ebook  History of Watertown, Wisconsin


Link to Octagon House Museum website  


Watertown’s Historic Octagon House


John Richards and Family




Octagon House


Watertown Historical Society
919 Charles Street
Watertown, Wisconsin 53094


Phone (920) 261-2796

To many area residents the title "Watertown Historical Society" and "The Octagon House" are one and the same.  In fact, they are at best interrelated, with one depending on the other.




House open to Visitors

from May through October

Hours and Admission

Admission fees

$10.00 for adults

$9.00 for senior citizens
and AAA members

$5.00 for children
6 to 17 years of age

School groups, 20 or more, $4.50 each

Credit or debit cards accepted




12-3 pm, Sat & Sun (other by appointment)


June, July & August

12-3 pm, Every day except Tuesdays,

                but will be open of July 4th



12-3 pm, Sat & Sun (other by appointment)


 Tours are fully guided every hour on the hour in an air-conditioned museum.


Special Events

Virtual Tour of ground floor  

Other buildings on the Octagon House grounds

Miniature Octagon House



The Octagon House, five floors of solid brick construction completed in 1854, was designed and built by John Richards, a pioneer Watertown settler.  The House is one of the largest single-family residences of the pre-Civil War period in Wisconsin


Richards arrived in Watertown, on foot, in the spring of 1837. Once here he became the first lawyer in Jefferson County, as well as the owner of several mills.  In 1849 he married his sweetheart, the former Eliza Forbes.  He promised to build her the finest home in the Wisconsin Territory if she would marry him.


Its construction includes central heating, running water and ventilating systems.  In addition to those "modern conveniences," the house features a central spiral staircase which rises from the first floor to the tower room.


The Richards family and their descendants resided in the home until 1937, when grandson William Thomas passed away. At that time the remaining family members were faced with what to do with the family home, which had become one of Watertown's' most recognizable landmarks.


The Richards family offered to sell it to the city for $ 1, but opposition from the city council and several citizens prevented that from happening.  The fledgling Watertown Historical Society then came forward and arranged to purchase the home from the Richards family on condition that it always be used as a public museum.


Since 1938 the Octagon House has been open to the public.


The Octagon House

John Richards and Family


John Richards



John Richards, born in Hinsdale, Mass., in 1806, son of Revolutionary War forebears, graduated from Williams College and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. He taught in a well-known school “Egremont” near where he lived, and later joined the trek across Midwestern states for adventure and homesteading in Wisconsin. The whole Northwest Territory was wide open for government land grants in the 1840's and 1850's and many young men from New England joined in the “go west, young man” [*] movement.  Richards, while in college, had been influenced by a new concept in building that swept across America a few years later - the octagon shaped house. 

[* a favorite saying of the nineteenth-century journalist Horace Greeley, referring to opportunities on the frontier]


Cross reference note:   04 22 1937:    JOHN RICHARDS WAS ACTIVE IN AFFAIRS OF COUNTY

(The following article on Hon. John Richards, builder of the famous Octagon House, was contributed by Hans D. Gaebler, president of the Watertown Historical Society.)   The name of John Richards, the man who built the Octagon House, appears in many of the early county records, and shows how varied were the activities of this pioneer citizen.


Besides being one time mayor of our city and surveyor of the Plank Road, Mr. Richards was active in the earliest organization of Jefferson County.  A court order of January 1840, on file at the county court house, records an allowance for services as district attorney and an even earlier record is a bond and oath signed by Mr. Richards, October 11, 1839, as justice of the peace.


A contract for the building of the first county court house was made with William Sanborn on January 8, 1839, and signed by three county commissioners, Robert Masters, Mark Clapp, and John Richards.  From 1843 to 1849 Mr. Richards’ name appears frequently in important county records.     WDTimes, 04 22 1937




Description automatically generated

FAMILY TREE:  Green family tie of Richards family


Lewis Cass Green (known as Cass Green) was the first regularly appointed mail carrier in Watertown.  His home was built by John Richards in 1869 at the time of his daughter Mary Alice's marriage to Lewis Cass Green.  Cass Green was the first regularly appointed mail carrier in Watertown. 


Arrival in Area


Richards and two companions came to Wisconsin in 1837, partly as the result of the financial panic of 1837 in the east. Watertown's first white man, Timothy Johnson, arrived shortly before that time. Richards walked and studied the areas in this part of the state and found exactly what he wanted in the navigable Rock River in Watertown. Good land was plentiful, there were hills and forests, but much work needed to clear trees and stumps. He bought farm land on the east side of the river and built a small log house. Some years later, in 1846, he completed the purchase of 140 acres of wooded land west of the river [*], including the high bluff which he had visualized as the site for the home he had in mind. This home would give him a commanding view of the Rock River valley.


