127 West Church Street
Researched and written by Ruth Ann Montgomery
The legal description of a piece of property is an outline of the history of la house. The records of owners,
mortgage holders, heirs and amounts of sales and other transactions is a valuable resource for detailing changes
to the land. When the price of a residential lot jumps dramatically, it is a good sign that there has been a house
constructed on the site.
The first village land owner of the lots that are now 127 West Church Street was Lewis Spencer and he sold the
land in 1856 to Hiram Griffith. Griffith held on to the lots for four years, then sold them to Susan Smith for $75 in
1860. Two more land owners, Elizabeth Phillips and Joseph R. Finch purchased the land for small amounts. The
tax assessment rolls for 1867 showed the property valued at $75, too small an amount to be anything but vacant
Finch paid Phillips $150 in January 1868 and when he sold the land to Alonzo Richardson in April 1869, the value
had increased to $2,000. Although there are no other written records to record the construction of the house, the
jump in price places the building date as 1868-69.
Finch and his sons had purchased a hardware business in 1867, selling out in July 1868. For a brief period, he
left Evansville, and when he returned he opened a boot and shoe business in 1874. Finch also owned a portion
of the old Methodist Church property on East Main Street, which he sold to Almeron Eager in 1878.
The next owner of the property at 127 West Church Street, Alonzo Richardson, was in the grocery business. Little
is known about him, except his business affiliation and that his name appears on the subscription list for the
building fund for the Baptist Church in 1866.
Richardson kept the house for 9 years and in January 1878 he sold the house to Harvey Prentice for $2,000, the
exact amount he had paid Finch for the property. Prentice, who already owned a substantial house on West Main
Street, probably purchased the house for an investment and six months later found a willing buyer in John C.
Sharp, the cashier of the Bank of Evansville.
In July 1878, Sharp had the house "completely renewed" according to the Evansville Review. He had the "L" part
of the house raised another story, so that it was the same height as the main part of the house. He modernized
the interior, connecting all of the rooms with large arched folding doors. He replaced the windows with larger ones,
which had only two panes of glass and reconstructed the porch. It was reported to be one of the largest and most
commodious houses in the village. Mr. William Morgan was credited with the remodeling.
Sharp was a speculator and salesman. In 1876, working with L. T. Pullen, a more conservative businessman, the
two men purchased the patent for a machine that pulled tree stumps out of fields. The contraption was known as a
"grubber". Baker Manufacturing Company made the grubbers. Pullen soon got out of the business, leaving
Sharp and his new partner, McKinney to operate the company.
Two years later, the same year that Sharp purchased the house from Prentice, McKinney and Sharp advertise that
they wanted to organize a sewing machine company in Evansville. They were looking for others who wanted to
invest in their dream. They promised that the company would bring 200 families to Evansville. The woodworking
could be done at the local furniture factory operated by the Lehman family and the iron work could be done at the
Baker Manufacturing Company.
By December 1878, Sharp was in over his head. Both the grubber business and the sewing machine business
had failed. He lost his job at the bank and he signed over the house to the Bank of Evansville to cover his debts.
The following April, Daniel Rowley purchased the house from the bank for $2,500. Rowley was born in Erie
County, New York, in 1825. At the age of 23, he moved to Wisconsin with his new bride, Calista, and started
farming in Union township. In 1849, a year after he arrived, he made his first purchased of land, an eighty acre
farm in Union township.
Later, Rowley owned a farm on Jug Prairie, west of Evansville, which he purchased in 1854. He came to Evansville
in 1868 and went into the boot and shoe business. He was an active member of the Baptist Church and with
Alonzo Richardson, a previous owner of the house, Rowley's name also appears on the 1866 subscription list for
the church. Whenever the Church found itself without a pastor, Deacon Rowley was asked to serve and he read
with great eloquence and feeling from a book called Spurgeon's Sermons.
In 1877, Daniel Rowley became a partner in the Bank of Evansville, with L. T. Pullen and John Sharp. It was
through this connection that he obtained the house at 127 West Church Street. For nearly 100 years, it would
remain in the hands of Rowley and his decedents.
