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The History of Cambridge


The village of Cambridge began in early 1847 as a vision of Joseph Keyes and his sons Simon and Abel. The first signs of a village began as a dam on the north loop of the Koshkonong River, which flows through the heart of Cambridge. began in early 1847 as a vision of Joseph Keyes and his sons Simon and Abel. The first signs of a village began as a dam on the north loop of the Koshkonong River, which flows through the heart of Cambridge.

The plans for the Village of Cambridge were completed in July of 1847. On October 15, 1847 Abel Keyes filed the plat of the village at the office of the register of deeds of Dane County. The village began to rapidly take shape with the building of a saw and gristmills and a general store owned by A.B. Carpenter of Beloit. Two hotels were soon built, the "Cambridge House" built and owned by Mr. George Dow, and the "Onion House" owned by a Mr. Wheeler. So began the village with its population of Yankees from the east along with native Scotch and Norwegians.

On July 4, 1848, a large celebration was held at the Onion House. Speeches were made, and the Village was formally named and dedicated in honor of its predecessors. "England has her Cambridge, Massachusetts has her Cambridge Ė the ĎAthens of Americaí Ė so shall Wisconsin have hers; and may she live and grow following in their footsteps to their honor and glory" said one fluent orator.

And so it did. The grist and saw mills, which had been built within reasonable hauling distance of local farmland, began to grow and prosper. Soon another general store was built, along with a hotel. The center of the village was lined with buildings. Among them were the two general stores, a boot and shoe shop, a harness shop, a cabinet shop, a tailor, a milliner store and a saloon. In most of these buildings, the lower floor was used for merchandise with the second floor used as living quarters for the proprietor.

Along with economic growth, came churches and schools. In the early 1840ís Christian Willerup an ordained Methodist Minister came to Cambridge. Although there had been an attempt to form a united Norwegian Lutheran Church in 1844, a disagreement split the movement into the East and West Koshkonong Churches. The two churches located seven and five miles from the village proper were too far out in the country to include Norwegians near the village and people of other denominations. Reverend Willerup organized the Scandinavian Methodist Church in the village and raised money to build a stone church on the West Side of the Village. This church, although remodeled, still stands today and was the first Norwegian Methodist organization in the world.

Soon after other denominations began to meet within the village. In March of 1849 the Presbyterian Church of Oakland was organized, with Reverend Mathew Fox and Reverend David Lyon officiating. In 1853 Reverend Dr. William Cargen along with his congregation met regarding plans to build the Oakland and Cambridge Presbyterian Church on a hill on the Dane and Jefferson county line.

Education facilities were soon provided as well. The very first school in the community was built in 1848 on the grounds currently occupied by the 1906 Cambridge Historic School. It was a one-room school with a single teacher offering the most elementary of subjects.

In the 1860ís, many young men from the village and surrounding countryside left to serve in the Civil War. The village consisted of about two hundred and fifty inhabitants and had added a blacksmith and repair shop, hardware stores, and post-office and doctorís offices to its main street. In the 1870ís a cheese factory was started by Mr. Dow and ran successfully for about 15 years until it was made into a butter factory. With many dairy farms in the area the butter factory in-turn ran for many prosperous years. In the 1880ís, a bank was established by Mr. C.C. May followed by another bank owned by Mr. Dow. In 1885 The London-Cambridge Times was published in London, just east of Cambridge. In summer of 1886 the newspaper plant was relocated to the village of Cambridge and the publication of The Cambridge News began. In its early days, The Cambridge News was only a double page folded together and contained primarily advertisements with some news items scattered among them.

On Sunday night May 25, 1890 a fire broke out in the village. A large portion of the business district was destroyed, as well as homes located in the upper half of Main Street. The fire stunted the growth of the downtown area for about eight years. Eventually most of the buildings consumed by the fire were rebuilt and most still stand today. Shortly after the fire, on June 30, 1890, Cambridge was incorporated as a village under the statutes of the State of Wisconsin. In spite of the incorporation, growth did not resume until 1897 when area farmers began to raise tobacco.

In spite of this renewed growth Cambridge still remained isolated in many ways as an "inland town". Although stage lines ran through the village on their main route from Madison to Milwaukee, village merchantsí hopes still remained high that the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien Railroad would fulfill a promise to pass through the village. That promise was never kept. In 1881 their hopes were again raised by the Northwestern Railroad but again were doomed to disappointment. Despite the lack of a railroad, the village slowly continued to grow and prosper. The one room schoolhouse was moved and replaced by a larger more select brick school started by A. J. Porter. The religious community continued to grow and more congregations were formed. 1899 a German Lutheran Church was built on the eastern edge of town and in 1902 the Norwegian Lutheran organization built a church just one block from Main Street. These churches played a vital role in the social life of the community. They not only supplied a place for religious gatherings, but because of their size also served as town meeting places and concert halls, despite opposition from some members of the clergy.

