Settlers from the eastern seaboard were drawn to the Koshkonong Prairie, a geographic area defined by today’s cities of McFarland, Cottage Grove, Cambridge, Albion, and Stoughton. Koshkonong means “the lake we live by,” and early settlers did just that, putting roots down near the waters. This area’s rolling prairie; hardwood trees; and fresh water in the form of lakes, rivers, and springs made the area ideal for farming. One of these locations was at a bend in the Yahara River with the large Lake Kegonsa nearby, which became Stoughton.
The city was named after a Vermont pioneer, Luke Stoughton. He envisioned a community located between Janesville and Madison, complete with saw mill, grist mill, blacksmith, general store, and an inn. Community leaders guaranteed the city’s place on the map by making sure the railroad went through Stoughton.
Stoughton residents have always had the ability to celebrate their culture, origins, and history while looking forward to the next phase of community development. Not just once, but multiple times since the city’s founding, Stoughton residents made the choice to restore structures that were part of the town’s identity, including the Stoughton Opera House, the clocktower on city hall, and the Carnegie library. This makes Stoughton an even more intriguing place to visit, where a downtown stroll allows you to explore these landmark buildings as well as storefronts that contain a variety of shops and restaurants.
A visit to the library is a delight. The original was one of the 1,689 Carnegie libraries built in the United States by millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In Stoughton’s case, the city applied for a $15,000 grant. They received a counter of $10,000 and a stipulation that the library had to be free to the public and the city had to raise operating funds. The final agreement was for $13,000 and $100 per month in operating funds.
But there’s a twist. When the library needed to expand, the community ultimately voted to keep the library at the existing location and incorporate the historic building into an expanded, modern library. The result is a blend of old and new. You can see the facades of the historic building bridged with an atrium to the new expansion.
Inside the library, you’ll find free walking tour guides for historic neighborhoods around the city. The tours show off the variety of early architectural styles incorporated into buildings at the turn of the century: Queen Anne, Italianate, and Classical Revival. The guides are simple to use and include stories of the owners, and they’re also available at the Stoughton Historical Museum and city hall.
A short distance away, city hall was also a restoration project. Built in 1901, city hall served many purposes, and the City Auditorium (now Stoughton Opera House) was the center of community activity. It still is! After its renovation and the restoration of the clocktower, Stoughton Opera House began hosting local and national musicians, plays, comedy acts, and civic events. You can plan an evening out for dinner and a show at this venue, known for its acoustics, modern technology, and Victorian trimmings.
The Livsreise (Life’s Journey) cultural heritage center is a visionary building providing a link to Stoughton’s immigrant past. Follow the settlement of the area from indigenous peoples to New Englanders to immigrants from European nations, especially Norwegians. They were hardworking people that farmed and worked with their hands. Livsreise captures the history and development of Stoughton inside this beautiful building with modern displays. Create your own immigration story and travel from the old country across to America. Take the Erie Canal and then a wagon to Wisconsin. You’ll get a sense of what immigration from Norway was like. The center was gifted to the community by the Edwin E. and Janet L. Bryant Foundation, and entry is free.
Other fascinating displays include cultural educational kiosks about Norwegian dancing, folk tales; the traditional decorative rosemaling painting among others; and, of course, Syttende Mai, Norway’s Constitution Day. The first citywide celebration occurred in 1897, and Stoughton continues to celebrate Syttende Mai in healthy style on the weekend closest to May 17. Visitors of all ages and with all types of interests—running, dancing, eating, canoeing, crafting, singing, and spectating—will find something at this colorful festival.
In a nod to its earliest settlers, the focus of the community has once again turned to the waters that run through the city. Stoughton’s next chapter will include becoming a recreational destination. City leaders and residents have decided to enhance its natural assets, parks, and trails. Two sets of trails already exist on the north side of the city with plans to connect the loops, and plans are actively underway to redo Mandt and Riverside Parks on the city’s south side along the Yahara River. They will include a riverwalk, pedestrian bridge, and trails to other parts of the community as well as waterside commercial development. The biggest draw is a planned whitewater park, which will bypass the dam using a series of pools or drops for kayakers.
Such exciting plans seem to be in step with the way Stoughton has addressed many of its choices along the way, answering how to revitalize a part of the community with an eye toward the future without losing sight of the past. I’m looking forward to my next visit!
Liz Wessel is the owner of Green Concierge Travel, which has information for honeymoons and other ecotravel at greenconciergetravel.com .
Stoughton Junior Fair, July 3–7
Catfish River Music Festival, July 4–7
Stoughton Coffee Break Festival, August 17
Stoughton Wine Walk, October 17
Victorian Holiday Weekend, December 5–7
Syttende Mai, May 15–17, 2020
History and Culture:
• Free Historic Walking Guides can be found at Stoughton Public Library, Historical Museum, and City Hall
• Livsreise at 277 W. Main Street. Check for hours at livsreise.org
• Stoughton Historical Museum at 324 S. Page Street. Check for hours at stoughtonhistoricalsociety.org