Three years after Rowley purchased the property, he sold it to Alonzo Coburn Gray, who had married Emma
Rowley, Daniel's only child. Gray was a successful businessman. Although he had started as a clerk in a general
store, he eventually went on to own and operate several successful businesses and purchased many pieces of
Gray opened a shoe & boot business in Evansville in 1879 and in 1884 sold that business to C. A. Pratt. He then
began a long-term business relationship with M. V. Pratt, in a general store. They sold dry goods, groceries,
clothing, crockery, stationery, as well as boots and shoes. As with many other small businesses in Evansville, Gray
& Pratt took butter and eggs as cash at the store.
The two men were innovative in merchandising their goods and started a wagon route that traveled from farm to
farm in the countryside. The mobile store carried groceries and other items. So as not to interfere with their store
business, the driver did not stop to sell items until he was six to ten miles from Evansville.
Over the next few years, Gray and his father-in-law, Daniel Rowley, worked together on many projects. In 1884,
Daniel and Alonzo purchased the Evansville flour mill and Gray agreed to run the business. It was probably a
temporary measure to save an investment until Daniel could find a buyer for the mill because neither Alonzo or
Daniel had experience as millers. By June of the following year, a Slightham family were the mill's new owners.
When the Evansville Manufacturing Company was formed, Gray invested in the company and was elected
president of the firm. The company made tacks, nails and matches.
Gray also invested in land in Evansville, the Dakotas, and Chicago and ventured into putting money into a mining
Gray became a vice-president of the Bank of Evansville and he also held a number of public offices. The variety
of offices that he was elected or appointed to show not only Alonzo's willingness to serve, but the respect that his
fellow citizens had for his abilities as a public servant.
More than 70 people signed a petition to have Gray appointed post master of the city of Evansville. His friend and
business partner, M. V. Pratt was the first to sign. Twenty four of the signatures were from veterans.
In the 1889 when the Rock County Board of pension commissioners was formed, Alonzo was nominated for a
position on the board. To serve on the board, the commissioner had to be an honorably discharged Union
soldier. The Pension Commission distributed funds to the widows and dependent children of Civil War veterans.
When Daniel Rowley died in 1889, the Grays began making plans to enlarge their home to make room for Calista,
his widow. Emma and Alonzo had a 14 by 20 foot, two-story addition built on the west end of their house. for an
apartment for Mrs. Rowley. They also had a cellar dug under the existing "L" of the home to use for a wood or
coal room. The house became a two-family dwelling.
Alonzo continued to seek public office and many improvements were made to the infrastructure of Evansville
because he promoted growth and development. In 1896, the Evansville Telephone Exchange, of which Gray was
a Vice President and $1,000 investor, was granted a franchise to erect poles and wires. They opened a telephone
office in the Bank of Evansville.
A. C. Gray also headed the committee to establish the water works system in Evansville in 1901. As Second Ward
Alderman and member of the finance committee for the City, the other Councilmen relied on his expertise in
banking and real estate. Gray also served on the Evansville School board and as treasurer of the Evansville
Republican League Club.
Like his father-in-law, Alonzo was a great supporter of the Baptist Church. Fourth of July ice cream socials were
held on the lawn of his home and in 1903, he was a featured speaker at the church's annual supper and he urged
his fellow Baptists to support the rebuilding of the church at the southwest corner of Church and First Streets.
The Gray's had four children. Ellis was born in 1881 and died just two years later. Orin Carlyle, Paul Rowley, born
in 1885, and the youngest and only daughter, Isabel Bernice, born in 1887. Although she would live elsewhere for
brief periods of time, Bernice was born, married and died in the house at 127 West Church Street.
As adults, Orin and Paul moved to California. After graduating from high school Bernice became a librarian. She
studied at Denison University in Ohio and the University of Wisconsin. She worked in libraries in Mosinee,
Platteville, Salem, Oregon, Pomona, California and then returned to Evansville where she also served as librarian
in the public library.
In June 1914, Bernice married John Waddell in a beautiful ceremony in her parent's home. The rooms were
decorated with pink and white roses and an arch covered with roses was placed in the east bay window of the
parlor. The wedding vows were recited beneath the arch. Bernice wore a white crepe du chien gown and carried
a bouquet of white roses.
