The History of the Sheboygan Falls Police Department
“Sheboygan at the Falls” was founded by Yankee entrepreneur Colonel Silas Stedman, one of the first settlers in Wisconsin. He purchased the land through a public sale in Green Bay in 1835 and settled in the area almost immediately. By 1840, the village boasted a saw mill, three houses, and a small population that included a shoemaker and a blacksmith. Located right next to the Sheboygan River, a source of fresh water and an important source of energy, the village enjoyed an early period of growth and prosperity. Between 1837 and 1846, five impressive houses were built in the Greek Revival style in the original downtown business district, and as the population grew, new businesses emerged to serve the local community, including a tannery, a cheese bandage factory, a rake factory, and eventually, a woolen mill.
In 1854, the village of Sheboygan Falls decided to create its own police system, choosing to employ a Village Marshall, William C. Eastwood, who was elected by popular vote for a one-year term. Over the course of the next fifty years or so, twenty-six other men held the position of Village Marshall, most serving one or two terms, some a little longer. A few individuals, such as Dwight McGlaughlin, served on multiple occasions; in his case from 1866-67, and again from 1869-70. One family, the Gartons, was closely associated with the position in the late 1800s. John Garton was Village Marshall for a total of eight terms in the 1870s and 1880s, and William J. Garton held the position twice, in 1898-1900, and again in 1911.The longest-serving Marshall was Otto Rickmeier, who served for a total of nine years at the start of the 20th century. The last elected Marshall was Edgar A. George. He served from 1911-1913.
By the time George was elected Village Marshall in 1911, Sheboygan Falls was no longer a village. Its population had grown steadily over the previous 20 years, from 1,118 inhabitants in 1890 to 1,630 in 1910, so it successfully applied for incorporation as a city. The City of Sheboygan Falls was officially recognized in 1913, prompting the creation of the first Sheboygan Falls Police Department, with a Chief of Police at its head. Edgar George was offered and accepted the position Chief of Police in early 1914. He went on to serve as Chief for the next twenty years.
In its early years, the Sheboygan Falls Police Department, like the previous Marshall system, was a one-man operation. That changed with Chief George’s resignation in 1934. The mayor at the time, Mayor F. A. Leighton, decided to enlarge operations and to expand the department to two, initially consisting of Chief Fred Brown, and Police Officer Joseph C. Widder. Neither man would last very long in these positions, but Henry Billmann, hired as an Officer in 1935, and promoted to Police Chief in 1937, would remain in place for the next thirty years. He was a local man, the son of a laborer who worked in the old Falls tannery and chair factory. The young Henry Billmann did not graduate high school—he had to leave school due to “economic conditions”—but he later earned a degree from the Sheboygan Business School. He had spent much of the 1920s working as a licensed plumber before turning to police work in the 1930s.
Chief Billmann oversaw a lot of changes during his tenure. In his first year in office he introduced standardized police uniforms, consisting of dark blue trousers and a dark blue shirts. Up until this point, police officers had worn their regular street clothes on duty, identifying themselves as members of the department only by the police badges they wore prominently displayed on their jacket lapels. That same year, 1937, the Sheboygan Falls Police Department purchased its first official squad car, a brand new Plymouth. The Chief had to use his own car for police business prior to 1937, paying for his own maintenance to boot. This was not necessarily a great hardship since the “beat” was mostly a regular foot patrol into the 1930s. Very few people in Sheboygan Falls had cars in the 1930s—money was very tight during the Great Depression—and it would be years before traffic control or parking would be issues of concern to the local police department.
A rudimentary police communication system had been established as early as 1937. The system was pretty basic. It consisted of two lights, strategically positioned, which lit up every time the police telephone rang. Alerted by the light, the officer on duty then reported to the station to answer the call. This simple warning system remained in use until the mid-1960s, when it was replaced by an answering machine that instructed callers to phone the Sheriff’s office. In later years, calls would automatically be re-routed to the Sheriff’s office, which would then alert a Sheboygan Falls police officer by radio if necessary.
The first two-way radio system was installed in squad cars in 1949. It allowed officers to remain in contact with the Sheboygan Falls police station, the County Sheriff’s office, and also the police offices in Sheboygan, Plymouth and the village of Kohler. The radio system has been updated many times since, including the introduction of portable hand-held radios for individual officers. In1985 MODATS (Mobile Data Terminals) were installed in police vehicles. These allow officers to communicate directly with the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles in Madison via a screen in the squad car. In 1989, the Sheboygan Falls Police Department purchased its first computer and began maintaining electronic records.
