PRINCETON’S MOUNT RUSHMORE

To distract myself while waiting for my books to arrive from the bindery (estimated December 16, guaranteed December 18), I have taken to beefing up the infrastructure of the website (see new Documents page, for example) and coming up with lists.

Today’s list is the Mount Rushmore of Old Princeton, the four people I believe most influenced the development of Princeton from its founding in 1848 up to the eve of World War II.

Future lists will include the Top Five Most Repeated Mistakes About Old Princeton and a Truly Trivia contest!

First, for Mount Rushmore, based on impressions formed during my research, I narrowed my list to a top ten of early newsmakers, in alphabetical order:

  • Gardner Green, probably the least well known of the names on this list among local historians but an early pioneer who at one point built and owned five business blocks and thirteen houses in town and worked with brother David to expand the mill and mill channel as a power source. Three of the buildings Green erected at the “crooked end” of Water Street still stand today.
  • Harry H. Hobart, founder of the Princeton Times in 1935 and first publisher of the Princeton Times-Republic after the papers merged in 1937.
  • George V. Kelley, county superintendent of schools for thirty years and principal who helped launch Princeton High School.
  • Philip J. Lehner Sr., two-term mayor who oversaw construction of sewer and water system and longtime school board member. He also was a progressive farmer.
  • Edward Mevis, who led reorganization of Farmers-Merchants National Bank during the Great Depression and published the Princeton Republic for about two years.
  • Elmer Morse, early businessman and longtime president of Princeton State Bank.
  • Edward Teske Sr., co-owner of large dry goods business and then key player in development of mill, mill race and electric power plant. He and his brother Gustav built the brick building at 516-518 West Water Street in 1872.
  • Royal C. Treat, founder of Princeton and longtime businessman.
  • Davis H. Waite, future governor of Colorado and early pioneer of Princeton who won authorization from state Legislature to build canal (mill ditch) connecting the Mecan River with the Fox in the 1850s and served one term in the state Assembly.
  • Ferdinand T. Yahr, early businessman, banker, organizer of Cattle Fair, and agent for shipping firm that brought hundreds of immigrants to U.S. and this area. He built the brick building at 525 West Water Street.

Narrowing the list to four proved difficult, but here – in ascending order – are my nominations for Princeton’s Mount Rushmore, which I envision among the limestone on Barnekow’s hill. The first two were relatively easy selections but separating No. 3 and 4 from among the remaining nominees was difficult.

It came down to Waite, Yahr and Lehner for the final two spots.

4. I finally settled on Philip Lehner Sr. for the fourth spot. Yahr made a lot of money with his connections to the growing German population here but moved to Milwaukee as his business interests expanded, so I went with Lehner. He served the city as mayor during a most difficult period – the Great Depression – and overcame multiple obstacles to get the sewer and water project completed. It was considered the last thing Princeton needed to be a modern city. He served thirty years on the school board, had great success as a lawyer, led efforts to create a cheese factory and helped upgrade the county dairy scene with his purebred Holsteins.

3. I placed Davis Waite above Yahr and Lehner because, though his time here was relatively brief compared to others on my list – less than a decade – his impact was significant. The mill race, of course, was the lifeblood of the mill and later electric plant. It was essential to Princeton’s development. Green and Teske expanded on what Waite had started. After he and partner Chapin Hall became the first to haul a stock of goods all the way from New York to Princeton by water in 1850, Waite built store buildings on the southwest and northwest corners of Water and Washington streets; the former lasted until 1901 when it was replaced by the brick First National Bank building, and the latter lasted until 1955 when it burned.

2. Founder Royal Treat has to be on the list, if for no other reason than having the coolest name in the history of Princeton until the dentist Dr. Drill arrived. Seriously, Treat was the moving force behind key early developments, including the bridge and post office, that ensured Princeton’s survival while other would-be communities disappeared. He was elected as the first village president, served several terms on the school board and held town offices as well. Like many early settlers, he dabbled in many businesses before giving way to cranberry fever and moving to the bogs of northcentral Wisconsin after investing 25 years of his life to Princeton’s success. There would be no Princeton without R.C. Treat.

And that brings us to, in my opinion, the most influential newsmaker of his time …

1. George Kelley stands head and shoulders above the others on the list. He resigned after just one year due to health reasons but as principal helped launch Princeton High School. As county superintendent of schools for thirty years he determined what was taught, how it was taught and who taught it for thousands of area students. He led the formation of what became 4-H and junior fairs, first in communities such as Princeton and ultimately countywide. He championed music programs in schools, better conditions for teachers and organized what has been described as the first countywide class trip to Washington, D.C. He led development of the City Park from wasteland to community gem. He led the campaign to build a gymnasium/auditorium – Community Hall – as well as an airport. He was a major stockholder in the Princeton Republic for many years and on boards of local companies and banks.

George Kelley should not be forgotten.

(And if anyone has a photo of him, please send me a copy!)

3 comments

  1. I do remember when there was a fire on the river side of downtown. Quite scary and it could have been very destructive. But, for me the F & M bank building was the only bank at the time, on the corner across from Buchen’s Auto. Where was the First National building?

    1. The First National Bank, southwest corner of Water and Washington, became Farmers-Merchants National Bank.
      Ronald: Where was Robert Semro’s tavern? Next to Swed’s? Did he have more than one location? What was name of bar? Thanks!

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