Watertown’s Bohemian Settlement
Wisconsin was a new state and Watertown, Wis., was considered a place of great potential in the mid 1800’s. Literally thousands of Europeans were headed this way to establish homes and businesses and raise their families in America, a free land. Usually these newcomers gathered in little settlements with their kinsmen or others with a common language.
In Watertown pioneers from the New England states scattered throughout the area. The Irish settled on the west side, Germans selected the central city and area to the north, there was a Welsh settlement north of the city. East of Richards hill, in the area around Oconomowoc and Concord avenues and East Water Street, the Bohemians formed a thriving and bustling settlement. Most of the people who settled here were from Bohemia, a one time province of Czechoslovakia, and most spoke the Czech language.
Business was booming. A furniture factory specialized in cherry wood products, since a supply of cherry wood was ample in the nearby woods. There was a distillery, two mills, a home cigar business, a smithy, a spinning wheel factory, and two hotels. One, the Boston House, was a popular place for traders, salesmen and travelers with a large dancing hall. A son of Prussian nobility, Baron von Bredow, presided over Boston House activities. He appeared to be an excellent host, according to history, and there was no lack of entertainment. Once source says “customers had a high old time there, even a shooting or two on occasion”. Boston House was located at the intersection of Concord and Oconomowoc avenues. North of Oconomowoc Avenue was the other hotel, the Wisconsin House.
The Bohemian settlement was the site of the Toll road [Watertown Plank Road] western terminal before the road extended to Madison. Farmers who drove their cattle from west of Watertown to the Milwaukee markets stayed overnight north of Oconomowoc Avenue, near the barns and grazing areas which were designated by law at intervals along the Toll road. Some even bedded down in the haymow of the adjacent barn to keep watch over their horses and other livestock.
Wenzel Quis, Alsatian gardener, owned a Toll road barn which now stands on the Octagon House grounds.
Many of the Bohemian settlement businesses were run by other nationality owners. John Richards, from New England, owned and operated two mills on the Rock River. J. J. Toussaint, a Frenchman, was listed as a distiller. He ran a saloon in the home now owned by James B. Quirk on Concord Avenue.
The Bohemians were great gardeners and delivered their products in the city.
THE BOHEMIAN GARDEN is one of the useful institutions of our city. Early in the Spring it is the first to supply the market with such vegetables as can be grown here. It is cultivated with the utmost care and great pains are taken to procure the best varieties of whatever is raised. We are indebted to it for a lot of the finest pie-plant we have seen this year. WD 05 26 1859
Some were adept at making baskets for sale. Leopold Kadish ran a general store. He was the man who introduced fair day, the Viehmarket, to Watertown on the second Tuesday of the month as it remains today. Edward Racek was a Bohemian who lived “in the city”. He was a merchant, a banker, and ran a construction business. He built[?] the [Richard] Thauer home at 214 South Washington Street and one at 1009 North Fourth Street, where he lived for some time, as well as other houses. He did his business, according to what we read, “with most pleasing and profitable success”.
Once every summer the natives of Bohemia had a picnic at Tivoli Island for their friends and relatives in Milwaukee and Racine. The train would let the travelers off at Humboldt Street. They then walked down Concord Avenue for about three blocks, down the hill and crossed the river at a narrow place where planks had been laid to the island. After a day of merry making the visitors returned the same way to board the train for home. The trains came to Watertown in the year 1855.
Most of the people in the Bohemian settlement attended St. Henry’s Church.
As often happens early pioneers gave their full names to sons and grandsons. Even a check of the years fails to determine exactly the proper generation. We won’t try to guess at it but will mention some names of men active in the Bohemian settlement, names that popped up again later in history. The same man or perhaps a son? Edward Racek was mayor of Watertown in 1896-97. A Bohemian name, Lutovsky, appeared again as Charles Lutovsky, mayor Watertown in 1930-34 and 1934-35, the latter date to fill out another man’s term. The Czechs were tanners and tavern keepers.
A Bohemian soldier by the last name of Griep was called Peg-leg, not in derision but because of his record in the Civil War. He was recruited for the Union army shortly after he arrived in New York city. He lost a leg at Gettysburg. An army surgeon sawed it off without anesthetic except for “good strong moonshine whiskey”. Many newcomers to this country during Civil War years responded immediately to a call of duty and served their adopted country during the Civil War.
Prochazka House, Wenzel
Mr. and Mrs. Wenzel Prochazka lived in a home now part of Lindbergs by the River [1413 Oconomowoc Ave], owned and operated by the George Lindbergs. The Prochazka’s ran a grocery store and were gardeners. Their sons, Wenzel and Charles, carried on a successful seeding business. As flower growers they always felt they wanted to help beautify Watertown.
Wenzel died at age 81, the last surviving member of his immediate family. He left a bequest in the amount of $23,600 to the city of Watertown for beautifying the park. At this time many cities were discarding the old fashioned bandstands of early days and substituting bandshells. Local groups started a movement for construction of a bandshell for concerts, church services and pageants. Riverside Park presented the most appropriate setting. Relatives protested the will, which held up the matter for some time until the court decided the matter with the city of Watertown as the beneficiary.
The council felt a several months delay in construction of the bandshell would be good so it could be dedicated as a feature of the Watertown Centennial, scheduled for 1954. The contract was awarded to Wilbur Wollin. The bandshell was finished and was dedicated during the Centennial celebration in late June 1954. The new bandshell was located just south of where the park’s old bandstand stood.
How many of us, after a concert or program of any kind at the Riverside Park bandshell, have walked up close to the bandshell and read the plaque: “To the Memory of Wenzel Prochazka”? For today’s enjoyment we must appreciate the past.
VIEW TO THE EAST FROM OCTAGON HOUSE
Oconomowoc Ave bridge
Richards Grove School, built by John Richards in the late 1840s
Watertown Plank Road came into town along Oconomowoc and Concord avenues
Boston House Hotel
Little Bohemia area of Watertown
History of Watertown, Wisconsin