By: Mary Cudnohfsky
When I moved to Beaver Dam in the early 1960’s, there was no doubt that Front Street was the center of town. Flanked by Williams Free Library and the Presbyterian Church on the East and the Armory and the Davidson Theater on the West, there were no empty storefronts in the bustling downtown. On any Friday night in December, holiday shoppers were five deep on the sidewalk. The bars, restaurants and parking lots were full and a long line of children were waiting in line to see Santa Claus, who looked a lot like high school teacher Ed Krause.
From the very beginning, Front Street was the main thoroughfare. In 1841 Jacob Brower built a large cabin for his extended family in the middle of the north side of the street, halfway between what is now Spring Street and Center Street. His son Paul Brower became the tavern keeper, and since they offered shelter to newcomers and people passing through, it could be considered the first hotel. When the dam was built and the millpond was formed, this was the waterfront and thus the name Front Street. At first all the buildings were on the north side to preserve the view, but as more and more settlers came, the south side soon became popular. An early notable building on the south side was the Concert Hall, run by the Babcocks and still standing. Everything did not go smoothly during the first decade. First the dam broke splitting the settlement in two, and then a major fire burned down half the establishments on the south side of the street. The plucky pioneers soon rebuilt. The first stagecoach arrived in 1848. This and local wagons were the only means of transporting goods, so the variety of merchandise was limited.
During the 1850s the population grew from 500 to 2770. Professional men, doctors and lawyers, opened offices joining merchants, bankers, cabinet makers, harness shops and other entrepreneurs in building and expanding the area. The coming of the railroad meant a big leap forward in commerce and vastly expanded the amount and types of merchandise available. The first sidewalk was laid in 1850, probably planks, on the corner of Front Street and Spring Street. The street grade was about 10 feet lower than it is today.
Through the years the downtown has always been the center of celebrations. Parades ranging from the Ringling Brothers Circus to Beaver Dam High School Homecomings always included Front Street as part of the route. Seeing soldiers off to war and welcoming them home was always done in the center of town. The intersection of Front and Spring Streets was the setting for celebratory bonfires. The one at the end of World War I burned all night and was still smoldering the next day. At first, Front Street extended from Beaver Street in the west to past Wayland Academy in the east. In the 1880s Doctor George Swan became mayor. He changed the name of the residential part of Front Street, nicknamed Yankee Hill, to Park Avenue. This made his newly constructed home on the corner of Vita and Park a celebration of his wonderful new spa named Vita Park.
Many of the iconic buildings of the past are gone today and empty storefronts dominate the scene. As before, enterprising citizens are looking to revitalize. The city has gone through fires and floods, depression and recession, wars and rationing, but has always been able to spring back. Let’s hope we can pull it off once more. The scenes will always change. It is interesting that the pioneers wanted to preserve the view of the water and now we can see the river from the street. What will be the next best scene on Front Street? Wait and see!
The Dodge County Historical Society is at the corner of Front and Center.
Hours are 1 to 4 PM, Wednesday through Saturday.
Admission is free.