Workers' Comp Started in Wausau

First workers' compensation policy written in Wausau 100 years ago today

Wausau, WI, September 2, 2011-The writing of the nation's first workers' compensation policy 100 years ago today gave Wausau a unique place in U.S. history, and it sparked a much-needed economic expansion as logging waned.

A handful of powerful business leaders known as the Wausau Group formed Employers Mutual Liability Insurance Co. of Wisconsin in 1911 after the state passed the country's first workers' compensation law.

Knowing the lumber industry was losing traction, the group jumped at the opportunity, one that ultimately helped diversify the mix of industry in Wausau. The company, which later became known as Wausau Insurance Co., wrote the first policy for Wausau Sulphate Fibre Co. -- now Wausau Paper's Mosinee mill.

The Wausau Group wanted the city "to grow and thrive," said Brett Barker, an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin Marathon County. The businessmen "realized that the lumber (wasn't) going to last forever."

The group by 1911 already had diversified into other businesses in addition to lumber, Barker said, but it was able to capitalize on the creation of the workers' compensation law. Employers Mutual would become a business force in Wisconsin, and its successor, Wausau Insurance, would come to define Wausau.

"Without Wausau Insurance, I don't think this area would have become what it is today," Barker said.

Gone, not forgotten

Today, Wausau Insurance is a memory. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. bought the company in 1999 and killed the Wausau brand in 2009. But the economic impact of that first workers' compensation policy still is felt in Wausau today, said Brad Zweck, a former Wausau Insurance employee who now works for the University of Wisconsin Marathon County Foundation.

The foundation is cosponsoring a forum on workers' compensation next week.

"There is a continuing strong economic activity that did not end with the Wausau brand," he said.

During the decades that followed the first policy, Wausau Insurance became a national player, especially as its famous advertising campaign, the "Wausau Story," brought attention to the company beginning in the 1950s.

Roger Drayna, 81, of Wausau, a writer and ultimately director of public relations at Wausau Insurance, had started with the company in 1968. He said the fact that the company wrote the first workers' compensation policy was a point of pride and one that was reiterated often to potential clients.

"It was certainly a strong claim, and it was impressive," he said.

A national attraction

Stemming from that first policy, Wausau Insurance expanded into all facets of property and casualty insurance. As it grew, the company became a place where national talent wanted to work, and it attracted people to the city.

Kirk Howard, now the owner of Kinziegreen Marketing Group, worked at Wausau Insurance as a senior editor for seven years, beginning in 1978. Howard, now 59, was drawn to the city because of the Wausau Insurance brand.

Howard said the company's historic connection to workers' compensation's beginnings was marketed heavily.

"The fact they wrote the first constitutionally valid workers' compensation policy was just always brought up," he said. "We always talked about (Employers Mutual Liability Insurance Co.) being the first policyholder in 1911."

That's a piece of history the city can celebrate for years, Zweck said.

"Although there are a lot of neat things that happened in Wausau and Marathon County over the years, this one truly involves something of great national significance -- a national milestone," Zweck said.

Reprinted from the -- Wausau Daily Herald written by Jake Miller and Robert Mentzer contributed to this story.


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