For over 150 years, Stoughton has upheld and celebrated its strong history. From a small town with a lumber mill and general store to a modern community filled with culture, industry and charm, Stoughton continues to thrive as a southern Wisconsin community.
It all began in 1847 with Stoughton’s founding father, Luke Stoughton. He purchased 800 acres of land along the Catfish River, currently known as the Yahara River, and started making plans for a prosperous town. Luke Stoughton’s first projects included construction of a dam, lumber mill and general store. With a small foundation in place, he began spreading the word to his friends and family about this up-and-coming town. Slowly, residents started settling in, and the community really took off.
In 1853 the railroad came to town, after Luke Stoughton offered free land for the project. With the railroad cutting right through the community, Stoughton was officially on the map as a center for agriculture and industry. A few years later, when the Civil War ended, Stoughton took on more identities with the addition of T.G. Mandt’s Wagon Works and the leaf tobacco crop boom. Because of those two industries, many jobs were available for residents.
So many jobs were available by 1871 that T.G. Mandt brought many Norwegian immigrants over to America to work at his wagon factory. Along with these hardworking men came their hardworking wives who began working in the tobacco warehouses. Though these women were working outside the home, they still had to tend to their domestic responsibilities, so they requested an afternoon break to check on the children, start dinner, and have a cup of coffee. These “coffee breaks” made Stoughton the birthplace of today’s coffee break, an honor that is celebrated each year at the Coffee Break Festival.
So many Norwegian immigrants came over that, in fact, much of the community was comprised of that heritage. At the turn of the century, over 75 percent of this Stoughton’s population was of Norwegian descent. Many of the traditions and practices that are in place today throughout Stoughton stem from the earliest Norwegian settlers. Norwegian art forms, such as rosemaling, hardanger (needlework), and woodcarving are still practiced. Rosemaling is decorative flower painting using “C” and “S” strokes. Many wooden items around Stoughton showcase the beautiful but subtle colors and delicate flowers of this traditional art form. In fact, several of the banks and businesses feature these Norwegian items in their lobbies. There is also a tradition of Norwegian food in the community, including lutefisk dinners at local churches, fish boils at the Sons of Norway Lodge, and Norwegian baked goods at Stoughton’s home town bakery.
In addition to traditional food and art forms, Stoughton’s history is continually revisited because of the numerous buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. In the five historic districts – Main Street, Depot Hill, Northwest Side, Southwest Side, and East Side – there are hundreds of buildings from the mid-to-late 1800s. From Queen Anne style homes to churches, schools, and the breathtaking Opera House, these historic buildings keep the history of Stoughton alive.
Actually housed within a historic building is the Stoughton Historical Museum. Located downtown, visitors can go through this museum and learn about Stoughton’s rich history from the days when Native American’s inhabited the land, through the growth years, and into the present. Displays of Norwegian crafts and history as well as Native American collections make this museum a must-visit for any visitor.
The Stoughton Train Depot is another historic building experiencing modern usage. Originally the Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul & Pacific Depot, this structure continues to welcome visitors by housing the Stoughton Chamber of Commerce, as well as some items and displays from the Stoughton Historical Society. It is a great place to kick off your Stoughton visit.
Come to Stoughton and experience the history, culture and traditions first hand. For more information about the community, call (888) 873-7912 or visit www.stoughtonwi.com.