ebook  History of Watertown, Wisconsin


Savage's Hall


Van Alstine's Exchange Hotel

Germania House

NE corner of Main and First streets

Later site of Merchant’s Bank 

Street view of 100 E Main 


Jacob Bell Van Alstine


Henry Gilman of Madison, whose father built the first dam and erected the first sawmill here in the late 30’s of 1800, came Saturday [1911 Homecoming] and called on “Fabe” Cooley, who was his playmate in 1840.  They together caught bullheads near the sawmill that General John C. Gilman built.  The “Exchange” or Van Alstine Hotel was also erected by Gen. Gilman.  He sawed lumber and floated it down Rock River to build houses at Jefferson and Fort Atkinson.    Watertown Gazette, 08 10 1911


Cross References:

[1]  WGazette, 02 20 1913:  Henry Gilman, a former resident of Watertown, died at Madison last Saturday, aged 85 years.  He was a son of the late J. C. Gilman, an early resident of this city and builder of the Van Alstine Hotel that formerly stood on the site of the Merchants National Bank building.


[2]  Mr. Gilman (a tavern keeper) at Watertown [Charles Gilman, owner of the Exchange Hotel, the first hotel in Watertown] enlisted his son [in Mexican War], a lad 14 years old, as a musician.  His poor Mother is almost crazy.  Likely he is dead.  Report says they were first and foremost in the battle, and were all killed.”  1847 letter portion.


Image WHS_005_773

Van Alstine Hotel [same as Exchange Hotel or Van Alstine Exchange Hotel]    c.1860


This building was moved in the 1890’s and is now part of the M&M Bar on S. First St.

Note Bank of Watertown, to the left, west of hotel.  Site later occupied by WTTN Radio.





Among the means taken to appropriately celebrate the day was through the medium of a great ball which was held in Savage's hall, later known as Van Alstine's Exchange and the site on which now stands the Merchants National bank at the corner of North First and Main streets.  Savage's hall or tavern was the only building here at the time suitable for an occasion of this kind and it is said that the construction of it had to be hurried along so that a proper ball room could be had for the dancers "who were expected from all around the country."


Another account in the archives of early Watertown gives additional information concerning this great event and lists also the things which the people in attendance had to eat.  But to quote at length:


"Our pyrotechnics were limited, but firing an anvil, ringing cowbells and shooting guns were the channels through which our patriotic feelings gave vent.  For the Fourth of July dinner we were satisfied with baked pig, mashed potatoes and baked pudding.  For want of room in the hostelry, the tables were set out of doors, under arbors built of poles with bushes laid across them.  Dancing commenced at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and continued until broad-light the next morning.  The ballroom, although not plastered, was made to look handsome and cheerful with its decorations of leaves, vines and bushes nailed on the lathing.  We had not yet reached that point where gas and electric lights with their franchises troubled us, and tallow candles were the means employed to illuminate the ballroom.   Watertown Daily Times, 07 03 1939


Cross Reference:

1981, by Evelyn Rose for the Daily Times -- 1840:  Watertown has outdone itself with parades that have been great.  First celebration was on July 4, 1840.  Quote from the archives: "a spirit of patriotism took possession of the four year old community and gave vent to a rousing, jolly Fourth of July celebration that inspired the pride of country and made everyone look back to Washington as the father and defender of Columbia ... a ball was held in Savage's Hall at the corner of North First and Main streets . . . William Sacia and his brother, Austin, came from the town of Concord to furnish the music . . . dancing commenced at 2 o 'clock in the afternoon and continued to daybreak . . . for the dinner baked pig, mashed potatoes and pudding. "  The dance was held under arbors made with posts and branches.





