Three homes in the Evansville Historic District and two rural homes will be featured in this year’s house walk. Visitors will tour homes located at 128 West Main, 138 West Main, 107 West Liberty, 6037 N. Finn Road and 16826 W. County Tk C.
The homes have been lovingly cared for and are treasured for their architecture, and the histories of the people who have lived in them. Each is a unique family home with interior and exterior decorations and collections reflecting the interests of their owners.
This is the first in a series of articles about the homes. Angela and John Wyse’s beautiful Italianate home at 128 West Main was first shown in the 1984 Grove Society Tour of Evansville Homes.
Angela and John have lived in Evansville for many years and raised their four children in their home at 128 West Main. The Wyse’s loved the house so much that they bought it twice.
The home is 141 years old, the oldest house on the tour. It was built during the Civil War and there have been relatively few owners. It is an excellent example of the craftsmanship of the local builders in the early history of Evansville.
Interior decoration, limited remodeling of doorways, modernized kitchen and bathrooms, and a small addition to the west wing are the few changes made to the house by the Wyse’s. The Wyse’s made an important discovery during a wallpapering session. They found the signature of the original owner, Henry G. Spencer, on one of the living room walls.
When the home was built in 1862, Henry G. Spencer signed his name and the date while the plaster was still wet. The script is in lovely old-fashioned penmanship. The Wyse’s have chosen to leave the area surrounding the signature exposed and someday intend to place a frame around the signature.
Some local legends claim that Evansville could have been named Spencerville in honor of the five Spencer brothers who settled in The Grove. Henry Gould Spencer was the first of the family to arrive in 1844.
Henry Spencer was a native of Springfield, Vermont and according to his biography in the Spencer Family Record, left his home on September 1, 1836, “traveling by canal boat from Albany, (N.Y.) to Buffalo, thence by steamboat to Detroit and from there on foot to LaPorte, Indiana.” At LaPorte he paid $600 for land, but it proved to be a bad investment. The following March he went to Rock Prairie, in Rock County, Wisconsin and homesteaded 480 acres of land by building a small shanty to lay claim to the land.
Henry needed money to pay for the land, so he returned to Vermont and borrowed $800 from his brother, Peter. When Henry returned to Wisconsin, he purchased land near Johnstown, Rock County.
In June 1839, Henry returned to La Porte, Indiana to marry Mary Campbell. Mary was the daughter of William Campbell. The young couple returned to Rock County and three of their children were born in the log cabin near Johnstown, William Henry, in 1840; Frances Augusta, in 1842; and John Adams, in 1844.
Land values in Eastern Rock County were rising and Henry decided to move. He earned $3,000 from the sale of his farm near Johnstown and used the money to purchase 520 acres on both sides of Allen's Creek, including the northwest quarter section of land in Section 27 of Union township.
The Spencers and their three children moved to Union Township, in the spring of 1844, to an area known as “The Grove.” He moved his family into a double log cabin that had been built by an earlier settler, Amos Kirkpatrick.
In 1845, Henry built the small settlement’s first frame dwelling on what is
today Mill Street. He raised sheep and cows and had an apple orchard and
garden. A fourth child, Fred W., was born in Evansville, January 1851.
Henry encouraged settlement by being a good neighbor. Henry and Margaret opened their home to new arrivals and supported them in the struggles as pioneers.
When Dr. John Evans arrived in 1846, Henry Spencer's family gave him room and board and office space until he could find a home. When it seemed that the young doctor was ready to settle in the area, Spencer sold land to Evans to build a house.
With no formal banking institutions in place, Spencer's financial support meant there were start-up costs available for many small businesses. In 1846, Henry sold land to Erastus Quivey to build a grist and sawmill along Allen’s Creek.
Henry encouraged his brothers and other family members to join him in the area. He sold land to his brothers, George, Lewis and Hiram who had migrated to The Grove by 1849. His parents and another brother, Peter, arrived in the early 1850s. By the mid-1850s, Henry's father-in-law, William Campbell, his wife and their large family of children also settled in the area.
