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Historic Main Street: On-line Walking Tour


The two tours on Historic Main Street explore two historically distinct areas. Tour A is of the National Register of Historic Places Main Street Historic District, and tour B is of the determined eligible but unlisted “Depot Hill Historic District.” You will see that they have very different characters; in buildings, commercial uses, and general feeling of place.

It is recommended that you walk on the opposite side of the street from the buildings that are being discussed. Take the time to look up at the second and third stories of these buildings, and you will be rewarded with a historic vision of Main Street Stoughton.

This project has been funded with the assistance of a grant-in-aid from the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, under provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended. Historic Preservation grants-in-aid are administered in Wisconsin in conjunction with the National Register of Historic Places program by the Historic Preservation Division of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.  However, the contents and opinions contained in this publication do not necessarily reflect the view or policies of the national Park Service or the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

The Stoughton Commercial Architectural and Historical Survey was conducted between October 1990 and March 1991 to identify, research, and evaluate properties of architectural and historical significance.  The survey was executed by Historical Preservation consultant Rebecca Sample Bernstein.  Products of the survey will be maintained at the Division of Historic Preservation, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 816 State Street, Madison; The State Historical Society of Wisconsin Library, 816 State Street Madison, Stoughton Chamber of Commerce, 532 E. Main Street, Stoughton; The Stoughton Public Library, 04 South Fourth Street, Stoughton; Stoughton Historical Museum, 324 South Page Street, Stoughton; the Media Centers of the Stoughton Area Public Schools; and Stoughton City Hall, 381 East Main Street, Stoughton.

An Historic Preservation grant-in-aid from the National Park Service, administered through the Division of Historic Preservation of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, partially funded the Stoughton Commercial Survey. Funds and assistance to match the grant were provided by the Stoughton Landmarks Commission, the Stoughton Downtown Revitalization Association, and the City of Stoughton.

This guide was originally printed in July 1991.

Historical Background

The village of Stoughton was first alienated from the United States Government in 1836 by “The Western land Association,” The Association was comprised of Mark Healy and B.B. Kircheval.  In August 1838, they sold the land to Daniel Webster who appears to have lost it through non-payment of taxes. In 1841 Herman Cope and Thomas S.. Taylor purchased land from the Territory of Wisconsin at a tax deed sale, as well as a warranty deed from Daniel Webster.  On July 3, 1847, Luke Stoughton bought the land – 800 – acres – from Cope and Taylor for $2,100.

A native of Vermont, Luke Stoughton had resettled in the Janesville, Wisconsin area in 1838. At first he had a farm north of Janesville, but in 1840 he and his family moved into town where he established a mercantile business. While he was selling real estate, he noticed and purchased the undeveloped land nestled in a large bend of the Yahara River. He envisioned a complete town on the site; and in 1847 platted the town and built a lumber mill and dam to provide for the imagined buildings.  The plat included Main, Jefferson, Washington, Page, Water, Division, and Forrest streets. Stoughton then publicized his town to others.  The small community attracted travelers and customers as it was halfway between Janesville and Madison and was centrally located for surrounding farmers.

As the surrounding land was cleared, the cut timber was brought to mill. The resulting lumber was used in the construction of the first generation of Stoughton’s buildings.  One of Stoughton’s first buildings was a general merchandise store on what is now the northwest corner of Main and Division Streets.  Alvin West brought his family to Stoughton and started an Inn on the southwest corner of Main and Division.  In the spring of 1848, Mr. Colton and Mr. Wescott erected a blacksmith shop “near the upper bridge” and a residence nearby.  Luke Stoughton moved his family to the new village from Janesville, and in 1850 built a small grist mill and shortly thereafter a larger one, both located on the edge of town on the north east side of the river. The first schoolhouse was built on the corner of Main and Page streets in that year as well.  Local farmers by that time had most of their basic needs supplied: lumber, flour, general goods, and education were all available.

In 1853 the community of Stoughton had to its credit a sawmill, gristmill, merchants, carpenters, a doctor, a preacher, and a blacksmith.  Unfortunately the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad was planned to pass through nearby Dunkirk, assuring that town of prosperity.  However, when the railroad officials asked Josiah Lyon of Dunkirk for a donation of land, he refused, insisting instead that they pay for it.  Luke Stoughton successfully offered a free, sizable plot of land to the railroad company if they would choose to bypass Dunkirk, and go through Stoughton instead.  Consequently, on December 15, 1853, freight and passenger service came through Stoughton.  Construction of the railroad continued through the winter.  The line reached Madison on May 23, 1854. Although the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad had reached Stoughton in 1853, it could not counter the Depression of 1857 and nearly all of the stores (which had increased from two to twelve) closed.  Perhaps because the community was still so new, it was able to revive itself, and by 1871, there were thirty-three business buildings along Main Street. One of the buildings built for these new businesses was the Williams Block (no longer standing, site of 129 West Main Street) also known as the Opera House. The most magnificent of the commercial buildings on Main Street of its day, it housed a bank, hardware store, post office, and grocery.

As the community grew physically, so did its reputation. By 1880, Stoughton was called “first in commercial importance in the county.” From the mid-1880’s until the first decade of the twentieth century the retail businesses along main Street grew steadily. In 1887 there were thirty-eight business buildings on Main Street.  In the next thirteen years, twenty-one new commercial buildings were added. By 1898, nine more were erected. By 1904, a total of seventy-six business buildings lined Main Street stretching from the Yahara River to the railroad tracks. Three more were constructed before 1912. By 1926 the community’s economic downturn was reflected in the loss of four buildings.

Previously part of Dunkirk Township, Stoughton was incorporated as a Village in 1868.  On February 6, 1882 the City Charter was adopted. At that time, government structure changed from a Board and President to a Council and Mayor.


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