ebook  History of Watertown, Wisconsin


J. W. Wright


Son of Mrs. Silas Wright (Mary A. Van Alstine)


Watertown Wisconsin Centennial, 1854-1954, booklet


J. W. Wright, known to Watertown residents as Willie Wright, was born here in 1871 and died in 1952.


During his boyhood days he spent much time with his grandparents, the Jacob B. Van Alstines, in the Exchange hotel which they operated. His mother, Mrs. Silas Wright, was Mary A. Van Alstine (*), an artist of no small repute.


He graduated from Watertown High School and in 1892 completed his course at Beloit College.  While there he distinguished himself as a writer and designer and was chosen to design the frontispiece of the Beloit College annual. He also lettered and illustrated Sidney Lanier's long poem, "The Symphony."  After graduation he became a journalist, author and poet. He worked on papers at Denver, Colo., and at Pasadena, Calif.


"The Post" a paper in Pasadena reviewed his poems saying in their tribute to him: "Mr. Wright has the soul of a poet and a poet's subtlety and grace of expression. He is a Wisconsin product they say but he is really a genius product for no state can claim a genius.  It just happens to be born there."


In addition to a vast amount of journalism he found time to write, "The Long Ago," and a book of poems called "The Old World."  His books were in his own words "Tales from the Hills and Valleys of Life."


The "Long Ago" is about Van Alstine's Exchange, the hotel operated by his grandfather. In this he is said to be a writer of mellow verse.


In 1898 J. W. Wright composed a poem for his mother.  In 1924 he found it pasted on the back of an old photograph of her. The title of it was "If I Were a Millionaire." The last verse contains much of his philosophy of life.


Would we be more to each other

If troubles were swept away?

Would the sun in the west glow softer

Then now, at the close of day?

Life is but a mighty heart throb,

And the love that makes life fair

Would be no greater and truer dear

If I were a millionaire.


- J. W. Wright









W. F. Jannke III


I was asked by the editor of this august publication to write something for the final issue of the year.  I thought and thought about it and finally decided that the best thing I could produce is this little


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. Van Alstine, 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.


As the holidays are soon to be upon us, I thought this sweet little story might bring a nostalgic smile to anyone who reads it.  Enjoy!




We always used grandmother’s stocking—because it was the biggest on in the family, much larger than mother’s, and somehow it seemed able to stretch more than hers. There was so much room in the foot, too—a chance for all sorts of packages.


There was a carpet-covered couch against the flowered wall in one corner of the parlor.  Between the foot of it and the chimney, was the door into our bedroom.  I always hung my stocking at the side of the door nearest the couch, on the theory, well-defined in my mind with each recurring Christmas, that if by any chance Santa Claus brought me more than he could get into the stocking, he could pile the overflow on the couch.  And he always did!


Grandmother Van Alstine, c. 1880


Mary and Willie Wright, about the time of this story


Exchange Hotel, northeast corner Main and North First streets.           Bank of Watertown on left.


It may seem strange that a lad who seldom heard even the third getting-up call in the morning should have awakened without any calling once a year—or that his red night-gowned figure should have leaped from the depths of his feather bed—or that he should have crept breathless and fearful to the door where the stocking hung.


Notwithstanding the ripe experience of years past, when each Christmas found the generous stocking stuffed with good things, there was always the chance that Santa Claus might have forgotten, this year—or that he might have miscalculated his supply and not have enough to go ‘round—or that he had not been correctly been informed as to just what you wanted—or that some accident might have befallen his reindeer and-sleigh to detain him until the grey dawn of Christmas morning stopped his work and sent him scurrying back to his toy kingdom to await another Yule-tide.


And so, in the fearful silence and darkness of that early hour, with stilled breath and heart beating so loudly you thought it would awaken everyone in the house, you softly opened the door—poked your arm through—felt around where the stocking ought to be, but with a great sinking in your heart when you didn’t find it the first time—and finally your chubby fist clutched the misshapen, lumpy, bulging fabric that proclaimed a generous Santa Claus.


