ebook  History of Watertown, Wisconsin


Octagon House




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       Concord Ave, below Octagon House, in the distance




The first step in the formation of a historical society in Watertown


“Oh, mommy, lookit at that big, around house on that hill,” cried the little curly-haired girl as she pressed her nose against the window of a Milwaukee Road train while it slowed its pace on entering Watertown.


“That’s the ‘Octagon House’ – the old Richards home, girlie,” the conductor intervened as he strolled through the coach.  “It’s one of the most famous landmarks along this route.  Almost everyone asks about it on my run.  Folks in Watertown don’t pay much attention to it though, it’s been there so long.”


The little child listened and stared, just as countless other little girls and grownups alike have admired it for years – the old mansion of the Hon. John Richards, Watertown pioneer, business leader and statesman.


     May Become Museum


As the conductor mused – folks in Watertown don’t pay much attention to it.  It’s been there so long – he probably spoke the truth, but Watertown folks are beginning to take more than casual pride over this architectural gem.  They plan to make it a museum of Watertown relics, the headquarters of the newly-organized historical society.  How the association plans to accomplish its goal still is undecided, yet that is the aim.


Erected on a high bluff of the roaming Rock River valley, the Richards home has seen three generations pass as it looked down like a fortress from its lofty, natural acropolis.  Since 1853, for 80 years, the eight-sided brick home has housed the Richard family.


Today two persons occupy the rooms which once were those of a large family, Mrs. Anna R. Thomas, daughter of the Hon. John Richards, and her son, William R. Thomas, realtor whose present ambition is to see the old homestead developed into a Watertown museum.


     Houses Many Treasures


Truly a treasure house is this old home.  Many a simple bauble or home and farm implement of another day has become a relic to be cached away in this great Watertown relic that once was a shining example of domestic building grandeur.


Three stories above the ground this home remains intact in all effects as it was the day on which it was built.  A builder’s level proves that the structure has not sunk its well-planned foundations in its battle with the elements during those long 80 years.  In all it is unchanged.  No electric lights shed their twentieth century glow over the fancily-decorated rooms; no radio barks out jazz notes and oily gutturals of crooners; no roller shades to keep out the strong summer rays of the sun.


     Blinds Shade Windows


Instead oil lamps, which replace their crude predecessors – candles – years ago, provide the only light after the sun had departed for the day.  For music there is an old spinet-style piano in one of the parlors for those who would play on it.  Old, wooden blinds cover the many windows on the structure’s eight sides.


When John Richards went to build his home 80 years ago, he did so with a resolution that it should be totally apart from anything in the city.  A journey to the grounds and through the home will prove to the most skeptical that he accomplished his purpose.  From Milwaukee came the thousands of bricks, the real cream brick which gave the Wisconsin metropolis its nickname.  With an octagon for a geometrical pattern, he selected the plans for the remarkable house which wastes not an inch of precious space.


     Bible Stands on Table


Entering from the west door a few feet from the ground, one finds himself in a parlor, oddly shaped, yet beautifully decorated in the finery of a hundred years ago.  In the center of the room is a low table with the family bible standing on it.  To the right are chairs and a lounge all of which have passed the century mark in age.  To the left is the oblong spinet piano, the first instrument of its kind in Watertown.  Piled on its closed hood are photographs, albums and trinkets, each having some honored connection either to the Richards family or to Watertown.


This room Mr. Thomas plans to turn over to the historical society temporarily, so that it may preserve the other objects of interest, which it has gathered, here in one of the oldest homes in the city.


A door to the right leads to a second parlor, decorated with bright wall paper and its ceiling ornate with carved moldings.  Chairs, cabinets, stools and tables, all homemade of valuable woods and carefully preserved, dot the room.  These, too, have stood in their places since the earliest days of the home.  Their master looks with pride upon them for to him they are more than antiques.  Both he and his mother have grown from childhood about them; they are relics.


     Oil Lamp Hangs Above


Overhead a fancy oil lamp of chandelier proportions hangs.  Windows, with blinds turned ajar, permit the deep sunlight to filter through the finely-paned glass.


Continuing the walk along the lower floor, the visitor passes through an anteroom off of the east door and finds himself in still another section of this mammoth octagon.  This time it is the dining room, with chairs lining the long linen-covered table, and the buffet carefully serviced with valuable old silver and china.  Paintings line the walls of this room just as they did the others, carefully hung and safely preserved.