“After the completion of the plank road, Watertown, early a place of promise, became the second city in the State and a bonanza for taverns; their story, however, has been well told in local histories.  People and produce from the country to the west and north for many miles PASSED THROUGH WATERTOWN TO MILWAUKEE, and land seekers made it their headquarters.  J. B. Van Alstine, for years the popular landlord of the Exchange, declared that he thought business dull in those palmy days unless he had a hundred guests and as many horses to care for.  Two of the old taverns are still running [in 1915], the Watertown House, now the Commercial, and the Buena Vista, which was opened in February, 1848, by Capt. Henry Bogel, a veteran of the Mexican War.  During the regime of William Wiggenhorn and his son, Eugene, the Buena Vista was the rendezvous of German revolutionist refugees, among them Carl Schurz and Emil Rothe, while on Sundays German services were held in its hall.”


Derived from “The Taverns and Stages of Early Wisconsin” by J. H. A. Lacher, 1915.  Contracts for construction of the road were let in October of 1848.



07 31       The Exchange, of this city, is an "old fashioned" public house in that it always goes in for the substantial things of this present life, and though its table is always covered with many of the best dishes, it has no fine names for any of them, but many fine things with common names.


Mr. J. B. Van Alstine, its liberal and ever accommodating proprietor, is careful to supply in ample profusion, bacon for the body, and if any of his numerous guests want BACON for the mind, they can pass along to Sprague & Teet’s, where they can be supplied.  The Exchange at the same time is a wide-awake Young America establishment in that its landlord is always sure to be fully up to the times, and whatever rare delicacy can be found in market at any season, he is among the first to have it.  And then the fact that every thing is got up under the direction and unerring taste of the intelligent landlady of the house, makes it very certain that all will be right, as you will see if you will only call.  While we are saying a good thing for a hotel that deserves all the praise we bestow, we might as well thank its gentlemanly clerk, Mr. Thomas Smith, for that present of tomatoes, which he sent us, with the intimation that he knew where there was more of the same sort, and we could partake of them about noon by calling at the institution on the corner of Main and First streets, which we did of course, and were careful not to neglect the tempting ears of sweet green corn, and a dozen other choice things that were spread before us.   WD



07 22       A sort of miscellaneous vagrant, B. B. Vandercook, at the Exchange Hotel of this city, sneaked away without paying his bill    WD



01 13       Probably the largest hog ever fatted in this market was slaughtered by Mr. J. B. Van Alstine of the Exchange    WD


04 14       Profusely supplied tables; Van Alstine’s election has not made him any the less attentive to guests    WD


05 19       Alderman Van Alstine of the Exchange is a model of a corporation father and a pattern of a hotel keeper    WG


10 11       Completion of Chicago and North Western Railroad celebrated at Exchange    WD



01 12       Hotel ripped off by fine looking female    WD


03 22       Early vegetables being served    WD



Travelers who visit our city and looked up at the Exchange by J. B. Van Alstine, Esq., uniformly have an exalted opinion of Watertown, and well they may.  After sitting at the best of tables the country affords, occupying the most cleanly and best furnished apartments, and being waited upon in the kindest manner, it is not in nature for a man to be out of humor either himself or the rest of mankind.  We hear the highest complements paid to this house by the guests, who having once put up at it, are sure to call often as possible after.  As is usual in such cases, large share of the credit is due Mrs. V., who, in addition to the most valuable social, and moral qualities, has those still more rare, indispensable to a good landlady.




Mr. Van Alstine received word that his nephew, Thomas W. Smith, age 32, had just expired in Nebraska City from the effects of frost.  Orphaned in infancy by the death of his parents, he was adopted by Mr. J. B. Van Alstine of this city and by him brought up. 