Yes, it was there!


That was enough for the moment.  A hurried climb back into the warm bed—and then interminable years of waiting until your attuned ear caught the first sounds of grandmother dressing in her nearby bedroom, and the first gleam of winter daylight permitted you to see the wondrous stocking and the array of packages on the sofa.  It was beyond human strength to refrain from just one look.  But alas!  The sight of a dapple-grey rocking horse with silken mane and flowing tail was too much, and the next moment you were in the room with your arms around his arched neck, while peals of unrestrained joy brought the whole family to the scene. 


Then it was that mother gathered you into her lap, wrapped her skirt about your bare legs, and held your trembling form tight in her arms until you promised to get dressed if they would open just one package---the big one on the end of the sofa.  After that there was always “just one more, other, please!”  And by that time the base burner was warming up and you were on the floor in the middle of the discarded wrapping paper, uncovering each wondrous package down to the very last—the very, very last—in the very toe of the stocking—the big round one that you were sure was a real league ball but which proved to be nothing but an orange!



There is a new high-power motor in my garage.  It came to me yesterday—Christmas.  It is very beautiful, and it cost a great deal of money, a very great deal.  If we were in the Little Old Town it would take us all out to Aunt Em’s farm in ten minutes.  (It always took her an hour to drive in with the old spotted white mare.)


I am quite happy to have this wonderful new horse of today, and there is some warmth inside of me as I walk around it in the garage while Henry, its keeper, flicks with his chamois every last vestige of dust from its shiny sides.


And yet . . . how gladly would I give it up if only I could have been in my feather bed last night—if I could have awakened at day break and crept softly, red-flannelled and barefooted, to the parlor door—if I could have groped for grandmother’s stocking and felt its lumpy shape respond to my eager touch—and if I could have known the thrill; of that dapple-grey rocking horse when I flung my arms around its neck and buried my face in its silken mane!



(*)  Mary Van Alstine Bartow. Died 04 03 1924


Paintings by Mary A. Wright:



Mrs. Mary van Alstine Bartow, widow of the later Judge Bartow, died last week Monday at Pasadena, California.  Deceased was born in Watertown, and resided here until her marriage to Silas F. Wright of Chicago, now a resident of New York.  Mr. and Mrs. Wright separated and for a number of years Mrs. Wright and her son made their home in Watertown with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Bell Van Alstine, who conducted a hotel on the site of where the Merchants National Bank and Mrs. Clara Weis millinery store now are.  Later she married Judge Bartow and they went west to reside, living in Nebraska, then Colorado, and on the death of Judge Bartow, Mrs. Bartow and her son, J. W. Wright located in Pasadena, California, where her son now resides.  Mrs. Bartow is quite well remembered by all the older residents, including the editor of The Gazette.   She was one of Watertown’s most prominent belles in the early 70’s and a lady of culture and refinement.  All of her old friends here heard of her death with much sorrow.

Mary Van Alstine: Watertown Centennial 1854-1954

Mary Van Alstine, a local artist, was the daughter of Jacob B. Van Alstine who operated the local hotel called the Exchange in the early 1840's to 1880's.  In her own words her life was one of change.  In the late 1860's she maintained a studio on Main St. two doors north of First St., and also at the Exchange.She studied art locally and later in life went to Chicago for this purpose.  She married Silas Wright in 1870 and on April 12,1889 married Judge Alfred Bartow of Chandron, Nebraska.  Later they both went to Pasadena and other cities in California to live.  A hand-painted plate dated 1872 (is) at the Octagon House museum, (and too) a bas-relief entitled "My Lady Fair." In 1892 Mary A.Wright exhibited at the Palette Club in Chicago.  Her entries were two ... (watercolors) called:"A Nebraska Landscape," and "Close of Day".  Two others in oil were:"The Roadway" and "Sunset".  In 1893 at the World's Columbian Exposition she was presented with a testimonial from the Illinois Woman's Exposition Board (for her efforts which)contributed greatly to the success of the exposition.  (page 60)



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History of Watertown, Wisconsin