One of Appleton’s Own – Edna Ferber

by Christine Williams

Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1885, and spending time in Chicago, Illinois, and Ottumwa, Iowa, before moving to Appleton at age 12, the author and playwright Edna Ferber has been embraced by our community as one of Appleton’s own. 

The Ferbers, a Hungarian-Jewish family, moved to the City Park neighborhood with first a rental at 319 N. Drew Street and then later purchased a house at 216 North Street. Both homes were close to her parents’ “My Store” dry-goods store at 124 E. College. Edna’s parents, Jacob and Julia, shared responsibilities in the store until her father’s gradual blindness made it too difficult. Mrs. Ferber took over the day-to-day operations of the store, with Edna (who loathed working at the store) and her sister Fannie helping during breaks from school.  

Edna enjoyed her time in Appleton. She picnicked while watching the steamboats navigate the locks, played in our numerous ravines, and went on long bike rides. In winter, she went ice skating and bobsledding.

Edna attended Ryan High School. Except for math, she was a good student. She was active in debate, yearbook, and choir. She played the lead role in the school play, and was the editor of the school’s “The Clarion.” She excelled in public speaking and memorized speeches to recite at community gatherings, churches, and clubs. During her senior year she won the state’s declamatory contest and returned to Appleton to “find the entire high school and most of the town at the depot.” In 1904, she graduated at 17 and dreamed of becoming an actress by attending Northwestern University. Given her father’s health and her family’s finances, college wasn’t meant to be.

Instead, she landed a job as the first female reporter for the “Appleton Crescent” newspaper, making a wage of $3 per week. She covered courthouse and police station business, but also special interest and other stories. In 1904, with some luck and a lot of persistence, she cornered Harry Houdini on College Avenue. The famous Appletonian, who hadn’t been in the city for 20 years, agreed on the spot to an interview with the young reporter.

Her career with the “Appleton Crescent” was short-lived, lasting only a year and a half. New management let her go. She was quickly offered a job at the “Milwaukee Journal,” with a substantial weekly paycheck of $15. Again, she covered police and courthouse beats for four years until she collapsed from a nervous breakdown. She returned to Appleton to recuperate. It was during this time that she bought a used typewriter and began her life-long passion of writing fiction.

Her family moved to Chicago after her father’s death in 1909. Her first novel was published in 1911. A lifetime of novels would make her a household name: “So Big” (earning her the Pulitzer), “Cimarron”, “Show Boat,” and many others. The girl who dreamt of acting became a playwright with George Kaufman. Edna Ferber had fond memories of her time in Appleton, and used people she met here as inspiration in her novels, plays, and in her popular autobiography, “A Peculiar Treasure.”