[* First owner of the 140 acre parcel was Silas W. Newcomb who acquired the land in 1838 from the United States government [cross reference].  In 1846 he sold the land to John Richards, builder of the Octagon House.  The land was surveyed for individual lots in 1870]


Eliza Richards


In 1840 Richards returned east to marry Miss Eliza Forbes of Great Barrington. Her father, Moses Forbes, was the owner of the Old Post Road stage coach line which ran between Hartford and Albany.  To allay the fears of his bride for life as a pioneer in a new land Richards promised she would have the finest home in the area.


There were friendly Indians around when Richards lived in Watertown - and timber wolves. In the Octagon House today is a rug made from the skins of four timber wolves and baskets and other artifacts given later to Mrs. Richards in exchange for loaves of her fresh bread.


Richards and his bride began planning the fine home in the octagon shape.  During this time Richards built a dam across the river and established a grist mill on the east bank.  This flour mill burned in 1888.  It was not rebuilt.  Today the electric company power plant stands on the site of the former mill. This was a time of prosperity for Watertown; its population grew from 1,500 in 1850 to 8,500 in 1855, making it the second sized city in Wisconsin. Richards milling operations made Richards increasingly wealthy and he decided it was time to build the large home for his family and build it of a size that would also take care of housing and feeding some of the mill hands or lumbermen he employed.


The original Richards cabin was in an almost primeval forest but land was cleared and some rented out to others. The Octagon House on the west side of the river was some years in the planning and three years under construction. In 1854 this beautiful home was completed and the family moved in. The original sketches and diagrams for the house made by John Richards are on display in the Octagon House today.


Richards ran the mill, supervised the farm and did some law work. This pioneer lawyer did not actively set up a law office in Watertown, but did certain amounts of legal work when asked, He was the first district attorney in Jefferson County, helped set up a county system, was a member of the Watertown school board, was elected mayor in 1869-70, was also a one-time member of the Wisconsin legislature.


Profile of Eliza Richards


The House


He also engineered the construction of his dream home.


The Octagon House, the beautiful home built on Richards Hill in 1854, was owned and lived in by Mr. and Mrs. John Richards and their descendants until 1938 when the family presented this generous gift to the Watertown Historical Society. For the past 38 years the society has owned and maintained the home open to the public from May 1 to Nov. 1 each year. This Watertown landmark has lured thousands of visitors to what is probably the largest pre-Civil War single family dwelling in Wisconsin, a home with a unique place in Watertown history.


"The Octagon House, a Home for All" by Orson S. Fowler, was published in 1848, although he had written individual articles on the subject earlier. Fowler, a phrenologist and publisher, had long been a writer on fresh attitudes toward living. “Nature's forms are mostly spherical," Fowler wrote, "Then why not apply this form to houses?" After publication of his Octagon House book many barns, houses, churches and schools in octagon shape sprang up, mostly in eastern United States.


There are a number of octagon shaped barns in this area in Ozaukee (WI) County. By 1857 at least 1,000 such houses had been built throughout the country. Fowler believed the octagon shape, which approximates a circle, provided the greatest utilization of space. John Richards, a typical down east Yankee and a man of many talents, was also a visionary and agreed with this principle of a home in octagon shape.


The house was the talk of the town when it was built, and Richards took great pride in the house and the many innovative features he had installed.  The perfect octagon measures 50x50 feet in any direction and sets on a 17- inch foundation entirely beneath the ground.


Octagons put edge in houses:  Renewed interest in style based upon utopian ideals


New York Times News Service, 03 11 2005


While most housing designs are based on rectangular shapes, there are some homes with an unusual eight-sided floor plan. These octagonal houses have been turning heads for more than 150 years.


The concept of the octagonal house was idealized by Orson Squire Fowler in his 1853 book "A Home for All: Or a New, Cheap, Convenient and Superior Mode of Building."


Fowler, a phrenologist who deciphered the contours and bumps on the human skull, advocated octagonal-shaped buildings because the walls of an octagon enclose more area than a square or rectangle with equal wall space. Fowler reasoned octagon houses were cheaper to build, eliminated dark corners, were easier to heat and remained cooler in summer.


About 3,000 octagon structures were built in the mid-1800s, most of them in New York and Massachusetts. Octagon structures built as a result of Fowler's book and other octagon-construction books of the day included houses, churches, schools, barns, carriage houses and outbuildings.  [And Watertown’s Octagon House]


Watertown Brick


Three courses or rounds of brick form the 13-inch walls; the inner two rounds are Watertown brick from the local and newly established brick yards which began work in Watertown in 1847. The outside brick layer was Cream City brick hauled from Milwaukee by ox and horse teams over the new plank road. Most of the lumber, basswood, cherry and oak came from the Richards woods. Some pine was used. This had been floated down the river and was prepared in the Richards mill.


Many Rooms


The large three-story home, plus basement and windowed cupola, has 57 rooms counting halls and closets. The main rooms are square, the corner rooms used for children's or sewing rooms. The original house had narrow verandas which encircled the house on the first and second levels. When they became unsafe they were removed. A good sized replica of the Octagon House, with the porches, is on the grounds to show visitors the original design.