Her friends, Mae Heron, Jennie Crow and Amy Perry served a bridal supper to the guests in the Gray home.
Alonzo Gray died in August 1915 and as testament to his service to the people of Evansville, the Evansville Review
ran a two-column obituary, extoling the virtues of the man who had served in so many offices and businesses. "Mr.
Gray has always been a loyal supporter of the city and vicinity", the editor commented.
Emma kept careful records of the cost of the funeral which was held in the home. W. F. Biglow the undertaker
received $85 for his services and two carriages were hired from the A. W. Leffingwell livery stable at a cost of $9.
The cemetery sexton was given five dollars to dig the grave. The Royal Arch Masons escorted the body from the
home to the grave site. Emma Gray continued to live in the family home.
Over the next several years, the husband of Bernice, John Waddell endeared himself to the people of Evansville.
John, a native of Sextonville, in Richland County, was born in 1882.
Waddell had attended the Whitewater Normal School and the University of Wisconsin. He was hired as a science
teacher in the Evansville schools in1908 and within three years became the principal of the high school. When he
and Bernice were married in 1914, he was known to all as Professor Waddell.
By 1921, John Waddell was the school superintendent and had led the community in a drive for new grade school
and gymnasium that had been under consideration by the community for a decade. In the mid-1920s he served as
superintendent in Antigo and South Milwaukee.
In 1925, the Waddell family moved into the Gray house with Emma. John had been named to a state office, as
assistant state superintendent of public instruction. He commuted to work from his home in Evansville.
During his time in this office, the very existence of the state normal schools that trained rural school teachers was
challenged. Because of his strong belief that these were good schools that prepared educators for teaching,
Waddell felt they were a necessary part of the maintaining of Wisconsin schools. He fought for and succeeded in
keeping the county normal schools. The superintendents of these schools were so grateful that they awarded
John a gold wrist watch at one of their annual banquets.
For many years before his retirement, Waddell also held the position of state high school supervisor and wrote
elementary school social studies text books, with Amy Perry, an Evansville native, teacher and friend of the family.
John and Bernice Waddell had two children, Nancy and John Gray Waddell. After graduating from high school,
John attended the University of Wisconsin. In the summer of 1938, he went to work in a hospital in Fort Totten,
North Dakota and then returned to his home in Evansville for a brief visit. He then went to Cincinnati to attend
medical school. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati Medical School in 1941, he moved to Madison,
where he worked as a physician, associated with St. Mary's Hospital and later with Central Wisconsin Center for
the developmentally disabled. He married Ruth Nee and they had six children.
Bernice Waddell continued to live in the house at 127 West Church until her death in September 1976. Like her
grandparents and parents, Bernice had been an active member of the First Baptist Church. A memorial fund for
the church was established in her name.
Bernice Gray Waddell was the last descent of Daniel and Calista Rowley to live in the house. To settler her estate,
the home that had become known as the Waddell house was sold to Arnold and Beth Willis in November 1976.
The house was divided into three apartments. Shortly after they purchased the house, one of the apartments, the
home of Mrs. Klosterman, was opened to the public to view in the 1977 Evansville Historic House Tour.
The house was reported to be well preserved and recently redecorated by the Willis'. In doing the redecorating,
ceiling tile was taken off some of the rooms and a frescoed ceiling was found in the bay window. Part of the
painting was exposed to view. The house also featured a built-in icebox in the dining room. A drain pipe, allowed
the melted ice to drain into the basement.
In November 1979, the Evansville Historic Preservation Commission commended the Willis' for their restoration of
the house and a covenant was made between the Commission and the Willis' to protect the house and preserve it
according to Historic Preservation guidelines.
The house has been painted in hues of tan and brown to highlight the Italianate style details of the house. The
bracketed eaves and keystone designs in the arch above the windows, a shown in detail because of the
contrasting colors used. Today, twenty years after they purchased the home, Beth and Arnold Willis continue to
be maintain and repair the house with sensitivity to its historic significance in the community.
(Thanks to Tom Waddell for providing information about the Rowley-Gray-Waddell families.)