Doctor, city father, politician, newspaperman, education advocate, inventor. These are the many distinctions of Dr. Charles Giles Crosse. Dr. Crosse arrived in Sun Prairie from Sauk County on January 1, 1860, with his wife, three children, and $10 in his pocket. Dr. Crosse set up his medical and surgical practice, established a drug store, and five years later enlisted in the Civil War as a surgeon with the 50th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
Upon his return from the West, where his regiment helped prevent American Indians from joining the Confederacy, Dr. Crosse built his Sun Prairie home. Gingerbread ornamentation and a graceful veranda that wraps around the front and side characterize the home’s design: Carpenter Gothic. This vernacular style is considered typical of middle-class American homes of that era. The Dr. Charles Giles Crosse House at 133 W. Main Street was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Dr. Crosse and members of his family lived in the home until after his death in 1908.
In 1976, the year of America’s Bicentennial, preservation-minded residents of Sun Prairie formed Sun Prairie Historical Restorations, Inc. to save the Crosse House, which had been converted into two apartments. In the years that followed, volunteers restored much of the interior, including the original floors and the original clapboard siding that had been covered over by metal siding. They accurately reconstructed the veranda by using historic photos as a guide. The Crosse House bears a passing likeness to the home in Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic painting.
One of the oldest extant residences in Sun Prairie, the Crosse House is also a city landmark. A total of 35 historical landmarks and buildings, which offer a glimpse into the city’s historical and cultural past, can be found on Sun Prairie’s Main Street.
The Historical Restoration organization faced a challenge in the mid-1990s. When Sun Prairie’s Water & Light Department wanted to expand, the Crosse House was in the way. In 2000, after successful negotiations with the city, the Crosse House was moved a half block down the street to its present site, at which point an interesting discovery was made. A brick floor was found in part of the cellar. This particular feature would have been unusual for a home of its time. Nancy McMahon, great-great-granddaughter of Dr. Crosse, thinks the house may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. She is doing research to confirm the speculation.
Dr. Crosse worked tirelessly for Sun Prairie to become incorporated. He was elected village president and was also a member of Dane County’s Board of Supervisors. From 1878 to 1880, he represented his Assembly District in Wisconsin’s Legislature.
Believing that the city needed a good newspaper, Dr. Crosse, along with his son, Charles Sumner Crosse, published the city’s first paper in his home in 1877. That paper has evolved into today’s Sun Prairie Star . Charles S. was a journalist his entire life, and a humble one at that. When he died, a simple obituary appeared in the New York Times per his request, “Charlie Crosse is dead.”
Dr. Crosse advocated for education and his passion ran throughout his family. He is credited with winning the fight for a high school in Sun Prairie and was president of the school board for 25 years. He opposed the Yankees who had relocated to Wisconsin from the Northeast and who didn’t want to educate the children of German immigrants. He even hired a teacher to live in his home to teach his children and his friends’ children.
A room in the home served as a classroom. These days when Sun Prairie second graders tour the Crosse House as part of a social studies unit, Betty Ness, a member of the Crosse House Board and retired teacher, explains and shows how children in the 19th century used chalk, slates, and quill pens. The children also learn how the family made their own candles since there was no electricity in the house.
Dr. Crosse’s daughter and Nancy’s great-great-aunt Edith Jane was educated at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She graduated in 1881. Edith’s niece and Nancy’s grandmother, Edith Chase, used Edith Jane’s example and exhorted her grandchildren, “If Edith Jane could get a degree, then any of you can, too!”
Dr. Theodore Parker Crosse, the first of Dr. Crosse’s children and Nancy’s great-grandfather, followed in his father’s footsteps. Not only was he a doctor who practiced with his father, but he also served as village president and a supervisor on the Dane County Board.
As an inventor, Dr. Crosse received a patent for his design of a system to tie bales of hay by machine. Because he was less interested in receiving compensation for his work and more interested in seeing that his inventions would be put to practical use, he gave away his designs and devices.
Reading was important to Dr. Crosse. He and his wife began a family tradition that is still carried on to the present by succeeding generations. Every Christmas, they gave a book to each of their children that was specifically picked out for them.
Today the Crosse House is used as a community and event center. Local residents have used the house for craft shows and specialty markets. Small rooms within the house make it an ideal venue for several vendors to display and sell their wares.
Edith Jane married Edward Gleason in the Crosse House, so it was fitting that the first recent wedding occurred in the house two years ago. Receptions are possible now because of the Crosse House’s modern kitchen, installed by Historical Restoration volunteers.
The Crosse House will be open this holiday season. The public is invited to come free of charge for a visit with Santa and a cookie sale on December 3 from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.