By Carol Lohry Cartwright, Whitewater Historical Society, 2006
The Stone Stable is an artifact from Whitewater’s earliest history. Located behind the First English Lutheran Church, it was removed and reassembled next to the Whitewater Historical Society’s Depot Museum of Local History in 2007. The historical society is charged with its interpretation to the public.
When the Stone Stable was moved, it had an interior outfitted with stalls, suggesting it was used as a horse barn in its most recent history. However, its appearance suggested that if it was built as a horse barn, it would have been an unusual example of this type of outbuilding and use. Many nineteenth century homes had carriage houses, with almost all of them constructed of wood, not stone. And, few families actually kept their own horses because of the expense and trouble. Instead, they relied on livery stables to provide horses when needed, which was not as frequently as we now use automobiles. People in nineteenth century communities got around primarily by walking. So, what was the story of this unusual building and how does it fit into Whitewater’s history?
The first task in uncovering the history of the building was to look at its architecture. It does not resemble typical carriage houses in Whitewater. Its stone construction suggests it was built for a much heavier, perhaps industrial, use. The second task was to determine what building the stone stable was actually related to, as it was only owned by the First English Lutheran Church in more recent years. To start this research, historic maps were used.
Old fire insurance maps dating to the early 1900s showed that the building was part of the lot attached to the house at 404 Center Street. This house was actually built between 1912 and 1924, but it replaced an older house on this site, a house that dated back to the 1850s. Looking at tax assessment records for the period between 1849 and 1851, the earliest years these records are available, showed that a man named N. Combs paid the taxes on this property during those years. A deed search revealed that while Combs paid the taxes on this property in 1849, he actually did not get a deed for the parcel until 1850. Records also show that Combs owned the lot facing Main Street, where the church is now located, as well.
Looking at records in the mid-nineteenth century can be very confusing and often ownership and dates of building construction cannot be definitively determined. But, Whitewater is lucky in that pioneer resident Prosper Cravath wrote a detailed history of comings and goings in Whitewater for the years 1837 to 1857, a volume that was updated to 1867 by Spencer Steele. This volume, Early Annals of Whitewater, was published by the Whitewater Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1906 and Cravath’s entries for 1845 through 1847 help sort out Combs’ history in Whitewater.
In 1845, Cravath reports that Nelson Coombs (sic), a wagon-maker, came to Whitewater and shortly thereafter, built a small house (not extant) on Lot 3, Bock 5 of Whitewater’s original plat, the lot that faces Main Street at the site of the church. In 1847, Cravath reports that Combs also built a house on Lot 3, Block 11, the lot with the current address of 404 Center Street. Because the deeds do not show that Combs actually owned these lots, but paid taxes on them, suggests that he had an arrangement with the actual land owner to improve these lots, perhaps as part of a land contract agreement. Unfortunately, no information is available on outbuildings constructed on either of these lots that would account for the stone stable. But, given the building’s mid-nineteenth century appearance, it is likely that the building would have been constructed between 1845 and 1847.
So, who was Nelson Combs and would he have built an outbuilding like the stone stable? There is little information about Combs in the 1840s, but he does show up in the 1850 census. The census indicates that he was 35 years old and a native of Canada. His occupation was listed as a wagon-maker and he was married to 25-year-old Hannah Combs, a native of New York State. In 1850, the Combs had three children, ages seven, five, and three. The two oldest had been born in New York State, while the youngest was born in Wisconsin (Whitewater). From this information, some assumptions about the Combs family can be made.
The Combs family was typical of people who came to Wisconsin from the eastern part of the United States. Known as “Yankees,” they came to Wisconsin during the state’s pioneer era (1836-1860) to better their lives. Even though Nelson Combs was originally from Canada, he had obviously spent time in New York State, since his wife and two of his children were born there. Many of Wisconsin’s Yankee immigrants were from New York State. The fact that Combs was a wagon-maker is also typical of many Yankee immigrants who came to Wisconsin with education or a skill and probably some funds to buy land or establish a business.
