River pilots named this spot Twelve Mile Bluff because of a rock formation that was visible from the mouth of the Chippewa River 12 miles north of the bluff. Sadly, the rock outcropping that gave the bluff its distinctive shape collapsed in 1881, sending a giant boulder rolling down hill. No one was hurt, but a couple of buildings were damaged and the town lost its most distinctive landmark.
European and American settlers began arriving in 1848. The first to set up stakes were Swiss immigrants Victor Probst and John Waecker; they made a living selling cordwood to passing steamboats. And the Swiss just kept coming, supplemented by a smattering of Germans. The village was platted in 1855 with the name Alma, suggested by W.H. Gates.
Alma’s growth began with the usual things—hotels, a general store, and a brewery—but the very first business in town was supposedly a saloon opened by a guy who came upriver from Keokuk. The town’s economy got a boost when Alma won the county seat election in 1860. Zany county seat shenanigans often found on the frontier ensued. Fountain City challenged the election results, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court wouldn’t play along. In 1861, Charles Schaettle led a group of Watergate-quality burglars from Buffalo City in an attempt to steal the county papers from Alma and bolster Buffalo City’s claim. They failed, and, according to one account, the bungling burglars were chased from town while a fiddler played the tune Wender nit bald heigo, ihr Chaiba, which means something like “Won’t you please decamp, you rascals.” Alma beat Buffalo City in the 1861 county seat election and never looked back. Many of the disappointed settlers from Buffalo City relocated to Alma in the 1860s; probably not the same ones that tried to steal the county papers, though.
The single most important reason for Alma’s early growth was logging. Beef Slough, an area just north of the village, was the site of a major operation where, from 1867 to 1889, logs coming down the Chippewa River were sorted and assembled into log rafts. The Beef Slough Manufacturing, Booming, Log Driving, and Transportation Company was founded in 1867 and grew into one of the largest operations in the US. The company later merged with the Mississippi River Logging Company, which chose Frederick Weyerhaeuser as its leader in 1873.
Alma had a couple of sawmills of its own, plus ice harvesting, lime kilns, boat manufacturing, and a robust cigar manufacturing sector. The Martin Exel Company rolled nearly 60,000 cigars a year in the 1870s, mostly for the local market. By 1897, Alma counted three cigar factories that produced a collective 138,000 cigars every year; the factories closed by 1928.
One of the most celebrated local residents was Gerhard Gesell, an early photographer and contemporary of Ansell Adams (his studio operated from 1876-1906). Gesell was a gifted photographer who spent a lot effort documenting daily life in and around Alma. He made a composite photo called Pioneers of Buffalo Co., Wisconsin that was created from 156 individual portraits of folks who settled in the area prior to 1857; it is on display in the courthouse.
The last of the logging-related businesses shut down in 1905. Alma began attracting artists for the summer in the 1920s but only recently have more made Alma their year-round home. Lock and Dam 4 was built in 1932, which ended Alma’s days as a port of call for riverboats but provided employment during the Depression.