By the year 1900 the Village of Cambridge was growing and thriving. In 1905 fire destroyed the school building and the community rebuilt another brick building on the same location. The school was completed in 1906. By the year 1915 Cambridge had grown to about 700 inhabitants within the village limits. In 1911 Dr. Albert Amundson purchased controlling interest in the Bank of Cambridge. In 1920 shortly after the death of his father, A.R. Amundson was elected president of the bank and continued to run an insurance agency that he had started in 1911. His brother Karl continued to serve on the bankís board of directors.

The townspeople consisted mainly of retired farmers and businessmen. By the 1920ís, World War I had made the area farmers very prosperous. However, the coming of the automobile had enabled farmers to travel more freely and more often. Soon the village suffered from increased competition from communities once too far to be of concern. Although the quantity of businesses remained high, the selection and quality of goods became a concern. Area businesses simply could not supply the selection and quality of goods demanded by its customers at a competitive price. In order to survive Cambridge became little more than a supply community. Merchants carried only necessities. Fancy shoes and clothing were purchased in the city so there was no need to carry them. Cambridge also decreased as a social center as well. The younger crowd flocked to the cities while the older generation found Cambridge sufficiently exciting and felt no need to supply activities for itís younger generation.

However key community members began to make a change in the mundane atmosphere that had become Cambridge. A.R. Amundson was an active member of the community from the 1920ís until his death in 1976. He was involved in the founding of the Lake Ripley Country Club in the 1920ís and in the founding of Lake Ripley Community Park. He was one of the founders of the Cambridge Foundation, and served on the board of directors for many years. Other key figures of this time included, Dr. Gunerius Bilstad, Dr. Karl Amundson, and Arthur Melster. Dr. Bilstad and Dr. Amundson both established their medical practices in Cambridge and served the medical needs of Cambridge residents for over 50 years. Arthur Melster with his brother Harvey established Melster Candies, Inc. in 1919. Today Melsterís Candy is one of the areaís largest employers.

Although attracting visitors since the 1800ís, Lake Ripleyís popularity began to grow as well. During the summer, vacationers and from Chicago and Milwaukee could be found enjoying the local beach. The Cambridge-Lake Ripley area soon became known as the "Umbrella City" and the village soon adopted this theme into everything from advertising to umbrella-topped street posts. The once stagnant village was again beginning to prosper.

Over the years physical changes were also taking place in Cambridge. The 1906 school building under went renovations in 1938, 1954, 1957 and 1964. The establishment and building of St. Pius I Catholic church in 1955, the Faith Lutheran Church in 1960, the dedication of the Cam-Rock County Park system in 1960 and the construction of Cambridge High School in 1970.

During the 1970ís and 1980ís the Cambridge area began to change in several ways. The population increased significantly, and farms in the area were subdivided and residential areas were developed in their place. Many individuals who purchased lake-side cottages, winterized them and used them as year-round homes.

One of the biggest changes in the late 1970ís and 1980ís was the redevelopment of the downtown area. Companies such as Rowe Pottery Works began in 1975 as a one-man pottery shop and has since grown and expanded to become one of the villageís largest employers and itís retail shop one of the most favored attractions. With this redevelopment came a new pride in the village. The downtown business district along with a professional design firm, the village officials and Wisconsin Power & Light Company worked together to restore the historic storefronts. In 1984 the village established a Design District intended to preserve and maintain the historic Victorian feel of Cambridge.

1985 the Cambridge Area Fire and Emergency Medical Services building was constructed with over half of the funding provided by the Cambridge Foundation. In 1990 the A.R. Amundson Community Center was completed. The center houses the Community Library, Village Offices, general access rooms and the Cambridge Police Department and was funded entirely by the Cambridge Foundation. In 1991 the Cambridge School District designed and completed an addition to the Cambridge High School which housed a new Middle School.

The community members continue to take pride in our village and itís history. The 1906 Cambridge Historic School was recently saved from destruction and placed on the Wisconsin Register of Historic Places. The recent completion of a new elementary school & swimming pool and renovation of the existing school buildings and grounds was overwhelmingly supported by residents.

In 1999 the village has come full circle. With a prosperous downtown area filled with quaint shops and exquisite dining. A beautiful public beach at Lake Ripley and limitless park system (Cam-Rock) located just south of the village. Fairs, festivals and the talent of local artisans again bring vacationers to our tiny village. Community Hope activities bring the community together in times of need. The dreams and aspirations of our founders are alive and well in the Village of Cambridge. We welcome you to come and share in our history.

With our appreciation for their efforts and love of our community...

The information on the history of Cambridge was taken from a thesis written by Bernice M. Scott, provided by Eileen Scott.