The first floor rooms, a music room, living room, dining room, butlery and conservatory are 10 feet, 10 inches in height. A dumb waiter functions between the dining room and kitchen in the basement level, and a large chest of drawers was built into the south wall of the dining room for linens and storage. Large family bedrooms with accompanying small corner rooms for the small children are on the second floor. The ceilings at this level are 9 feet, 9 inches. The third floor had been added to Richards' original design in order to accommodate the young men who worked in his mill.


Above the third floor is the sizeable cupola with chimneys extending from the corners. The third floor ceiling slopes toward the center to follow the pitch of the roof line. This slope is necessary to take care of one of one of the most unusual features of the house - a system for running water.


An over 12x6 foot size wooden water tank made of basswood and lined with zinc is suspended above the floor.  The tank held rain water which flowed in from the funnel-shaped roof.  This water was then diverted to faucets on both the second and third floor stair landings, to the kitchen, to a basement cistern and the run-off drained to the bottom of the hill toward the river.


Light which comes through the cupola windows falls on the spiral cantilevered hanging staircase, with its hand molded cherry rail, the work of skilled artisans of well over a century ago. The stair, known to be one of the few of its kind in the country, is unsupported on one side but securely anchored into the brick walls in the stairwell so that there is not a creak after the many years since its construction.


Air Conditioning


Richards built a form of air conditioning into his home with louvers that opened at night to trap the cool air, circulated it throughout the walls, and the louvers closed during the heat of the day. Much of the work and time of the household centered in the basement level, where there was the kitchen, a cider room, vegetable room, cistern, pantry, wood storage and furnace room. A large Dutch oven in which 24 loaves of bread were baked at a time helped feed both the family and the mill hands. A furnace capable of heating all these stories in the house burned as much as a cord of wood a day. Exit from the basement level is on the ground level in back; the lower hall is paved with bricks.


Authentic furnishings and artifacts of the Richards' era are in the Octagon House. Much of the furniture was family furniture presented to the Historical Society with the home. The first piano brought to Wisconsin, a Gilbert square, was purchased by Richards for the music room. The dining room furniture belonged to the Richards family and some fine pieces were donated by the John W. Cole family. Certain rugs, curtains and other pieces had to be replaced throughout the years but were carefully selected from the same period. The dining room windows have always had wide white window shades trimmed by hand. Original kerosene chandeliers hang in the downstairs room and in the Richards bedroom on the second floor.  Second floor rooms were bedrooms and contained a replica of the Lincoln bed, the same as used in Lincoln's home in Springfield, IL, and in the Richards' bedroom one can view the cannonball bed, so called because of its interesting construction. There is also the child's cradle made by Richards.


Bunks like those used by the mill hands are along the wall of a third floor bedroom. Also in the room is an old fashioned zinc lined bathtub and articles used by the mill hands for entertainment in their off hours. These men, in addition to working in the mill, frequently floated logs down the Rock River. Kitchen cupboards hold many cooking utensils used by Mrs. Richards. The old fashioned wood range is located near the Dutch oven. In short, the home shows authentic articles of daily living used or typical of being used during the over 80 years the family occupied the home.


Hospitable People


Both John Richards and Mrs. Richards were hospitable people. Many old letters in the files attest to this hospitality. Richards was big hearted and generous and never denied his family anything. His bookkeeping system, however, left something to be desired. He kept no accounts, marked sales and money due him on a handy shingle or forgot the transaction entirely. Mrs. Richards found this difficult after he died when she took over management of the farm and found no record of back debts listed for her to collect, though she knew there were many.


The couple had eight children, five of whom lived to adulthood in the Octagon Home; Anna Richards Thomas, Alice Richards Green, Moses Richards, Willie Richards and Charles Richards.


John Richards died in 1874. Mrs. Richards in 1902. Their daughter, Mrs. Thomas, lived in the big home until 1936 when she died at the age of 94. Her son, Willie, died the next year. He was the last family occupant of the Octagon House.


In 1938 Estelle Bennett Richards, widow of Charles Richards, the youngest Richards son, signed the deed which turned over ownership of the home to the Watertown Historical Society with the condition that in the future the house be open to the public at stated times.


Watertown Historical Society


There had been desire on the part of Mrs. John Richards that the family do something for Watertown with the house, and this plan was followed through by her family. Harvey Richards, a son of Estelle Bennett Richards and Charles Richards, and grandson of the original builder, John Richards, worked with G. H. Lehrkind, Historical Society president in 1938, and Attorney Wallace Thauer to transfer title of the property. Hans Gaebler, a real historian and most interested in the preservation of historic sites, was in many ways responsible for organization of the Watertown Historical Society.


The Articles of Incorporation for the Watertown Historical Society were signed in 1933 by John D. Clifford and Jane Lord, two of the charter members. Other charter members were Mrs. G. C. Lewis, Tom Lewis, William Thomas, Claire Herrman and Gladys Mollart.  Persons who greatly helped put the new society on its feet and helped with much of the original planning were, in addition to the above, Mrs. Lydia Wiggenhorn, Mrs. Dan Thauer, Mrs. Eli Fischer, Sidney Northrop, Prof. E. C. Kiessling, Dr. A. C. Hahn, James Anderson, Marcella Killian and Miss Ella Wilder.