03 17       HORSE NAMED “CUB”

Mr. J. B. Van Alstine’s favorite horse “Cub,” which survived the terrible winter storm that swept over the Western plains last January while on the way home from Denver with the late T. W. Smith, arrived here safe and sound a day or two ago.  He is not for sale.  Gold cannot now buy that noble animal from its owner and its last days deserve to be as easy as that of all good horses that have faithfully served their masters.   WD



The Exchange Hotel begins to wear a spring-like look of neatness and order.  Mr. J. B. Van Alstine is trimming up his trees, cleaning off his sidewalks and making every thing pleasant and comfortable for his guests.  This old and favorite public house loses none of its merits and popularity.  Long may it flourish.   WD



A dwelling house belonging to Mr. J. B. Van Alstine caught fire on the 7th and came pretty near burning up.  Mr. August Fuermann was promptly on hand with his rotary engine and by his efforts and activity put out the flames before much damage was done.  Engine Company No. 1 showed their good will by coming out, but Fuermann’s rotary had already finished the business.  Mr. VanAlstine’s loss is covered by insurance in the Aetna.   WD




The subscriber offers for sale some of the most desirable and valuable real estate in the city of Watertown.  His tavern stand, known as the Exchange Hotel situated on the corner of Main and First streets, in the center of the business part of the city, with all the lots and buildings belonging to it, can be purchased on the most favorable terms.  This property is so advantageously located that a better point either for a hotel or store cannot be found.  He has other houses and lots in different portions of the city also for sale.  For particulars apply to J. B. Van Alstine.    WD



01 12       ”Cheap John” has moved from his west side headquarters to Van Alstine’s store, east of the Exchange.   WR


08 24       Fire at ice house of Exchange Hotel   WD



1881, North side, Snow storm, Van Alstine Exchange hotel, taken in front of Keck & Son bldg, looking west, WHS_005_611

       1881 Signage.  Portion of 005_611



       1881 snow storm street scene



      Saengerfest street scene



05 20       DEATH OF J. B. VAN ALSTINE

We are called upon to chronicle the death of another old settler, Jacob B. Van Alstine, from paralysis of the heart, at his home in the Second ward, Thursday night last, May 20, 1886, at the age of 82 years.  Although not in robust health for some time past, owing to his declining years, yet the final summons was sudden and unexpected, he being able to be around as usual the day of his death.  Deceased was native of Canada, and some 40 years ago settled in Milwaukee, where he engaged in business. 


In the year 1848 he came to Watertown and purchased the Exchange Hotel, then kept by Edward Gilman.  In Mr. Van Alstine’s hands, the Exchange became one of the best known and most popular hotels in the state, its new landlord acquiring a reputation far and wide, not only for his excellent qualities as a caterer and host but for the peculiar and odd traits of character he possessed.


His hotel was viewed in the light of a home for all who stopped at it, and this reputation it maintained up to the last.


For several years past, Mr. Van Alstine had not done a regular hotel business, his age preventing him from undertaking the active duties it Involved, but nevertheless a few of his old traveling friends, while in the city, have continued to make his house their headquarter, it being more like a home to them than anywhere else.  His wife survives him and he leaves one daughter, Mrs. Mary A. Wright.


Death has been busy with the old settlers within the past year or two, but none will be more missed, or cause a greater void in this community than Mr. Van Alstine.  Mr. Van Alstine’s funeral, held from his late home Sunday afternoon, at 2 o’clock, was largely attended, the services being conducted by the Rev. J. M. Campbell, of the Congregational church. Watertown Lodge F & A.M. were present at the ceremonies to pay the last tribute of respect to an old member of the order.  The remains were interred in Oak Hill cemetery.   Wttn Rep, May 26, 1886




Once more we have the sad duty to perform of chronicling the passing away of another aged resident, Mrs. Mary Van Alstine, relict of the late J. B. Van Alstine, whose death occurred at her home in the Second ward, Friday morning, March 18, 1887, from general debility, in the 79th year of her age.


Deceased was born in England June, 1808, and came to Watertown with her husband in the year 1848, residing here uninterruptedly since that time.


She was a person of amiable and kindly traits of character, a good neighbor and a true friend.  Crippled somewhat by a fall a few years ago, Mrs. Van Alstine had been seen out but seldom of late, although enjoying fairly good health until her last sickness, which extended through a period of about three weeks.