It was Henry’s dream to see “The Grove,” become a thriving community. Between 1848 and 1856, Spencer sold $4,896 in land in section 27 and held mortgages for $3,666. Henry continued to sell off his landholdings over a period of forty years. The small settlement was officially named Evansville when the post office was established in 1850.
When it appeared that a railroad might come to Evansville, Henry wanted the settlement to appear prosperous and built the first hotel, the Spencer House, in 1855 (located at the northwest corner of Main and Madison Street.) Unfortunately, the investment was premature, as the railroad did not reach Evansville until 1863.
Seeking better educational opportunities for his four children, Henry Spencer family moved to Janesville in 1858. In less than a year, he returned to Evansville, took up residence in the Spencer Hotel, and sent his children to the Evansville Seminary.
In 1862, Henry decided to begin construction of a new home on land he owned on West Main Street. This is the house at 128 West Main Street. Once the foundation was dug, the house progressed rapidly and was finished within three months.
Although there were no Evansville newspapers to record the building of the home, Emma Evans, wife of Dr. John Evans, watched from her home at 104 West Main as the Spencer house took shape. She recorded her observations in the weekly correspondence to Dr. Evans who was serving with the Wisconsin 13th Regiment in the South.
On October 11, 1862, Emma wrote to her husband, "Henry Spencer's house is raised." A few days later, on October 20, 1862, she recorded an accident at the building site. "The scaffolding on Mr. Spencer's new house broke down and the two Prestons went with it. One had two or three ribs broken. The other was not hurt much."
Cyrus and Lorenzo Preston, the two brothers mentioned in Emma Evans’ letter were two of Evansville’s most popular builders. In 1850, the Preston brothers were given the contract to build the first frame two-room school house on the site of today’s City Hall. They owned a woodworking shop near Allen’s Creek where they manufactured house trim and other woodwork required in building a fine home.
The Spencer home was built just months before the railroad had reached Evansville. Windows and other building materials that were not available from local carpenters were transported by wagon from Janesville or beyond.
By November 18, 1862, the house was taking its final form and Emma Evans wrote to her husband, "I think Mr. Spencer's new house looks much better than Quivey's". She was referring to Dr. William Quivey who had built a house that same year, just across the street from the Spencers. A month later on December 23, 1862 she announced, "Henry Spencer has moved in his new house."
Henry’s three oldest children were nearly grown by the time the house was built. Two of Henry’s son’s served in the Civil War, William Henry and John Adams. Following their release from service the two young men attended the University of Wisconsin and both graduated in 1866. William became a Unitarian minister and was a frequent lecturer in Evansville. John Adams tried teaching and the law, but died at the age of 30 and was buried in Maple Hill.
The day after Christmas 1866, the home was the scene of the wedding of Henry and Margaret’s only daughter, Francis, nicknamed, “Frank” and Dr. E. W. Beebe, an up-and-coming physician from Stoughton. Rev. J. I. Foote performed the ceremony. Dr. Beebe established a practice in Evansville and later moved to Milwaukee. He specialized in treatment of the eye.
Fred, the youngest son, was born in 1851 was about 12 years old when the
house was completed. He was educated at the Evansville Seminary and
graduated in 1872 from the Chicago Medical College. Although he was
trained as a doctor, he became a stenographer and court reporter for the
northern circuit courts of Wisconsin, headquartered in Waupaca.
In the 1870 census, Spencer still listed his occupation as farmer. Although he derived substantial income from real estate and lending money, he maintained an orchard and pasture land behind his home. Henry retired in the late 1870s.
The house at 128 West Main was the residence of Henry and Margaret for two decades after their children left home. The home was the scene of frequent family reunions during this period.
Less than nine years after the Spencer’s built the house, an 1871 "bird's eye view" map of Evansville shows the Spencer house from the perspective of a northeast view. Although the sketch is a very rough approximation of the house, the configuration of the structure is very similar to that of the present day. There is a small barn on the property.