As of 1976 five men had served as president of the Historical Society:  Hans Gaebler, G. H. Lehrkind, Dr. Oscar Meyer, Byron Wackett, Lee Block and Fred Kehl.  There had been two curators to that date: Mrs. G. C. Lewis, 1939 to 1945 and Gladys Mollart, who served since 1945.


Three Buildings Added


Three buildings have been added on the Octagon House grounds since the Historical Society was presented with the house.  The first American kindergarten, founded by Mrs. Carl Schurz in 1856, was moved from its former location at 2nd & Jones streets.


A pioneer barn was moved from the east side of Watertown, where it stood at one end of the Plank Road as the toll house, to the Octagon grounds, and a new building, the Gladys Mollart tour center, was completed in 1969 and dedicated to Miss Mollart.


In addition to the buildings much help has been received in landscaping the grounds and many symbols of Watertown's past have been donated to the Society for preservation of some of Watertown's early history.  During many years the Octagon Garden club has planted and tended an old fashioned herb garden just outside the kitchen door.


Watertown Firsts


To name just a few of Watertown's firsts which are located on the grounds:


The bronze bell from Watertown’s first city hall, dated 1869.


The fountain statue Phillis, originally given to the city by Mrs. Carrie Mowder Hill but presented to the Historical Society when the new municipal building was built.


The anvil used by the A. Kramp Company for 115 years for pounding out horse shoes or steel tires or rims for the wagon wheels for the army quartermasters corps, presented to the Society in 1972 by Leonard Kramp.


The historic old trunk marked for Margarethe Meyer Schurz “Margarethe Meyer via Frankfurth M. Bremen nach New York Amerika” ended its travels in the room in which she taught, presented by Mrs. Gerald Fahl, through her child's kindergarten class in Oconomowoc, after she found it at a farm auction.


A cobbler's bench from the first shoe factory Fridolin Ruesch began in the 1850’s and operated by that family for several generations, presented by Mrs. Dean Lawrence.


The Indian which adorned Watertown's West Main Street in the late 1880's.


A large heavy "Buhrstone" mill wheel ordered from France in 1878 and used by the Empire, later the Globe Milling Co., presented by the Floyd Burnetts, last owners of the property on which the mill wheel had been mounted.


An early beehive and slatted wooded crate manufactured by G. B. Lewis Co., the bread box made to ship food to American troops in World War I, thousands of miles from home base.


Painting of Octagon House


Mathilde Schley painting of the House is preserved in the museum.



Besides being one time mayor of our city and surveyor of the Plank Road, Mr. Richards was active in the earliest organization of Jefferson County.  A court order of January 1840, on file at the county court house, records an allowance for services as district attorney and an even earlier record is a bond and oath signed by Mr. Richards, October 11, 1839, as justice of the peace.


A contract for the building of the first county court house was made with William Sanborn on January 8, 1839, and signed by three county commissioners, Robert Masters, Mark Clapp, and John Richards.  From 1843 to 1849 Mr. Richards’ name appears frequently in important county records.     WDTimes, 04 22 1937



Heber Smith came to Wisconsin from Canada and settled here somewhere about 1845.  He was a partner of the late John Richards in running the old sawmill which stood on the east side of the river [across] from the Rough & Ready mill, destroyed by fire last fall.





Those Bags!


In case this may meet the eye of the person whom it may concern, that person (and in once and a half trying I can guess who it is) is most sincerely invited to return the bags taken out of my grainry [granary] one night last week.  The wheat and oats I don’t ask for, but the bags I need very much, they having been all I had.


  <> JOHN RICHARDS, Watertown, June 4, 1849.


P.S. I will throw in the corn taken by the same person last winter!     Watertown Chronicle, 06 27 1849


CROSS REFERENCE NOTE:  John Richards lived in a log cabin prior to the construction of Octagon House.  The house was some years in the planning and three years under construction.  In 1854 this beautiful home was completed and the family moved in.



John Richards Esq., informs us that the foundation for an oil mill is laid, near the Rough & Ready Mills, and that the building will be pushed forward, so to be ready to purchase the crop of the coming season. We are glad to see this enterprise under way, as we are satisfied that it will prove profitable to the farmers and all concerned. - Watertown Democratic State Register.