Mrs. Van Alstine leaves two children, Mrs. Mary A. Wright, of this city, and a son by her first husband, Wm. B. Hauworth, a prominent architect of Quincy, Illinois.


Her funeral was held Sunday afternoon at 2:30 o’clock from her late home and was attended by a large number of her friends and neighbors, Rev. J. M. Campbell, of the Congregational church, officiating.


The remains were interred in Oak Hill cemetery by the side of her husband.







01 04       CENTRAL HOUSE

The Central House, corner of Main and First streets, formerly the Van Alstine Hotel, has been re-opened by B. F. Watson and is now ready for business.  He has had the place fitted up in good shape, and he means to make it pleasant for all patrons.  He is a first class man, and all who stop at his house will find that he will use them well.  He should receive his share of trade, and our people should make an effort to see that he gets a good foothold here in business.    WG




The old Van Alstine hotel building has been rented by Rev. E.E. Bauert for a Faith Home, and is now being occupied for this purpose.         WR





The first hotel built in Watertown in 1840, the Exchange Hotel. 




In 1891 it was moved to the corner of S. First and Milwaukee streets.  Today this is the M & M Bar, the oldest building in the city.


Van Alstine's hotel building has been on the move towards its destination to the lot, corner of First and Milwaukee streets, since Friday last.  The moving contractors, Messrs. Martin & Jaeger, experienced great trouble to get the building from its foundation and turned properly in its course down First Street.  This was not accomplished until Monday evening, but since then the moving has gone along smoothly.  It was the most excitement the town had had for a long time, and it was something wonderful the number of bosses, wiseacres and gentlemen of leisure the job of moving developed.  Some have learned by this moving that among the uncertainties of life none is greater than to find out when and how you can get a building away from its foundation and instilled with the right kind of moving spirit.


04 03       The old Van Alstine hotel building was erected in the summer of 1841 for hotel purposes by Isaac Savage, Edward Gilman, being its first landlord.  In 1848, Savage disposed of it to the late J.B. Van Alstine.  The latter occupied it for about 40 years, and up to the time of his death.  At the present time there are but eight persons residing here who lived in Watertown when the building was erected, being John W. Cole and wife, Mrs. J.A. Chadwick, A. Boomer, Dr. E. Johnson and wife, Mrs. John Gibbs and P. V. Brown.        WG


04 17       P. Rogan informs us that there were several misstatements in our article last week on the Van Alstine building.  He says that John C. and Harris Gilman erected the building, though the Jefferson County history says that Savage built it.  Mr. Rogan says Savage never had anything to do with the hotel.  He also claims that there are two buildings now in the city older than the ones spoken of, being Robert Crangle's residence on the Milford Road, and the residence just north of Evans' barn.  Mr. Rogan was one of the first boarders at the hotel, was here when it was built, and for four years previous thereto.  Mrs. Ellen and Miss M. Crowley, and Robert Crangle, now residents of Watertown, were also here at the time.         WG



03 02       Clayton Watson died suddenly at the home of his parents, by B. F. Watson and wife, at Lake Mills on Thursday, February 22, 1900, aged about 35 years.  He was a former resident of Watertown, his father being proprietor of the old Exchange Hotel, which stood on the present site of the Merchant’s Bank.    WG



-- --           REMEMBERANCE

Mr. J.B. Van Alstine kept a hotel on the northeast corner of Main and First streets called the “Exchange.”  In this modest appearing building was rendered the very best service that a practical caterer could supply.


At meal time it was the custom of the proprietor to pace back and forth in front of the hotel ringing a large dinner bell to call the people in.  He invariably wore a tall silk hat and usually walked with a cane.  The sidewalk was paved with brick and the constant travel over it, in time, wore the bricks down to a third of their original thickness.


Mr. Van Alstine’s exacting disposition and strict honesty made every detail of his “caravansary” a joy and comfort to the traveling public.  This same disposition would brook no deceit or dishonest practices on the part of others.