A door to the right again leads back to the first parlor where the visitor entered but a few minutes before.  The trip about the lower floor is ended, the octagon has been circumscribed.


     Stairway Winds Upwards


In the geometric center of the house is erected a circular stairway, exactly as constructed by hand labor years ago.  Its fine railing is turned perfectly and the stairs spiral their path upward to the cupola from where one can scan for miles around the countryside of Watertown – the winding river to the east, the business section to the west and the fringe of the city and the adjoining outskirts to the north and south, with the tall spires of churches piercing up from lattice of roofs that covers the vista.


The second floor is given over totally to bedrooms, furnished with soft, comfortable appearing beds, carved of fine wood and finished with all the turns and curves that characterized interior decoration of generations past.  Bureaus and wardrobes all are finely kept and possess the luster that the years have failed to blemish.  Curiously, on the second floor the interior octagon is divided once more into a polygon of 16 sides and where, on the first floor, one room stood, here two, a large bedroom and a smaller one, complete with window and closet, take up the space.  The designer of this home well knew the means of conserving space.


Cross reference to info on stairway  


     Soft Water Runs


At each landing on the spiral stairway is a small door, inside of which one will find a little faucet from which flows soft water.  As the rain pours onto the tin-covered roof above it drains into a tank, well-hidden, from whence the water is fed to the series of tappets on each floor.


Up the stairway once again is the third floor, all given over, except for one room, to the store space for furniture, clothing and other belongings.


     Treasures Fill Room


In the one room set aside are to be found a myriad of old treasures.  Along the walls, on the floor and on the table in the center, are countless gewgaws that have played parts in the growing life of Watertown.


On the floor are old trunks, good in their day, but hardly strong enough to stand the knocks of modern day rail handling.  Against the wall lay oxen yokes and on the side hangs an old saddle which had been in the Richards family long before the house was erected.  In one corner is a sample of Indian beadwork, brought from the then territory of Montana.  Against one wall hangs maps of the United States in 1854, the western states of 1849 and Jefferson county in 1872.


     Photos Cover Walls


Quaint old etchings of such scenes as the “Fall of Richmond” in the Civil War, photographs of the home and grave of Jesse James in Missouri and pictures of early Watertown streets and people, adorn other sides of the wall.


Below is a book on an antique desk used by Mr. Richards in his mill.  This is the register which Mr. Thomas has started and in which tourists from coast to coast, a thousand or more of them, have inscribed their names. Along the highway, they have noticed the house, paused and found a genial host and guide in Mr. Thomas to show them about.


In the center of this curio room is a table on which innumerable articles are kept.  Here is a little dinner bell, set up in a fancy bronzed frame adorned with mother-of-pearl.  Next to it is the bell which one day called carefree pupils to the school which John Richards built to the south of his mansion.


     Keep Surveyor’s Chain


Next to it is the chain which was among those used in surveying the strip of land for the laying of the famed Watertown Plank Road into Milwaukee years ago.  Then there is a toy cannon and a mold for the manufacture of home-dipped candles.  Nearby rests a candle snuffer.


Most curious of all is a small bagatelle board with which Mr. Thomas said he played 60 years ago.  Bagatelle is the game from which the now popular marble game developed.  Nowadays it costs a nickel to send 10 or more marbles rolling around the frame, bouncing off pins and then falling into slots for a score, but this little box puts on the same entertainment for the player at no cost except the original payment.


     Cradle Still Rocks


In the corner is the hand-made wooden cradle which has passed through generations in the Richards family.  Mrs. Thomas, now 91 years of age, is one of the many who slept in it in their baby days. On the table is a leather pouch which another member of the family wore in the Civil War.  In the pouch were carried the messages from one battalion to the other.  Truly this mute piece of worn leather could tell a romantic tale if only it could speak.


On a shelf is a miniature replica of the Richards home which Mr. Thomas fashioned for an exhibition years ago.  The model shows the house in its original design, which a porch surrounding the entire structure on each of the three floors.  This porch endured for years on the house, but the wood could not withstand rain and snow as well as its brick supports with the result that it was removed.