Spencer's house, a wood frame structure covered with clapboard siding, had wooden corner pilasters and a front door with side windows, typical of houses built in the 1860s in Evansville. Those features are often found on Greek Revival style houses of the 1850s and 1860s. The bracketed hip roof defines the main portion of the house as Italianate in style. The building was extended to the west with a side-gabled wing and to the north with a gabled-one-story wing. The drawing shows a single story porch on west side of the main portion of the house.
When Spencer built the house, his property extended east, west and north of the residence. The only other house on the block was the home of Dr. Evans. The northern boundary of Spencer’s property was the mill pond, the land that Spencer had sold to Erastus Quivey in the 1840s in order to build a grist and saw mill.
An 1873 Rock County Plat Book map of Evansville shows an open field directly behind the house extending into a wooded area in what is today the city park. The east-west streets, Garfield and Grove, that today divide Spencer's extensive land holdings, were not built until many years later.
The park-like grounds of the Spencer home were used for some unusual gatherings. Henry Spencer and his wife belonged to a religious group known as the Spiritualists. They believed in communication with the spirits of those who had died.
Henry’s neighbor, Levi Leonard, recorded in his diary that the Spiritualist held meetings north of the Spencer home William Spencer, the oldest son of Henry and Margaret, wrote a genealogy of his family "Spencer Family Record” and also recalled his parents' belief in communication with departed spirits, “They believed in communication with departed spirits, in a very literal sense, and found joy and comfort in the faith.”
William also remembered his father’s strong work ethic. Henry seemed to have boundless energy and would constantly over-tax his body with hard work. Spencer's visionary investments in land and people in the early settlement of Evansville brought prosperity to his family and to the citizens of the new territory.
When Margaret Campbell Spencer’s health began to fail in 1884, Henry took her to Milwaukee to stay with their daughter, Francis Beebe and her physician husband. These visits would last for weeks at a time and Henry returned to Evansville and stayed in the house alone while his wife recuperated. During one of his trips back to Evansville, in 1886, the six aging Spencer brothers sat for a photograph at the studios of local photographer, Beals.
In the fall of 1888, Henry’s health also began to fail and the aging couple decided they could no longer live without assistance and went to Milwaukee and lived briefly with their daughter, Francis. A few weeks later, they went to live with their youngest son, Fred, in Waupaca.
In November 1888, Fred purchased the Main Street property for $2,500. Within months after the sale of the house, Henry died in Waupaca on March 6, 1889. He was 76 years old.
Margaret Campbell Spencer survived another ten years and died in 1899. Both are buried in Maple Hill Cemetery in Evansville, beside many other Spencer and Campbell family members.
After he acquired the house, Fred Spencer had no interest in living in
Evansville. He kept the house as a rental property for a number of
years. A Mrs. Moyer and her sister, Mrs. Antes lived rented the house in
September 1890. The last renter was E. H. Graves, who was forced to move
when the house was sold to a retired Center township farmer, Samuel Cleland and
his wife, Mary Anne. Cleland paid $1,800 for the house in 1892.
The new owner, Samuel Cleland was a New York native and an early settler in Rock County. Samuel and Mary Ann were married in 1853 and two years later, in 1855, Cleland bought eighty acres of farm land in Center township. He built a house and barn and began to establish a successful farm.
An 1889 biographical sketch of Cleland praised him as a self-made man, “for by his own efforts of industry, perseverance and good management, he has gained a comfortable competency and is regarded as one of the leading, progressive farmers of Rock County."
Like many other prosperous farmers in the late 1880s, Cleland invested in pure bred horses and cattle. He owned Norman and Clydesdale horses and specialized in breeding shorthorn cattle.
The Clelands had eight daughters and five of them pursued careers as teachers, graduating from the Whitewater Normal School. When their mother, Mary Anne was stricken with arthritis and was confined to a wheel chair, the youngest, Eliza, gave up her teaching job and stayed with her mother for a year. Mary Anne was described by relatives as an uncomplaining invalid who loved her children and grandchildren.