The bread for his table was made from the best winter wheat flour and was purchased in five- or ten-barrel lots.  On one occasion he ordered a supply from the miller who made, but just at this time no winter wheat was on hand, so the miller sent in its place a first class flour made of Spring wheat, and “Van” used it up without knowing the difference until the bill came in for payment, when the lower price of the Spring wheat flour called his attention to the fact that he had not been supplied with the kind of flour he had ordered; it made him so angry that he nearly threw the miller out of the house and ceased to patronize him thereafter.


On another occasion a man sold him a load of firewood and was piling it up in the yard to be paid for by the cord—128 cubic feet.  Mr. Van Alstine was watching him through a window.  The man laid the sticks of cordwood in such a manner that there were many holes in the pile which made the quantity appear much larger than it really was.  When the job was finished Mr. Van Alstine went out and furiously asked the man “How many of those holes in that woodpile it would take to cook a man’s breakfast,” and further added, “I’ll give you just 15 minutes to get that load on your wagon and out of this yard, or you’ll have some assistance in getting out.”  The man went out in the allotted time.


William Chappel, a constant boarder at the “Exchange,” was something of an epicure, also a Yankee and fond of baked beans. This, however, was a dish which was not served at the “Exchange” tables, but “Bill”, as he was familiarly called, got into the good graces of Mrs. Van Alstine and she told him if he would get someone to cook the beans that she would have them served, as she never had cooked beans and wouldn’t try at her time of life.  So “Bill” went out and bought a peck of beans, had them picked over by the dining room girls, and sent them to a bakery to be put to soak, then the pork and seasoning to be added and put into the old-fashioned brick oven the last thing at night to be baked.


“Bill” was there in the morning to get the beans; they had swollen to over a bushel in bulk so he got a boy with a wheelbarrow to take them to the hotel kitchen.  Mrs. Van Alstine held up her hands in horror and says “What will we ever do with all these beans, Mr. Chappel?” 


Of course, Chappel knew he could not eat all that mass of beans, but being a lawyer and quick witted he answered “O, put them on the tables, the rest of the guests will like them.”


Mrs. Van Alstine did so, and was not only relieved but amazed at the capacity of her guests for those beans.  In two days time they were all gone, and in a few more days the guests were inquiring for more beans, but neither Mr. Chappel or Mrs. Van Alstine attempted it again.


Derived from "Reminiscences of Ernest Wood" published in 1921



Cross References:

Article on Van Alstine and Exchange hotel in Watertown History Annual #2, 2007, pg 1-12.

Van Alstine, Mary (Silas Wright), Daughter of Jacob Van Alstine

Van Alstine's Exchange Hotel, Temporary residence of first mayor

Van Alstine's Exchange Hotel, Van Alstine's Exchange


Excerpt from a little book entitled The Long Ago,” written by J. William Wright and published in 1921.  J. William Wright was a grandson of pioneer hotel keeper Jacob B. VanAlstine, who kept the Exchange Hotel once located on the corner of Main and First Streets.  This building was moved to its present location, the corner of South First and Milwaukee streets, in 1892.  Mr. Wright was the son of Mary A. Van Alstine, a noted artist, and Silas Wright.  He graduated from Watertown High School in 1888 and began a career as a minor poet and short story writer.  Like his mother before him, he wound up in California and died there in the 1950s.


Image files, to be added to a new VanAlstine portfolio:

WHS_008_197   Exchange Hotel, Main and First Streets, 1861. Bank of Watertown on far left.

WHS_008_198   Mary and Willie Wright

WHS_008_199   J. William Wright--circa 1888  / J. William Wright was a grandson of pioneer hotel keeper Jacob B. VanAlstine, who kept the Exchange Hotel.

WHS_008_200   Grandmother Van Alstine, circa 1880

WHS_011_008   Assessor image of 1951






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History of Watertown, Wisconsin