In 1634 French explorer Jean Nicolet was the first European to the area, soon followed by French fur traders. One of these traders, Charles Grignon, built his mansion in the woods in 1837 and it is the oldest home in Outagamie County. Other ethnic groups settling here include Dutch, German, Polish, Irish and more recently Hmong and Laotian. The original French fur traders nicknamed the Outagamie tribe "les renards", meaning foxes. Hence the name for the Fox River, and the term Fox Cities for the 14 interconnected communities along the Fox River-Lake Winnebago waterway.
A large concentration of the county’s 177,455 residents is within the Fox Cities which is the focal point of the region's commerce and industry. The Fox Cities is the third largest metropolitan area in the State of Wisconsin, and one of the fastest growing.
The water power of the Fox River provided the beginnings of what would become, and still remains, a world renowned paper industry. The river provided the needed power for the first mills in the area, which were flour and woolen mills. These mills were later converted to paper production and the early giants of the paper industry, Kimberly-Clark, Appleton Papers, Wisconsin Tissue, now part of Georgia-Pacific, and Menasha Corporation, have earned this area it’s nickname, the Paper Valley. While the paper industry dominates the strong local manufacturing sector, companies engaged in plastics, printing and graphics arts, machinery, metals, electronics and food processing contribute heavily to the diversified manufacturing economy. Dairy, farming and related enterprises anchor a strong agribusiness economy in the Outagamie County area. Due to the highly educated work force, trade and service industries flourish as well. Six insurance companies as well as a prospering network of financial and health institutions call the region home.
Retail development and sales continue to soar as a result of the vibrant economy and fast growth of the region. Downtown redevelopments in many communities have provided thriving downtown districts. Further, Outagamie County is home to the Fox River Mall, the second largest shopping mall in the state. Outagamie County and the Fox Cities also offer a wide variety of cultural, artistic and sporting events through such organizations as Lawrence University, the University of Wisconsin - Fox Valley, the Fox Valley Symphony, Attic Theater and the Outagamie County Historical Society. Museums include the Hearthstone Historic House Museum, the Houdini Historical Center, the Outagamie Museum and the Fox Cities Children’s Museum. Sporting events include stock car and drag racing at the Wisconsin International Raceway and class A minor league baseball at the Fox Cities Stadium, home of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.
History shows that through the region’s progressive attitude many "firsts", both nationally and globally, occurred in the Outagamie County area. Lawrence University, the second oldest co-educational college in the nation, was established in 1847. Today Lawrence University draws students from virtually every state in the nation as well as from over 30 foreign countries. In 1917 the first facility in the United States constructed exclusively for vocational education was completed. This was the forerunner to what today has become the world renowned Fox Valley Technical College, serving over 40,000 students annually. With the joint cooperation of Outagamie and Winnebago counties, the state university system also maintains a campus, the University of Wisconsin - Fox Valley, in the area.
In 1877 the first telephone exchange in the state was established when a local banker connected his home and office. Soon thereafter other phones were added to this exchange which was purchased in 1881 by the Wisconsin Telephone Company, now part of Ameritech. The year 1882 saw many firsts with the first hydroelectric central station in the United States beginning operation. Soon after, the Hearthstone House became the first home in the world lighted by a hydroelectric station. The Appleton Edison Light Company became the first organization in the world to commercially distribute electric power. In 1886 the nation’s, and probably the world’s, first commercially successful electric street-car line began operation.
Outagamie County claims fame to being the home of the American classic-the hamburger- created here in the late 1800's. In 1954 a small enclosed shopping area was opened, and is credited with being the first enclosed shopping mall in the country.
Well known people from the Outagamie County region include escape artist Harry Houdini, who spent his childhood here and often referred to Appleton as his hometown. The Outagamie Museum houses the Houdini Historical Center which contains the world’s most extensive collection of Houdini memorabilia. Novelist Edna Ferber moved to the area as a young girl and graduated from the Appleton High School. Her first paid writing job was with the local newspaper.
Senator Joseph McCarthy was born here and started his political career in the Fox Cities. Noted film director Howard Hanks grew up in the Fox Cities as did actor Willem Dafoe.
Football star Rocky Bleier, of Pittsburgh Steelers fame, was born and raised in the area.
The governing body of Outagamie County is an elected 36 member board of supervisors and is responsible for policy and budget oversight functions. An elected county executive is the chief executive officer of the county. This position coordinates and directs all administrative and management functions.