The post-World War II era saw the Sheboygan Falls Police Department becoming an increasingly professional operation. In 1947, the city created the Sheboygan Falls Police and Fire Commission. This body serves to assist in selecting police personnel, and oversee the general functions of the police department. In the early 1950s, the department moved from its old and overcrowded original station into the City’s new Municipal building. Then, starting in 1954, officers began attending state police training programs on a regular basis, keeping abreast of the latest developments in police work and policy. When Henry Billmann had been hired in 1935, he was given a badge and a gun and just told to “go out and enforce the law as best you can.” By the 1990s, new officers were required to possess the right qualifications, pass a state test, and submit to a rigorous eight-hour assessment session.
As Sheboygan Falls grew in size, so did its police department. The prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s meant that there were many more cars on the roads than ever before, and the police needed more resources to cope with traffic and parking issues. By 1957, the force boasted four officers, including Chief Billmann. By the time Billmann retired in 1967, the force had added another two officers to its ranks. By the 1990s the population of Sheboygan Falls was nearly 6,000 strong, and the police department consisted of a Chief, a Captain, two Sergeants, six patrol officers and three part-time clerical workers. In more recent years, the department has welcomed specially-trained narcotics dogs to assist officers in the detection of illegal drugs.
Currently, the staff at the Sheboygan Falls Police Department numbers fifteen officers and a patrol dog. They serve a city population of approximately 8,000 people. Recent additions to the Police Department include a School Resource Officer who works closely with the Sheboygan Falls School District. The department also has a Drug Investigator for more complicated drug-related criminal investigations. A motorcycle unit was established in 2011 to assist with highway patrol duties and special events, and a Special Enforcement Team was created in 2008 to deal with cases that require special “equipment, techniques, and training,” such as carrying out search warrants, assaults on vehicles, and other high-tension situations.
In Chief Billman’s time, serious crime was almost nonexistent. He dealt with not a single murder case during his 32 years on the force (1935-67). He never had to fire his gun during the course of his duties, and nor did anyone ever fire a gun in his direction. A robbery at a local gas station in the early 1960s was the only gun case he could remember. Still, officers remained busy. Beyond their regular patrols, officers spent their time investigating occurrences of petty larceny, dealing with juvenile crime, attending to domestic disputes, and handling what Billmann called “morals cases.” Outside criminal investigations, officers gave school children pre-Halloween talks on the difference between a prank and vandalism, ran a bicycle licensing and safety scheme. When Billmann retired in 1967, he complained that traffic offences and teenage delinquency—vandalism, shoplifting, auto-theft—were all on the rise, but the worst crime he could recall during his entire time with the force was a series of burglaries in 1941, when a man from Hingham, WI broke into a number of homes in the city and the county, stealing whatever he could get his hands on, including the rugs off the floor. Billmann also noted that the lengthy Kohler strike, which started in 1954 and was still ongoing as he spoke, had also been a difficult time for the force, as it tried to remain impartial in a very divided community.
Fifty years later, Sheboygan Falls remains a remarkably peaceful city, but the police department has had to responded to a number of significant incidents over the years. In 1974, a gunman killed three before taking his own life on the 600 block of Pine Street. In 1978, the police investigated a homicide by strangulation at a residence on Forest Boulevard. The suspect was apprehended and sentenced to prison. Two years later, officers from the Sheboygan Falls Police Department responded to a domestic disturbance situation and encountered a gunman who was killed by the officers. The incident was investigated by the Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Office. In 1996, a murder suicide occurred in a residence on River Oaks Drive. In 2012, two male juveniles committed a homicide in a residence on Westridge Drive. They were both apprehended and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. In 2016, the police department investigated the homicide of a two year old child who had been strangled to death. The mother of the child was taken into custody and is currently serving a sentence in a psychiatric institution. These unusual cases aside, residents of Sheboygan Falls continue to live in a community that experiences very little serious crime or violence. Statistics gathered over the past fifteen years indicate that the crime rates in Sheboygan Falls for assaults, murders, rapes, robberies, auto thefts, burglaries, and arson, consistently fall far below national averages in all categories, year after year.
The Sheboygan Falls Police Department can be proud of its heritage, and proud of its record in keeping residents of the city safe and secure throughout its long and storied history.
Written by Dr. Rick Dodgson, Associate Professor of History, Lakeland University, December 2018
“Falls Police Department Reveals Interesting History,” Unknown newspaper, June 4, 1964.
“Retiring Fall Police Chief Looks Back ‘Over 32 Years,’” The Review, December 7, 1967, 1-2.