Samuel retired from farming in 1892 and the Clelands lived together with several of their daughters in the Spencer house at 128 West Main until their deaths. From 1892 until 1963, the home was owned by three generations of the Cleland family. The house was the scene of happiness and great sadness as three generations of the Cleland family attended weddings, family reunions, funerals and tenderly cared for elderly family members in the house at 128 West Main.
Their new home was the scene the wedding of one of their daughters in April 1892 and the celebration of the Cleland's golden wedding anniversary on November 24, 1903.
Two of the Cleland daughters remained in Evansville. The youngest daughter, Eliza, married John Baker. In the early 1900s, Eliza and John built a beautiful brick house on the opposite side of Main Street from her parents. The oldest daughter, Elizabeth, lived with her parents. Emma married Harvey Fisher and Marie married William Richards, both couples lived on farms in Center township. The other daughters moved away from the area.
Samuel Cleland died in 1904 after suffering from several strokes. His wife, Mary Anne, died March 14, 1908. Her obituary stated that she had been a “patient sufferer from rheumatism for many years, but notwithstanding the great affliction she was ever cherrful and hopeful and never lost interest in the things of life. The poem “Growing Old Gracefully” was read at her funeral. Their funerals were held in the home on West Main and they were buried in Maple Hill Cemetery.
For seven decades, the house was home to three generations of Clelands. In settling Mary Anne's estate, six of the daughters, Emma Fisher, Anna Moody, Hattie Collins, Marie Richards, Jennie Oliver, and Eliza Baker sold the house to their sisters Elizabeth Cleland and Helen Haylett for $3,000.
The two sisters Elizabeth and Helen, and Helen's two daughters, Ruth and Grace, shared the family home on West Main Street, following Mary Ann’s death. Helen was a widow. She had married H. L. Haylett in 1889 and moved to Menomonee Falls. She was a teacher and continued her profession there. Helen and her two daughters returned to the family home in Evansville, shortly after the death of H. L. Haylett.
Helen was active in the Woman's Literary Club and the Afternoon Club. She was also a member of the Congregational Church. In 1916, her sister Elizabeth gave Helen ownership of the house by a quit claim deed. Helen’s daughter, Ruth, recalled that at about this time the hardwood floors were put in the house.
Helen’s daughter, Grace was married in the home in the late summer, 1922. The house was decorated in shades of orchid and white. Grace wore a white satin gown with a crepe veil decorated with orange blossoms. Her sister, Ruth Haylett, served as Grace’s bridesmaid. The groom, Chester Hartlett chose his brother, Alvin Mann Hartlett, as his best man. Tables for 35 guests were arranged in the main rooms of the house where the newly wedded Hartletts were guests of honor.
Chester Hartlett worked for the Student Volunteer Movement in Chicago and Grace was an English and Latin teacher in the Evansville High School. The wedding announcement in the Evansville Review said that Chester intended to keep his work headquarters in Chicago. He could easily travel by train between Evansville and his work. Several Evansville residents lived and worked in Chicago during the week, returning to Evansville on the weekends and holidays.
It was probably at this time that the west wing of the house was remodeled into an apartment for Grace and her new husband. A small bath room and kitchen were added and a lean-to was built along the north wall of the wing, just large enough for a refrigerator.
Elizabeth moved to Howard, Kansas to live with her sister, Jane, after living in the family home in Evansville for many years. Elizabeth died in Howard on October 26, 1936 and her body was returned to Evansville to be buried in the family plot at Maple Hill.
The small apartment was a source of income for Helen Haylett. A September 23, 1937 ad in the Evansville Review reads “Unfurnished kitchenette for rent at 128 West Main. Modern throughout. Reasonable rent. Inquire of Helen Haylett at that address. Telephone 141-R”
Helen lived in the house until it became necessary to take her to the Rock County Nursing Home in Janesville. She died October 28, 1946. She was buried beside her parents in Maple Hill Cemetery.