CROSS REFERENCE NOTE:  John Richards has a saw mill and oil mill or turning shop on the east side (of the river). [Source: City of Watertown, Wisconsin, Its Manufacturing & Rail Road Advantages and Business Statistics, 1856, published by order of Watertown City Council].  Oil mill produced linseed oil. Linseed oil, extracted from flax seed, is used as a preservative for wood and an ingredient in paints, varnishes, and stains. Also used in soaps, inks, and in the production of linoleum (the first three letters of linoleum are lin... for linseed).  Rough & Ready dam (the upper dam) was built in 1847.  Watertown's Octagon House was built by pioneer settler John Richards and completed in 1854.  The Octagon House was one of the largest homes built prior to the Civil War in Wisconsin. Its only occupants have been members of the Richards family.  Following the passing of Anna Richards Thomas in 1936, the mansion was donated in 1938 to the Watertown Historical Society.



The house was some years in the planning and three years under construction.  In 1854 this beautiful home was completed.



John Richards built the Cass Green house at the time of his daughter Mary Alice's marriage to Lewis Cass Green.







The funeral of the late Mr. John Richards, one of the earliest pioneers of this city, took place last Friday, the 20th inst., at his residence in the First ward.  It was very numerously attended, and the ceremonies on the sad occasion were simple and impressive, as became his life and character.  Many old settlers - companions of his early days, but now venerable in age - were present to pay the last tribute of respect to their departed friend.  The pall bearers were:


L. A. COLE                                    J. W. Cole

P. V. Brown                                  D. Jones

A. Boomer <>                              P. Rogan

T. Prentiss                                     J. Hamlin


Amidst tears and sorrow, he was borne to his final resting place in Oak Hill cemetery, where he sleeps the sleep of peace that no mortal turmoil can disturb or awake.      WDem.  26 Feb 1874



  Portion of birdseye view







Anna Thomas (daughter of John Richards).

Eliza Richards, daughter of Charles (son of John Richards).








Alice Green and Anna Thomas; the others are unknown but most likely Green family members, Alice’s children and grandchildren.



WHS_008_704 (2)  

Anna Thomas, her sister Anna Green, their sister-in-law Luanna (Bates) Richards, and various members of the Green and Richards family.





William “Billy” Thomas with his mother, Anna.

Anna Thomas was a daughter of John and Eliza (Forbes) Richards.  John built the Octagon House.




Anna Thomas and perhaps either Sadie Jones, her nearest neighbor and Gerald Kreitzman’s grandmother, or Emma (Bott) Thomas, Billy’s wife.













pre 1924

SKI SLIDE/JUMP, Octagon porches were removed in 1924





Cross reference:     Video segment on ski slide   






















1920s, late

SKI SLIDE/JUMP, Octagon porches were removed in 1924




WHS_008_715   Anna Thomas and son Billy

Note dark openings along the baseline of the Octagon where the old porches would have been connected.

Can be seen: those the white stones on the right that spell out “Richards” were there in late 1920s !!!




Anna Thomas, Alice Green, and who may be Luanna Richards, wife of Moses Richards.




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 photographer from the National Geographical Society was in Watertown Monday, 9/9/35 and in company with Mayor W. F. Reichardt, he took several pictures of the first kindergarten.  He also took a picture of the Richards home which is now occupied by Mrs. Anna Thomas.   Watertown Tribune.






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      Quit deed signed in November of 1938

The Harvey Richards family and Mrs. Charles D. Richards had an interesting week-end when they motored down from Phelps, Wis., where they are vacationing, to be present at the ceremonies held in Watertown, Wis., in which the old Richards homestead was presented to the Watertown Historical Society by Mrs. Charles Richards, in memory of her husband, the late Charles Daniel Richards.  "The Octagon House," as the place is called, was built over 100 years ago, on a high hill overlooking the Rock River, by the Honorable John Richards, and has been occupied by his descendants ever since.  Long an object of interest to the passers-by for its unique architecture, it will now be open to the public as a museum, containing the relics of early days of the pioneer Wisconsin settlers.  William Douglas Richards, a great-grandson of the pioneer builder and first mayor of Watertown, unveiled the bronze tablet, mounted on a large native boulder, and the presentation speech was given by Harvey Richards, in memory of whose father the place was dedicated.  Several hundred friends and members of the Historical Society were present, and the affair ended with a tea, after which everyone was invited to make a tour of the house and grounds.   The Lake Forester, Lake Forest, IL, 07 20 1936



"The Board of Directors was often plagued with the question of what constituted good repairs.  Were the porches a part of that pressing need?  As early as June 1940, Architect George Fred Keck offered to draw plans for the porch restoration project.  A year later a five hundred dollar donation accompanied blueprints for the restoration of the verandas.  These funds were made available from the Honorable Joe. E. Davies, Ambassador to Belgium and Russia."  - John Richards: The Hill and The Mill, page 99.




The Watertown Historical Society has undertaken the restoration of the gardens at the Octagon House.  Local groups and organizations are being given an opportunity to help in this matter by arranging for the planting of trees and shrubs and now is the time for all local groups to take up the subject at their meetings because if any planting is to be done it should be done soon.  The Watertown Rotary Club has already arranged to assist and several other groups contemplate helping along the plan.  The state is assisting to the extent of state architects laying out the garden plan so that a systematic planting scheme can be followed. 


