I’m Eric Paulsen, and along with playing Milwaukee’s Greatest Hits for you on 95.7 BIG FM every day from 10-3 and co-hosting the TV show Discover Wisconsin, I love to explore Wisconsin’s fascinating history. Did you know Wisconsin created the first numbered road system in the world? That happened 100 years ago, too. I even built a road trip website, StateTrunkTour.com, around it. So we’ve teamed up to hit the road!
This time, we hopped in a 2013 Ford Flex – a spacious SUV that can comfortably seat 7 passengers for any road trip – and that includes kids who won’t be scrunched together (maybe they’ll behave better? Maybe?)
From Soerens on Capitol Drive in Brookfield, it was an easy drive to Watertown… mainly right up Highway 16 through Lake Country and Oconomowoc, right into the town. We basically followed much of the original route of the actual Watertown Plank Road.
Watertown has a unique distinction: a river runs through it – twice! The Rock River bends and winds through Watertown on two occasions. That provided plenty of water, riverfront property, and power for sawmills and other business when it was first settled. So, you know, the name fits.
Why did we go to Watertown for Soerens 100 Years/100 Miles? Because there’s some history here that’s almost too cool for school.
Watertown is officially recognized as the site of America’s first kindergarten. In 1856, Watertown was Wisconsin’s second largest city, resident Margarethe Meyer Schurz learned about children’s education in her native Hamburg, Germany. She opened a school known as a “children’s garden” – aka a “kindergarten” – for her kids and some relatives’ kids. When other area kids wanted to enroll, she expanded from their home on Church Street into a building on Second and Jones in downtown Watertown.
Mrs. Schurz’ husband Carl was a famous German-American statesman, and they ended up moving to Milwaukee and eventually Washington DC, where Carl became minister to Spain and served in other roles in President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. He later became editor of the New York Post.
But the first kindergarten in the U.S. stayed right there in Watertown. The building continued to host kindergarten classes for over four decades before becoming a cigar factory, then a fish store, and then a religious bookstore. In 1956 while celebrating the 100th anniversary of America’s first kindergarten, the building was moved to its current location behind another famous historic Watertown landmark, The Octagon House.
The Octagon House is a five-story, eight-sided brick home, built in 1854 by lawyer and mill owner John Richards. It has eight square rooms on each floor and triangular rooms in the corners. The beautiful porches and verandas have been reconstructed numerous times, but the brick house is still as original as a 163-year-old house can be.
Both are now operated by the Watertown Historical Society and are open for tours. The interior of the First Kindergarten depicts a day when classes were in session.
Watertown’s downtown is really nice too, with plenty of shops, restaurants and bars, and colorful murals. You’ll find the site of America’s First Kindergarten behind the Octagon House on Charles Street southeast of downtown Watertown. As you come in via Highway 19 or Business 26, many signs will lead the way. It’s only about 40 minutes from Milwaukee!
The Ford Flex and its “mystery”
The drive to Watertown was easy and smooth in that 2013 Ford Flex, which Soerens Ford lent me with a question I had to answer: how many miles did I think were on the car? They even taped over the odometer readout so I couldn’t see it – they really wanted my educated guess.
I knew it had been a trade-in. It was in pretty good shape; the interior seemed almost new but there were some small marks on the hood where small rocks tend to chip your paint job up as the miles pile up. But this Ford Flex had no rattles, the steering was tight, it rode super smooth. So, when I returned to Soerens and gave them the keys, I told them my guess was 85,000 miles – and felt bad about guessing that high. I was stunned when they told me the actual mileage: 233,000!! That’s some serious durability.
The Ford Flex seemed to be the perfect car to bring to America’s First Kindergarten; it’s so roomy and flexible, it seems like it can hold an entire kindergarten class! (And for really small towns, maybe it can.)
For more on these towns, attractions, road trips and more, check out StateTrunkTour.com, an ongoing exploration of Wisconsin’s highways around the state. They’re celebrating 100 years, just like Soerens Ford!
Wisconsin has some fascinating history. For 100 years, Soerens Ford has been a nice part of that history. We’ll be taking for historic and fun road trips in Ford cars and trucks all summer and into fall, check back here for more!
Here's a quick video clip of both places we took for State Trunk Tour a few years ago, too. These places are definitely worth a visit!
To inquire about a tour or get other info, contact the Watertown Historical Society at (920) 261-2796. And here's a Google map of the area. Enjoy!
Keep checking back for more historic Wisconsin tours as we celebrate "100 Years/100 Miles" with Soerens Ford, StateTrunkTour.com, and 95.7 BIG FM!