A Capsule History of Friendship
On the occasion of the Friendship 2007 Sesquicentennial
Note: Attorney Donald Hollman shared the following Friendship history for the Friendship Sesquicentennial celebration at the Adams County Courthouse on Friday, July 6, 2007. Hollman had been the Steering Committee Chair of the 1957 Friendship Centennial celebration. At 83 in 2007, he was the only surviving member of that committee. Historian Michael Goc prepared the Friendship historical summary for Hollman.
The village of Friendship was founded in 1857 when a group of settlers from western New York—led by a man named Luther Stowell—Purchased eighty acres adjacent to a little waterfall on the Roche-A-Cri. Stowell platted a village and named it in honor of his hometown in Allegheny County, New York—Friendship.
It was not the first village on the site. Native Americans kept hunting camps along the creek and we have one account of a group of runaway slaves living in cabins on the creek in the early 1850s. No trace of these earlier settlements has been found.
The New Yorkers knew the creek could be dammed and a pond created whose water would run a gristmill that would bring farmers to the place to trade. And they built the
first dam that very year. So this is also the sesquicentennial of Roche-A-Cri Lake, or “the pond” as some of us know it.
They also built the first building in the village. It was a rooming house that stood on the hill above the dam that was later expanded and became known as the Atcherson House Hotel. It survived until it was destroyed by fire in 1912. A few years later, George Polivka built the brick bungalow that stands there today.
After the mill was built, other businesses and tradesmen were sure to follow and village life began. Other pioneers in Adams County had the same idea and villages were also built on mill sites at White Creek, Easton, Arkdale, Preston and Fordham.
Stowell and his partners looked for a way to boost their village past its rivals—so they turned to politics.
The government of Adams County was organized in 1853 and, since Adams County included what is now Juneau County as well, the county seat was established near the river in the Town of Quincy. The county board met in a rented building located where Carlson’s Rustic Ridge restaurant is today. In early 1857, Juneau County was split off from Adams so Quincy was no longer in the center, as county seats usually are.
The Friendship folks saw an opportunity to promote their village. Stowell and forty-two other investors incorporated the Adams County Building Company. They promised the county board to give the land where we are standing today to the county for use as a public square and to erect a building on it that would provide a court room and office space for county officials. That is—if the county government agreed to move the county seat from Quincy to Friendship.
The county board submitted the question to the voters in November 1858 and they voted in favor of moving the county seat. A year later the new courthouse was completed and the county records transferred to the new building. With the mill and the county seat, Friendship was on its way.
A Growing Village
By 1876, the village had four general stores, the hotel, the post office, a wagon maker, two blacksmiths, a cabinetmaker, a newspaper and three attorneys. No bank, no doctor, no saloon. The biggest social event of the year was the county fair, which has been held out at the fairgrounds since 1859. The courthouse lawn, which was fenced to keep out stray livestock, was the village park where kids played baseball and families picnicked.
The first village school occupied a single room and stood on Lake Street near the present day entrance to Friendship Park. It was replace by a two-room building on First and Superior where the first high school classes were held in 1887. The only church in town for many years was the Congregational Church whose 140th anniversary we are also celebrating this weekend, but they shared their facilities with the Methodist Episcopals. The Catholic church, whose new building we are also celebrating today, began in 1884 as St. Leo’s parish in a small frame building still standing on West Street.
A Time of Stability
The population of the village throughout the remainder of the 19th century, which had yet to incorporate its own government, was about 250. The leading citizen was Solon Pierce, a Civil War veteran, and the first Adams County author to publish a book. He also ran the newspaper and practiced law.
Friendship was a quiet place in the 1880s. Pierce said that Adams County was so law-abiding that, except to visit with local attorneys, there was no reason for the circuit judge to come to town. The county supervisors did not get around to building a jail and any lawbreakers the sheriff could not keep at his home were chained to a tree on the lawn here until could be transported to the jail in Portage.