The house was inherited by the third generation of the Cleland family, Helen’s daughter, Ruth Ferguson. Ruth was her mother's guardian during her final illness. Ruth’s family included a son, Shannon, and daughter, Mary Jo. Ruth commuted to her job as the music school librarian at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
For nearly 100 years, the house was owned by members of two families, the Spencer’s and the Cleland’s. Ruth Ferguson sold the house in 1963 to John and Angela Wyse.
The Wyse's and their four children crowded into the home’s three bedrooms until John began remodeling the unfinished rooms in the back section of the house. In the north wing, John turned an old woodshed on the first floor into a bathroom and laundry room. In the second story, a store room was remodeled into a large room. Barn boards were used on the walls.
During a remodeling and addition to the west wing, in the summer, of 1973 the Wyse's hired several local craftsmen for the construction. Will Heritage enlarged the one-room wing by adding 1-1/2 feet to the north, and increasing the size of the doorway so that furniture could easily be moved in and out of the room. Another small doorway to the room was remodeled into a closet near the front entry. Large windows were placed on the north wall of the west wing allowing more natural light into the room.
George Redlin built 12 feet of book shelves along the west wall on either side of a free-standing stove. Lonnie Grignano, owner of the Coach House restaurant, proved his masonry skills by building a chimney for the stove.
Although only three families had owned the 104-year-old house when the Wyse’s sold it and moved to Minnesota in 1976, there was a rapid succession of owners in the next eleven years. Robert and Bonnie Kremer purchased the home from the Wyse's and lived there just two years. The Kremer's sold the house to Mary A. Timm and her husband, Carlos Cortez in 1978. In the early 1980s, Mary and Carlos moved to Ohio and the house was sold to Harvey and Irene Stevens.
Harvey Stevens helped organize an international organization for research in mental retardation, known as the International Association for Scientific Study of Retardation. He also served as its first president. Because of his work, Harvey and Irene had traveled throughout the world.
When the home was opened for the 1984 Historic House Tour, the Stevens' displayed treasures they had collected in South American, Europe and Asia. Harvey was an accomplished wood craftsman and built a number of pieces of furniture for the house. He also built a wine cellar in the old cistern in the basement. New kitchen cabinets, countertops and appliances were added by the Stevens’
As chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, Harvey Stevens also headed the committee that produced the first slide-tape show about Evansville's Historic District, “Evansville, Enjoy Its Beauty.” Many of the committee meetings were held in the second story room that John Wyse had remodeled several years earlier.
Harvey died in 1987 and Irene put the house up for sale. By coincidence, the John and Angela Wyse were moving back to Evansville. When they discovered that their old home was on the real estate market, they made an offer to Mrs. Stevens. The sale was finalized and once again the Wyse's were at home at 128 West Main.
The house has drawn loving caretakers as owners and the home, has been described in terms of warmth and comfort by the families who have lived there longest. William Henry Spencer, oldest son of Henry and Margaret, described his family home as "an abode of peace, mutual confidence, perfect happiness, the dearest spot on earth." Ruth Ferguson, Samuel and Mary Ann Cleland’s granddaughter, also described the happy times with children and grandchildren surrounding a loving invalid mother and husband.
Today the home is also filled with music. Angela loves to play jazz and classical piano and has a beautiful grand piano in the living room. She actively participates as a substitute player in several area jazz bands.
Although Angela does not consider herself a collector she does treasure her knife rests and a small collection of Bavarian glass.
John and Angela know that an historic home requires constant maintenance. They have twice rebuilt porches, added a garage and painted the exterior on a regular basis. Angela and John also made minor changes in the remodeled kitchen. The Wyse’s have also added a second bathroom on the second floor of the house.
Within the last few months, a large 130 year old maple tree had to be taken down from the south side of the house. It provided shade and cooled the house. John and Angela are in the process of choosing new shades for the interior to block out the sun and heat.
Ever mindful of the historic significance of the home and its previous
owners, Angela says, “I hope that Henry Spencer likes what we have done to the
house.” The warmth and love of the house is evident in the way Angela
describes the place that she and her husband chose as their home, not once, but
twice. "We love it and hope it will be here for another 100 years".