     Lawn Possesses Beauty


And so the tours ends.  The visitor winds his way down the spiral stairway again and walks out on to the well-landscaped lawn that rolls like a huge billow to the east and overlooks the winding river valley.  The house in the background stands in its weather-beaten grey, its blinds setting off the many angles of its sides.  Here is, indeed, a museum of history of pioneer days.  Only the concerted efforts of the new Watertown Historical Society are needed to make it one permanently.    WDTimes




A place of interest in Watertown, and one which is not well-known to the people of the city, is the Octagon House on Richards Hill, the home of Mrs. George Thomas and her son, William.


Many people entering the city or driving along the road next to the river have looked up on the top of the hill and have observed this interesting structure.  It has three stories and a basement, and is octagon shaped.  There are twelve big rooms in the house and many little rooms, which the Thomases use for store rooms and clothes presses.  In the center of the house is the circular stairway which winds up from the first floor to the cupola on top.  As the house is so large, Mrs. Thomas and her son use only the basement floor and the first floor.  Even on these two floors there is ample place for comfortable living quarters.  Not all of the rooms are furnished at the present time, but most of the first two floors have old-fashioned furniture.


Mrs. Thomas’ mother, the late Mrs. John Richards, brought several pieces from Massachusetts at the time she moved to Watertown with her husband, among them a mahogany table and a sofa.


During the winter months many of the rooms are closed off, but in summer they are opened up for use.


Mr. and Mrs. John Richards moved to Watertown in 1840.  They settled on a farm which was situated in the area of the Fox Farm on the east side of town.  Mrs. Thomas was born on the farm and lived there until her father, deciding more room was needed for the family, purchased the home across from the power plant at the bottom of the hill which was one day to bear his name.


In 1853, Mr. Richards started to build on the hill in the present location.  While the house was in construction, he became ill and work was ceased for a short time.  He wanted to supervise the work himself, and therefore nothing could be done during his illness.


The house was completed in 1854, and the family moved in.  At this time, Mrs. Thomas was only eight or ten years of age. She has resided in the old home ever since. 


In 1862, she was married to the late George Thomas, who died more than forty years ago.  One son, William, was born to them, and has lived with his mother ever since.  He is a real estate agent and manages all the Thomas property, which covers a goodly portion of the area on the hill.


In spite of the fact that Mrs. Thomas is nearing the age of 91 years, she is in fair health and moves about in her kitchen with all confidence.  She has not gone through the upstairs rooms for some time, nor does she leave the house very often.  When she does, she never walks, but rides in a car.  When asked about her stand regarding children coming up on the hill to ski or toboggan, she replied, “I like to have the children come up on the hill.  I don’t mind their playing up here if they don’t hurt themselves or run into the fence with their sleds.”


Travelers passing through the city as well as residents of Watertown have gone up to the Thomas home in curiosity.  Due to the fact that Mrs. Thomas is not well enough to go through the house and show people around, inquisitive people are requested not to come.  If one or two are allowed to enter, Mrs. Thomas feels that all would be welcome, and she is not in condition to have them come.     Watertown Tribune, December 21, 1934


Cross Reference to those mentioned above:

Mrs. John Richards (Eliza Forbes) (1816-1902)

         | Anna Richards, dau of John and Eliza (1842-1936), married George Thomas

                | William Thomas, son of Anna and George (1863-1937)



-- --           DEATH OF ANNA RICHARDS THOMAS, (1842-1936)



Event held on Octagon House grounds assumed to be memorial for Anna Richards Thomas




Watertown’s Octagon House is being used as a model for several new homes being planned in Hollywood by film stars, according to reports.  Only in the California homes the house will be shaped like doughnut with a “hole” in the center to allow window space from the round “court.”  The furniture is to be built “curved” to conform with the layout of the rooms and the houses will be air conditioned.  If the new idea clicks, the homes will be built generally in other sections of the country.




Mr. and Mrs. W. A. Klinger have resigned as custodians at the Octagon House and the First Kindergarten building.  The Watertown Historical Society, which owns and operates the two buildings, said the services of Mr. and Mrs. Klinger have extended over a period of approximately eight years and that these were marked by faithful and efficient service.  Mr. and Mrs. Klinger and their daughter Kay, who also substituted as a guide at times, are moving into their new home just below the hill on Richards Avenue.  The board of directors of the historical society says it regrets losing the fine services they have rendered and have expressed their feelings in a resolution which has been adopted.   WDT




Watertown’s Octagon House and the First Kindergarten during May enjoyed the largest attendance ever recorded since the two shrines were opened under the ownership of the Watertown Historical Society.  A total of 1,700 persons took the guided tours in 30 odd groups from cities and towns close by and from distant places.  Many of the visitors were school children transported to Watertown by buses, accompanied by their teachers.  A large number were from the second to the seventh grades and they were enchanted with the Octagon House, especially the circular staircase, according to the curator.




