SUN PRAIRIE — Growth and progress forced Arthur Schneider to move his farm 150 feet to the east.
That was in 1956 to make way for the construction of what is now four-lane Highway 151, one of the primary transportation arteries in southern Wisconsin.
Schneider was sorry to see some his shade trees disappear and even considered abandoning the property for a farm elsewhere, but the ties to the land, then in the town of Burke, were too strong. And by staying, he was able to work with a farm-building specialist at UW-Madison to rearrange his farm to improve the workflow.
“We expect that things will be much handier,” Schneider told the Wisconsin State Journal’s Robert Bjorkland at the time. “But it does involve a lot of decisions.”
Now, 63 years later, unprecedented growth is forcing another change to the farmstead that was established shortly after the Civil War. But this time there will be no move, no rearranging of the granary, dairy barn, machine shed and pump house.
Instead, the property will be used for training exercises by the Sun Prairie Fire Department. After that, the charred remains will be bulldozed and the land likely converted to a yet-to-be-named retailer, perhaps a Meijer store. The neighborhood already has a Menards, Cabela’s, Woodman’s Market and Costco. There’s a Target, Five Below, T.J. Maxx and a 14-screen Marcus Palace Cinema where customers relax in recliners and waitstaff serve up chicken tenders, pizza and fish tacos.
The farmstead is out of place and, a year after being purchased by the city, out of luck.
“The city (has) no interest in this historic property,” Joe Chase, Sun Prairie’s mayor from 2005 to 2011, said as he surveyed the farmstead last week.
“You used to have business people on the (City) Council that have been with the community for many generations. Now you’ve got people that are coming to town and have very short terms living here and they’re making the decisions for the future. Is that really taking into consideration the community and how it was built and how it will move forward?”
To no avail
Chase, a charter member of the Sun Prairie Historical Museum, founded in 1969, and the sixth person in his family to be either village president or mayor of Sun Prairie, has for the last year been lobbying the City Council and trying to convince others to preserve the home. He has suggested leaving the house in its place and incorporating it into a park or even into a retail development. But efforts by the city to give away the home for free, on the premise that it be moved to another property, failed to garner any offers.
Last week, at a Committee of the Whole meeting, elected officials, some of whom worried about the abandoned property’s liability to the city, voted 5-3 to allow the Fire Department to burn the structures. Those against the plan said they wanted to wait in case a Michigan brokerage company searching for retailers to spend $200,000 an acre for the site fails to come through.
“We had zero interest,” Ald. Emily Lindsey said Tuesday of giving away the house.
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“We’ve had no proposal in the last year to do something with the home. I’m quite confident that had somebody said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry I missed the deadline, I’m interested, can we work something out,’ I’m sure this body would have come to the table (to see) what we could do ... but it’s (now) a liability.”
Civil War era
The Greek Revival house was constructed by Sereno Thompson in 1866 from brick made from a clay pit on an adjacent farm. Thompson had come to the Sun Prairie area in 1846 from Vermont, according to his 1904 obituary published just before what would have been his 82nd birthday. But the brick house, with 12-inch-thick walls and limestone windowsills, was not the first structure on the property.
Upon his 1846 arrival, Sereno and his wife, Sarah, purchased 40 acres and erected a log cabin. They would ultimately own 170 acres before attaching the brick house to the north side of the cabin. However, the original wood structure was removed in 1956 and moved about a half mile to the north. After the brick house was moved, the existing wood-framed portion was constructed.
The dairy barn was built in 1893, while the granary, hog barn and well shed were all built before 1916, according to historical records. The farmstead was owned by E. Schimming from 1904 to 1916 before Andrew and Elizabeth Schneider purchased what was then a 147-acre property. The farmstead was reduced to 54 acres when Highway 151 was constructed and the brick house moved.
“A trench slightly wider than the house was dug,” according to a research report by Elizabeth Miller for Great Lakes Archaeological Research in Milwaukee. “The house was then dragged backward on rollers. It took a week of moving it a few feet a day to bring the house to its current location.”
Chase, whose ancestors founded Chase Lumber, was hoping it could have been spared like the Adam Smith house. In 2004, Veridian Homes spent $200,000 to move the house that was constructed in 1873 by Adam Smith, who came to the area with his wife, Mary, to build the first state Capitol building in Madison. The house is now the centerpiece of the Smith’s Crossing development. The Thompson-Schneider farm is no less important, Chase said.
“I think that building is a huge asset,” Chase told city leaders last week. “And it stands out.”
A new boomtown
Sun Prairie is flush with history. Some of the first white visitors came to the area by walking and via ox cart in 1837 as part of an expedition of 45 people from Milwaukee. Led by Augustus A. Bird, the men had been commissioned by President Martin Van Buren to build a capitol in Madison for the Territory of Wisconsin. The group, dubbed the Bird Expedition, traveled for nearly two weeks in the rain before reaching, on a sunny day, the edge of a prairie where a member of the group carved “Sun Prairie” into a burr oak. Two years later, Charles Bird returned to the area to become Sun Prairie’s first settler.
The city water tower, built with a stone base in 1899, continues to stand north of the downtown as does the Chase Grain Elevator constructed in 1922 on Railroad Street. Both structures are on the state and national registers of historic places. The former city hall, built in 1895, was in the blast zone of a natural gas explosion last summer but remains a centerpiece of the city’s thriving downtown.
Sun Prairie is the birthplace of artist Georgia O’Keeffe and for most of its existence has been a farming community. In the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, it became less farm-oriented and began to play the role of a Madison suburb. In 1958, for example, the city had a population of about 4,000 people. Through most of the 1970s and ‘80s, Sun Prairie was a city of between 11,000 and 14,000 people. It hit 20,000 people in 2000 and passed 25,000 in 2006. The recession of 2008 slowed growth, but today the city is approaching 35,000 people and is one of the fastest-growing communities in the state.
Figures released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau help tell the tale. In 2018, Sun Prairie added 1,055 people, second only behind Madison, which topped the state list at 2,580 people. And the growth can be seen virtually everywhere.
There are two new brewpubs in the city’s downtown, expanding retail on the city’s west side and scores of new homes. In 2018, the city approved permits for the construction of 577 housing units, 177 of those single-family homes. There are plans to spend nearly $20 million to double the size of the public library, and last month, voters here approved a plan to spend $164 million to construct a second high school, which will dramatically alter the school and social landscape of the district.
The farmstead, which is not on the national or state register of historic places, is somewhat symbolic of the rapid growth that is bringing new people but making it difficult for some longtime residents to accept change.
“Every sort of new change is just one more reminder that (Sun Prairie) isn’t what it was when they grew up here,” said Bill Connors, president of the City Council. “It is just so radically different in such a small amount of time.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.