Nelson Combs’ fate in Whitewater was also typical. In 1850, he did acquire the deeds to the two lots he had improved in Whitewater, but apparently his work as a wagon-maker was not as successful as he had hoped or he decided to try his luck elsewhere, because in 1852, he sold both parcels of land and moved away. Where he moved to is not known, but it was common for early Yankee immigrants to keep moving west in the hope that they would find better opportunities in new frontier communities.
Nelson Combs’ occupation as a wagon-maker can also give us a clue as to what the stone stable might have been originally used for. It is possible that Combs built the structure as a wagon shop. Small shops like blacksmith shops, cabinet shops, harness making shops and other shops making essential goods were common in pioneer communities. Because they had an “industrial” purpose, they were often housed in more sturdy buildings of brick or stone. The unusual appearance of the stone stable, combined with Combs’ known occupation as a wagon-maker, strongly suggests that this building was constructed as a shop.
It would have been used very briefly for this purpose, though, as Combs and his family left Whitewater in 1852. The stone stable was then sold with the house at 404 Center Street to Alexander Graham, one of Whitewater’s pioneer businessmen. Graham was also a Yankee immigrant and in 1855, he and A. H. Scoville founded an early private banking house, named the Merchants’ and Mechanics’ Bank in 1857. Banking in the 1850s was risky and largely unregulated, so it was not surprising that in 1858, the bank closed, probably due to the financial panic (depression) of 1857. Graham recovered, though, and became a contractor. In 1860, he was contracted to build a railroad in Cuba and spent several years there. He died in 1866.
During the later nineteenth century, Mrs. Susan Webster and H. N. Inman owned the house at 404 Center Street, along with the stable. Not much is known about Mrs. Webster, but Inman was a local grocery store owner. What is interesting about the stone stable during this time is that a frame-constructed addition was made to the west wall of the stone building and two large partial barns with overhangs were built immediately east of the stable. According to records, these barns were owned by 12 different people and it is thought that the barns were built to house the horses and carriages for people attending the nearby Congregational Church. Between 1892 and 1904, an annex was built between one of the barns and the stable. It is likely that the stable owner was “renting” out this building to this group for their use. All of the additions to the stable and the barns were gone by 1924, suggesting that the church-goers now had automobiles instead of horse-drawn carriages. But, the stone stable lived on, a testament to its sturdy construction and usefulness as an outbuilding.
The most important and longest owner of the property at 404 Center Street was Joseph E. Fuller, who acquired the house and stable in 1902. He was the son of Yankee immigrants in nearby Hebron in Jefferson County and came to Whitewater as a young man. He operated a mail and stage line between Whitewater and Fort Atkinson. In 1902, he became one of the first rural mail carriers in the area and operated Rural Route 5 for many years. In 1916, he was listed in the city directory as a carpenter and around that time he must have used his carpentry skills to replace the old house at 404 Center Street with a newer home. Fuller died in 1950.
It is probable that the stone stable eventually became property of the First English Lutheran Church when they developed their parking lot behind the building. The lots on Main and Center Street were fairly long, so the church may have purchased back portions of lots on Center Street for the purposes of creating a parking area. The church retained the stone stable for many years, using it for a living nativity at Christmas. It was only in the mid-2000’s that, due to a desire to put on an addition on the church, the stable had to be removed for additional parking space.
At that time, a community effort was organized to save the building. It was taken apart piece by piece and stored until funds could be raised for reconstruction and an appropriate site acquired. It was felt that the best place for the building would be near the depot so that the Whitewater Historical Society could use and interpret the building. In 2007, the stable was successfully reconstructed and is an artifact that is officially owned by the City of Whitewater, but maintained and interpreted by the Whitewater Historical Society.
Cravath, Prosper and Spencer Steele. Early Annals of Whitewater. Whitewater: Whitewater
Federation of Women’s Clubs, 1906.
History of Walworth County, Wisconsin. Chicago: Western Publishing Company, 1882.
Sanborn-Perris Fire Insurance Maps, 1904-1924. On file in the Archives of the Wisconsin
Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin.
“Services Held for Joseph Fuller Monday,” Whitewater Register, 10 August 1950, p. 1.
Whitewater Census for 1850. On file in the Irvin Young Library, Whitewater, Wisconsin.
Whitewater Tax Assessment Rolls. On file in the Area Research Center of the Anderson
Library, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Whitewater, Wisconsin.