The garden is also to be a sort of memorial in that organizations that wish to plant trees or shrubs may dedicate them to individuals such as early day residents here and pioneers of the community.


The society has great plans for the Octagon House.  When Joseph E. Davies was here last May he surveyed the place and agreed to restore the porches which ran around this unique building.


Anyone interested in joining in the tree and shrub planting program may contact G. H. Lehrking, president of the historical society.




The Octagon House, owned and operated by the Watertown Historical Society, will open for the season on Saturday, 5/15.  The board of directors has resumed the restoration program and many changes have been affected in the furniture and arrangement of the rooms in this historic old home for the year.


The music room on the first floor and a bedroom on the third floor will become permanent features of the house as maintained by the society.  The windows of the music room will be adorned with the rich, old cherry-colored drapes that formed an exquisite setting for the early period furniture [previously] in the beautiful home of Theodore Prentiss.


Mr. Prentiss came to Watertown in February, 1845 and engaged in the practice of law.  Later he became extensively connected with the railroad and banking interests.  Besides being mayor of the city in 1853 and 54 and later in 1871, he was a member of the first constitutional convention in 1846 and '47 and a member of the assembly in 1860 and 1881.


In one corner of the room which was used as a music room by the Richards family will be the adjustable brass lamp with an especially designed stand of brass and marble which was given by the faculty of Northwestern College to Prof. Richard Hardege, a violin virtuoso and composer here.  It was used by him at his home at 408 Lincoln Street and will be remembered by many of his pupils.


The Felix Henning bedroom furniture will be again shown.  This furniture with the high, somewhat ornate top, is massive in design and typical of furniture used in the 18th century. 


Another treasured gift this season is a large chest dated 1833 and donated by the Walter Barganz family, 916 N. 4th Street.  This chest has been in the family since the time that it was acquired and in early days such chests were kept at the foot of the bed to store household linens.



Earlier in the season the society's secretary received a letter from Joseph E. Davies, written on board the Sea Cloud, Palm Beach, Florida, in which he comments on the picture of the Octagon House in the Wisconsin State Centennial calendar.  Among other things he mentions that he believes that the Octagon House should be a state historic shrine and that the Watertown organization ought to be congratulated on the fine service they are giving to the community and for preserving in permanent form some of the community's historical things and settings.  Later Mr. Davies sent a check for $200 to Max Rohr, Sr., Merchants National Bank President, to be used in the restoration program at the house.  Both letters contain the very pleasant information which is that he expects to "see you all in June."  Mr. Davies, a Watertown born former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Belguim, had previously donated generously to the society Octagon House fund.




Among 850 who visited the Octagon House in August  




A group of people standing next to a piano

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Kindergarten building moved to the Octagon grounds in December of 1956 and then converted to a museum, so these students (“Junior Historians”) had to be among the VERY FIRST tour guides.  David Schilling, Mary Hutson, Kay Klinger.



               < sledding on hill can be seen 







The number of visitors to the two Watertown historical shrines, the Octagon House and the First Kindergarten, may break the record set last season when well over 8,000 persons registered there.  The attendance so far this year has been unusually heavy.  Many of the visitors compare the house favorable with other Wisconsin sites such as the Villa Louis and Wade House as well as the Cotton House in Green Bay.  In fact many feel it has more early Wisconsin charm than the others.   WDT




Watertown's Octagon House last evening relived a page from its heyday when it was a center of the social life of the community.  The occasion was a candlelight musicale which was presented under auspices of the Watertown Euterpe Music Club.  The Watertown Historical Society, which owns and maintains the old 57 room mansion, threw open its doors to make the musical event possible.  It was a fine gesture, for the musicale brought together a large group of people for both concerts, one at 5:30 p.m. and the other at 8 p.m., to enjoy music in a setting that is authentic of Watertown's past.  Lighted by candles for the first concert, the setting was further enhanced at the 8 p.m. performance by the addition of old kerosene lamps which cast their light rays and caused shadows to dance on the walls and flicker on the ceilings, just as they did in the era when John Richards and his wife entertained guests.   WDT




A cavalcade of rare and antique cars drove into Watertown Sunday bringing their owners and friends to the city for a visit to the Octagon House, with a stopover for a buffet at the Legion Green Bowl.  In all there were 285 visitors at the Octagon House on Sunday.  Most of the old cars were left at the Green Bowl while the owners walked the steep hill to the house.  One of the cars, a 1940 Lincoln Continental with gold trim, is one of only 70 cars of that type made that year and made especially for a diamond importer.  The present owners are two brothers, Dr. Q. Krafta and Dr. W. Krafta.  Mr. and Mrs. Don Mabie are the resident custodians at the Octagon House.  The visitors were much impressed with the Octagon House and the first American Kindergarten which is located on the grounds.   WDT




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The Watertown Historical Society was given top state honors Saturday in Madison at the 1965 Institute for Local History when it received the Reuben Thwaites Gold Cup in recognition for its excellent work in restoring and maintaining the famed Octagon House and First American Kindergarten in Watertown.  Assembly man Byron F. Wackett is president of the Watertown society.  The cup is shown in the above photo with Miss Gladys Mollart, the society's curator, and Mrs. Donovan Mabie, custodian of the Octagon House.




