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Ripon Main Street, Inc.
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On May 27, 1844, the first settlers of the Ripon area reached their destination. They were members of the Wisconsin Phalanx - nineteen men and one boy - who were led by young Warren Chase. Inspired by Charles Fourier's principles of social philosophy, the Phalanx set out from Kenosha to establish a community which was to be an experiment in what we today would call Socialism.
They named this community "Ceresco" after the Roman goddess of the harvest, and located it in a valley nestled between two hills. Before long, this was the home of more than 200 idealists. The members constructed several commonly-owned dwellings called long houses (pictured at right), one of which still stands on its original site. For five years the Fourierites prospered to an extent greater than those in most utopian socialist experiments. To this day, this area continues to be called Ceresco.
For two years, a rivalry flourished between Warren Chase and David P. Mapes who arrived in 1849, over the future of their adjacent communities. It soon became apparent that Ceresco would not survive, and the Phalanx Corporation dissolved, disposing of its property and dividing up its substantial profits in 1851. The six-year experiment had been an economic success, but a social failure.
In 1849, Captain David P. Mapes (pictured at right) arrived in the area and fell in love with a "silver creek weaving its way through Wisconsin's rolling hills." He built a grist mill on the hill and with John Scott Horner who owned part of the nearby land, suggested the newly created settlement be named "Ripon" in honor of his ancestral home, the English cathedral city of Ripon, Yorkshire.
For more than a decade, Mapes labored to develop his community: building a flour mill and a public house, donating lots to prospective settlers who would agree to establish places of business on the square, obtained railroad trackage south to Milwaukee and north to the Wolf River, and persuaded the Federal Government to move the post office from the nearby community of Ceresco to Ripon.
In order to induce settlers to locate in Ripon, Mr. Mapes gave away lots upon condition that the recipients would make certain improvements to the community or erect specified buildings before a certain time. The first lot was given to E.L. Northrup, who built Ripon's first store. After 1850, Ripon, having a mill, hotel, post office, blacksmith-shop and several stores, attracted many settlers and grew rapidly.
Alan Earl Bovay (pictured at left) arrived just as the Phalanx was disbanding, but Mapes persuaded Bovay to cast his lot with the emerging Village of Ripon. So he purchased land in the 400 block of Watson Street and began developing "Bovay's Addition" to the village. As one of the towns first lawyers, Bovay played an important role in Ripon's growth into a city. As a political reformer with strong Whig Party connections in the East, he took a leading part in the famous 1854 meeting in the Little White Schoolhouse, where the Republican Party was formed.
By an act approved April 2, 1853, the villages of Ceresco and Ripon were consolidated and named Morena. The inhabitants, however, paid little attention to this change. Instead, they retained the original name; incorporating as the City of Ripon in 1858.
On the evening of March 20, 1854, a group of people met in a small frame school house to protest the opening of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to slavery. Disgusted with the failure of existing political parties and the U.S. Congress to uphold the cause of freedom in the West, they formed a new antislavery party and called it Republican. They came out of the schoolhouse in agreement that one unified front was crucial to the fight against slavery and thus began the Republican Party. "We went into the little meeting held in a school house Whigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats. We came out of it Republicans and we were the first Republicans in the Union," Alan E. Bovay later wrote. It was his friend, Eastern newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, who boosted the name to national prominence.
Taking a walk through the downtown Watson Street Commercial Historic District is like turning back the hands of time with. Ripon's "main street" began with a classic square lined with turn-of-the-century brick architecture. In the last decade, this impressive skyline which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been brought back to life with facade restorations, the installation of ornamental street lights, banners, and trees. The entire commercial district is filled with numerous retail, specialty shops, and service facilities.
The dates of construction of the buildings in the historic district reflect the significant amount of reconstruction that took place in the downtown after disastrous fires wiped out almost two whole blocks of frame constructed commercial buildings in 1868 and 1869 and other fires that took out a number of buildings during the 1870's and 1880's. Little construction took place in the district after 1890, except in the 300 block of Watson Street, where the commercial business district was stretching to its limits.
Much of historic Ripon remains intact, having changed little over the last 100 years. In a time when some communities lost entire blocks of buildings to the "urban renewal" effort of the 1970s, the Watson Street Commercial Historic District remains relatively unchanged. In addition, greater appreciation of our architectural heritage has resulted in a growing number of these buildings being preserved and accurately restored rather than being demolished or modernized beyond recognition.
Although the bustling, downtown area may be less attractive to certain people for residential use than the suburbs, many of the downtown's upper level spaces are being renovated into magnificent loft apartments, with vaulted ceilings, hardwood maple floors, large skylights, brick and stone walls, all offering magnificent vistas. Today's downtown residential tenants are likely to be college professors, young professionals, artisans, and college students, as compared to the shop owners of the previous era.
The serene campus of Ripon College, a fine, private liberal arts school, is just west of the business district. In 1851, David Mapes and a group of townspeople founded the college on top of the hill, chartered on January 29, 1851 as Brockway College. Mapes, who was president of the first board of trustees, donated an acre of land on the highest point in the village of Ripon. To raise money for the college, the trustees issued stock and offered to name the institution after the person who bought the largest amount. William Brockway took the honor with just over $300 in stock and the school was incorporated as Brockway College. In 1864 the name was changed to Ripon College. Today, the campus stands prominently on top of the hill, with 22 noble buildings, beautifully landscaped courtyards, seldom surpassed by any other college campus in the country.
If the marvelous architecture of Watson Street whets your appetite for more history, Ripon also has two other historic districts. The residential area south of the downtown has many magnificent, fully restored Victorian Painted ladies, with architectural styles ranging from Italianate to Queen Ann, Second Empire, to Greek Revival.
After visiting our community, we know you'll agree there's no place like this place, any place. For additional information, please contact the Main Street office by e-mail at craig@riponmainst@.com or by phone at (920) 748-7466.
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