandchildren and said they could not sell it until the youngest was 21 – something that wouldn’t happen until 1988. Regardless, the last resident was pushed out in 1980, and in 1981, Valley Transit built its $2 million garage.

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