      30th year of operation of the Octagon House

A committee from the Saturday Club, local branch of the Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs, has placed models gowned in dresses from the Octagon House collection in display windows at both Fischer's and Kline's during the current week.  There will be other window displays from time to time with the cooperation of local merchants as a feature of the 30th year of operation of the Octagon House by the Watertown Historical Society. 


The committee from the Saturday Club functions as a cooperative unit with the Historical Society as part of the Saturday Club's community improvement program.



A group of people posing for a photo

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Miss Gladys Mollart, curator at the Octagon House since 1945, was the guest of honor at a dinner gathering.


Mrs. Lee Block; Lee Block, president of the Watertown Historical Society; Miss Mollart, Mrs. George Swart of the Fort Atkinson Historical Society;

Mrs. W. D. Hoard, Jr., also of the Fort Atkinson society and the Hoard museum; Mrs. Byron Wackett; Assemblyman Byron Wackett, immediate past president of the society; Mrs. Richard Erney of Madison; Richard Erney, assistant director of the State Historical Society.




Was Last Grandson of the Builder of Octagon House


Watertown Daily Times, 1970


The last grandson of John Richards, builder of the Octagon House, passed away during last week.


Harvey Bennett Richards, age 78, died June 10, in Ft. Myers, Fla., where he had lived for the past 20 years.


He is survived by his wife, Eliza Patch Richards, a son, William D. Richards, of Winter Haven, Fla., and one daughter, Elizabeth, Mrs. George Beemer of Fort Myers, and six grandchildren.  A sister, Eliza Richards Prahman, preceded him in death.


Harvey Richards' father, Charles of Chicago, the youngest son of John Richards, was the last owner of the Octagon House.  After his death his widow, Estelle Bennett Richards generously deeded the house to the Watertown Historical Society at the instigation of her son, Harvey, who had been an interested and beneficent sponsor since that time.  His deep concern during the years since 1939 for the success of the society, had been a great boon to the preservation and maintenance of Watertown's famous historic site.


His interest and enthusiasm never failed.  He was planning to come to the opening of the new tour center dedication in August, a project he heartily favored.


The society has lost a devoted friend and benefactor.





A group of people standing around a table

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Mrs. Donovan Mabie, resident manager of the Octagon House and Miss Gladys Mollert, curator, entertained members of the Saturday Club who volunteered as guides at the Octagon House and tour center.  The gathering was held at the Mollert home.  Mrs. Ray Rose, Mrs. Charles Kehl. Mrs. Pierre Fromm, Mrs. Pat Downing, Mrs. Louis H. Nowack, president, and Mrs. Arnold Buchholz, chairman of the group.



06 18  HERITAGE DAY PARADE (link to portfolio of large parade) 









Octagon House, the beautiful home built on Richards hill in 1854, was designed, owned and lived in by Mr. and Mrs. John Richards and their descendants until 1938 when the family presented the generous gift to the Watertown Historical Society, which has owned and maintained it since that date. The Octagon House is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, May 1 to Nov. 1, each year. The Watertown landmark attracts thousands of visitors each season. They visit and tour the Octagon House complex, then spend the rest of the day viewing Watertown’s other attractions, dining, picnicking and shopping.


John Richards, a lawyer, came here from Massachusetts in 1837. He was particularly attracted to the bluffs above the river and purchased 104 acres on both sides of the Rock River. In the past he had been influenced by a new building concept — the octagon shaped house. He felt the bluffs above the navigable river would give him a commanding view of the Rock River valley for his dream home.


He returned to New England for his bride, Eliza Forbes. The couple lived in a small cabin on the premises while they planned an octagon shaped home. Richards erected mills on both sides of the river. His milling operations were successful and he became very wealthy. He began building his home in 1853. It took three years to completely finish the construction. Land was cleared, sketches completed, and the building progressed with help of his mill hands. Three rounds of bricks were used in the first two levels, two rounds on the top level. Loads of Watertown brick was used and some was purchased and brought from Milwaukee over “corduroy” roads, by ox and horse teams. Woods used in the house were from his property, oak, cherry and basswood, in almost primeval forest.


In the 1950s an architect-contractor visited the home and declared that with but minor repairs, and proper maintenance, “this house will stand for another hundred years without major change”.


The home has many unique features, a cantilevered hanging staircase, a system of air conditioning, running water from a roof top tank. When the house was complete Richards added another unique feature —- balconies that encircled the house at two levels. These were eventually removed when they became unsafe. The Historical Society has a small replica of the Octagon House showing the balconies that were on the original house. Visitors see this replica on tours and frequently ask, “When are you going to put the balconies back?”