An all time high of 15,500 visitors toured the Octagon House units during the 1968 season, according to announcement today by Miss Gladys Mollart, curator.  The visitors came from most of the 50 states during the vacation season and many were from foreign countries.  The Watertown Historical Society, which maintains the Octagon House, the restored first American kindergarten, and the pioneer barn on the grounds, has completed compiling records for the May 1 to Nov. 1 season.  Lee Block is president of the Watertown Historical Society.




A group of people posing for a photo

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The Octagon House neighborhood harked back to days of old on Friday when vintage Willis Overland cars parked in the streets.  The cars, manufactured between 1903 and 1941, lined the streets while the drivers and passengers toured the Octagon House as part of regional meeting activities of the Willis Overland Knights Register, an international club.  Tours were also given at Reiss Industry Inc. and Watertown Table Slide by owner Tom Reiss, who owns an Overland car which is being refurbished.  The group also toured the power house being restored by Reiss on the lower dam of the Rock River.  Co-chairmen of the regional meeting are Connie and Carol Holcomb of Watertown, who have a 1920 Overland touring car, and Ward and Chris Bruhn of Concord, who have a 1917 Overland touring car.




While hundreds of people tour the Octagon House every year many take note of the shape of the building and one of its most beautiful attributes — the trademark wrap-around porches.  With rotting boards and posts, a recent anonymous donation to the Watertown Historical Society will allow for the refurbishing of the characteristic porches.  The Octagon House was originally completed with porches at its current location in 1854 by John Richards.  In 1924 his daughter Anna tore down the porches because the wooden boards and beams were rotting and becoming unsafe.  For almost 60 years the house sat with no porches and the only evidence of the porches was from the small three-dimensional model of the house.  Watertown Historical Society President William Jannke said he believes the model was made for Watertown’s centennial celebration and parade the year Anna died in 1936.  The model currently sits on the lawn next to the Octagon House.  In 1938 descendants of the Richards family donated the house to the Watertown Historical Society.




The Johnsonville Sausage facility at 104 E. Division St. suffered a fire on May 11 that has shut down meat-processing operations, but it has not stopped the more than 120 Johnsonville employees.  Over the last two months Johnsonville employees have continued to earn their wages and benefits by working on civic improvement projects and attending paid classes at Madison College’s Watertown campus.


Among their good deeds to the city  the employees assisted with grounds keeping at the Octagon House.  Under the direction of Johnsonville coach and Watertown resident John Kaliebe, Johnsonville employees worked for four weeks for a combined total of 410 hours on landscaping projects at the Octagon House.  Projects at the museum included extensive tree pruning and the removal of several trees that were in poor condition surrounding the perimeter of the grounds. Extensive brush clearing also was completed on the wooded hillside between the museum buildings and Concord Avenue.


The Johnsonville employees also cleared away overgrown gardens from the museum’s lawn, trimmed and cleared away underbrush from the line of Arborvitae trees along the north end of the property and helped to spread many truckloads of wood chips where vegetation had been removed.


“The amount of time and talent that has been given to the museum by the Johnsonville employees has truly been aweinspiring,” said Melissa Lampe, president of the Watertown Historical Society which owns and operates the Octagon House Museum.  “I can’t say enough about what a great company Johnsonville is to keep their employees active and on their payroll even though their processing facility is temporarily closed.  I am so grateful for all of the work they have done for us and as a volunteer organization, we often are unable to tackle some of the more extensive projects that the Johnsonville crew has completed for us.”   WDT




The Watertown Area Chamber of Commerce Leadership Watertown Program installed three interpretive panels on the Octagon House grounds.




A table with candles and flowers

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Octagon House beautifully decorated for Christmas.  A 2022 Watertown Parade of Homes entry





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Cross References:

Octagon House model  


George Frederick Keck, creator of the “House of Tomorrow,” used the Octagon House as inspiration for the building’s unusual form.     Full text of Preservation Magazine online article  






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History of Watertown, Wisconsin