In addition to not having a jail, Friendship was known as the only county seat in Wisconsin not to be on a railroad. In fact, by 1900 Adams was the only county in the state not to have a railroad. Railroad fever rose and fell. In the 1890s, folks were so sure the railroad was going to come that real estate developers platted the lots on the west side of West Street and drew in space for the tracks. It didn’t happen and the fever subsided for a few years.
In the meantime, the people of the village decided that they should have their own local government. The village was officially chartered in the spring of 1907. That centennial is another one of the historical events we are celebrating this weekend. Among its early actions, the village board hired a street commissioner to fill the potholes on Belfast Street, as Main Street was then known, and investigated the cost of erecting kerosene-burning street lamps. They also granted the first village saloon license and—maybe these are connected—built the first jail in Adams County. It was a small frame building with barred windows and a padlock on the door that sat on the lawn not far from where we are standing.
Railroad fever struck again in 1908 with talk of no fewer than five railroads about to come to Friendship. None of them made it, of course. The closest was the Chicago and North Western, which bypassed the village and built its depot about one mile south in 1910. Ever since, the story has been told that when the North Western tried to buy land to run into Friendship, local property owners demanded outrageous prices and the railroad veered away.
A new cluster of homes and businesses sprang up along the tracks and real estate developers Frank McConnick and Theodore Werner platted a large subdivision they called “the railroad addition to Friendship.” Like Luther Stowell, they offered land to the county to build a new courthouse there, believing that it was only a matter of time before the village of Friendship annexed all the property between it and the railroad. They were wrong.
The village board did not act on the annexation. In 1912, the people living near the tracks, tired of waiting for the township to build a much-needed school for their children, organized the village of Adams. By 1915 it had 1500 people, about three times as many as Friendship.
So the community of Adams-Friendship was born: one community, two local governments. Those of us who grew up in the years since, remember the rivalry: sometimes serious, usually not.
So Who Needs a Railroad Anyway?
Friendship developed without the railroad. In 1913, the county board voted to build a new courthouse to replace Luther Stowell’s building and build it on this same spot. This time they built a jail—in the basement. That courthouse has since been swallowed by the additions around, including the jail. About the same time, Frank
Wrchota built the famous Friendship Hotel and the Bohemians started on their hall, which soon became the hottest nightspot in the county.
In 1914, George Polivka improved the dam on Friendship Pond, rebuilt the powerhouse and brought the wonder of electricity to Friendship and to Adams. Progress continued. Belfast Street became known as Main Street. It was paved and extended beyond the McGowan house where it had dead-ended to link up with the new Highway 13 up from Adams. In the 1930s, with help from President Roosevelt, the village established a water and sewer system. In the 1940s, like the rest of the county, Friendship sent its sons and daughters off to war. That’s when families and friends built a signboard bearing the names of all those in service and mounted it on the lawn right out there near the street.
No Place Like Home
After the war, those of us who returned hoped to build a better community. We built an athletic field at the fairgrounds and then mounted lights so we could have nighttime baseball and football games. Later, we took advantage of the sheriff’s new radio tower and raised money to erect the first lighted star on Friendship Mound.
The biggest thing that happened in the 1950s and for many years after was the campaign to build a new modern hospital. Our centennial celebration in 1957 showed a profit, all of which was donated to the hospital. It was probably the most successful fund-raising campaign in Adams County history.
In the years since, we have continued to progress. Friendship is the headquarters of the Adams Columbia Electric Cooperative, the largest rural electric cooperative in Wisconsin. We have a modern fire station and village hall. The McGowan house restoration has given us a fine museum where the Historical Society displays our past. The hospital we were so proud of fifty years ago has expanded several times and we are just as proud of it today.
Friendship is 150 years old and has more than 150 reasons to celebrate.
This article previously appeared in the Summer 2007 edition of the Adams County Historical Society’s newsletter The Quatrefoil.
Since this article first appeared a comprehensive history of Friendship titled Friendship Wisconsin – A History by Dennis McFarlin has been published in two volumes. The book is available from the Adams County Historical Society’s Heritage Book & Gift shop in Friendship.