The Watertown Historical Society pondered that same question many times during its 44 years of ownership. The house needed balconies for authenticity. Gladys Mollart, for many years the curator, was a stickler for authentic furnishings in the home. From time to time the Society considered restoring the balconies. The project would be expensive and was put aside when the roof needed repairs, tuck pointing for the bricks was necessary, a kindergarten and a pioneer barn were moved to the Octagon House grounds, and a tour center was built for added space. The balconies had to wait.


Now help is on the way. Two years ago, at the annual Society meeting, William Kwapil, a Society member and Rotarian, suggested that perhaps local service clubs could help with the project. A study committee from the Society board and advisory board was appointed to study the feasibility of the project at this time (David Moser, Tom Kwapil, William Schmidt, David Hertel, Charles Ebert, Gertrude Curtiss and Irene Triana). At the 1982 meeting the committee reported its findings. Society members voted to go ahead with the project. Gerald Mallach, Society president, appointed William Kwapil as chairman of a fundraising committee. In addition to Mallach and Kwapil members of this committee at the first meeting were Robert Bauch, Charles Ebert, Gerald Flynn, George Wolf, James B. Quirk, Dale Bowgren, Evelyn Rose and Neal Loeb.


The contract went to Donald H. Weisensel General Contractors. The project is underway. The old footings, of large rocks and lime mortar, have been removed from 36 inches below ground. Eighteen new footings, with concrete blocks and mortar, will be spaced at 12 foot intervals around the building at a depth of 42 inches. Eighteen pieirs of mortared brick will serve as supports for beams which will be attached to the brick walls with rods seven inches into the brick walls. The Somerset Door and Column Co., Somerset, Pa., is now making the posts and balusters, the same as the originals. It is interesting to note that there will be additional Watertown brick in the piers, secured from the recently razed Kellerman building on North Third Street. Weisensel is aware of the historic nature of this project and everything possible is being done in keeping with the original.


The project will cost between $45,000 and $50,000. The fund raising committee hopes to raise about $30,000 of this from local sources. Several pledges have been received.


The Watertown Historical Society has long enjoyed cooperation from the community, and hopes that organizations, businesses and individuals will want to participate in this new and long awaited project — putting the balconies back on the Octagon House.    WDT





2004 <> 150th Anniversary of Octagon House, 2004

Watertown Daily Times article

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article




With rotting boards and posts, a recent anonymous donation to the Watertown Historical Society, allowed 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; the only evidence of the porches was from a miniature three-dimensional model of the house.  In 1938 descendants of the Richards family donated the house to the Watertown Historical Society.


Finally in 1982 after much fund-raising, the two-story porches were rebuilt at a cost of $50,000.  Judy Quam was manager and tour guide of the house from 1980 to 1987 during the time the porches were rebuilt.  She still remembers how the construction workers were able to find the original cement footings for the porch in the ground.  The original footings were replaced and the porch was rebuilt in the exact same location.  After studying photographs the porches were also built in a similar style.  The only thing that might be different from the original porches is the color.  Early photographs show that the porches were either a natural wood color or painted brown.  They were not the white color seen today


The five-level house was built with a number of French doors on the first and second levels that gave access to the porch.  The historical society has sealed these windows and doors for heating and cooling purposes.  Now the only access onto the upper level porch is from one bedroom window inside the house on the second floor.  There was a tax in Watertown on the number of windows a home had, so John Richards made many of his windows into French glass doors leading out onto the porches to avoid taxing.


Peter Welbourne, of Watertown, worked on the porches.  He also installed various storm windows that have been made to help with insulation.


From John Richards' original drawings the house was always meant to have porches and now it is certain the house will never go without porches again.”


   Oct 2006



05 20  Original Watertown bricks that lined former front walk of Octagon House replaced by stamped concrete; bricks offered for sale






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Sausage makers use downtime productively.  



  Image Portfolio  



  Image Portfolio  




Council Proceedings:  Exhibit #8502, to authorize the Street Department and Parks, Rec. & Forestry Department to assume responsibility for lawn mowing at the Octagon House Museum at no additional cost to the Historical Society was presented.  Sponsor: Mayor David.  From: The Finance Committee.  Alderperson Smith moved for adoption of this resolution, seconded by Alderperson Kilps and carried on a roll call vote: Yes – 8. No - none.




A table with candles and flowers

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




Cross references:

Octagon House Documentary, MBU Digital Media & Photography class project, 2023 YouTube video


Image Portfolio   exterior views of Octagon


Image Portfolio   interior views of Octagon


Model of Octagon House:  It is not a doll house and not a replica but rather a model inspired by Watertown’s Octagon House and built by the late Walter Reandeau, after touring the Octagon several years ago.  Donated by the Reandeau family to the Watertown Historical Society.  Background story will be written by the daughter of Walter.  Link to portfolio of 26 photos.


Inventory of Older Octagon, Hexagon, and Round Houses 


The Armour-Stiner (Octagon) House, Irvington-On-Hudson, New York




Table of Contents 

History of Watertown, Wisconsin