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Document offers a glimpse of Port’s past PDF Print E-mail
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Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM   
Wednesday, 09 August 2017 18:59

Black and white pages of title abstract to downtown building that was sold last week offer look at colorful history of community dating back 182 years

  In 1835 — more than a decade before Wisconsin became a state and long before Port Washington became a city — Wooster Harrison became the first white settler in the community.
    On Nov. 24 of that year, he spent $601.28 to buy 75.45 acres from the United States of America, land that would become the heart of Port Washington.
    Harrison was the city’s original developer. In 1842, he recorded the original plat for the community, then called Wisconsin City, laying out the land in a grid of orderly blocks from Lake Michigan west to the west side of Montgomery Street and from the south side of Grand Avenue — then called Canal Street — to the north side of Jackson Street.
 BUILD LG   Through the decades to follow, that 75 acres was split and divided multiple times, to names that echo throughout Port’s past. Names like Leland Stanford, Solon Johnson and William Payne.
    One lot on that map was the southwest corner of Main and Franklin streets, where today Biever Travel and the Shoppes of Port Washington are located.
    And when that property was sold Friday, it opened a glimpse of the downtown’s past and the way the community grew through time as former owner Jim Biever shared the abstract of title to the land compiled in 1962, when his grandfather Emil bought the property for the Ben Franklin store.
    “This was probably the first block established downtown,” Biever said. “I wonder what brought him (Harrison) here, what his history was.”
    An abstract is essentially a record of all the financial transactions attached to a property, from sales and mortgages to bankruptcies and liens. Once a common feature at closings, these documents were phased out in the late 1960s, as they became larger and more cumbersome, area real estate agent Mike Didier said.
    Title companies today do a 60-year search of a property’s history and typically present a title commitment at the sale, Didier said.
    Biever’s abstract is an inch-thick bound document.
    “When you actually sit down and start reading it, it’s amazing,” Biever said. “It’s a timeline in U.S. history and the establishment of the city. You see the local judges, the sheriffs, the influence of the Great Depression. It goes back before electricity, before the automobile.
    “It’s the start of the city, the state. It’s a history lesson.”
    Paging through the abstract, Biever pointed out some of the names:
    “Barnum Blake was a big name downtown,” he said. “Stelling, he had a store in the building. George Savage — I think he was Doc Savage’s father.”
    Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University, owned the property for about four years beginning in 1850, Biever said, noting Stanford started his law practice in Port after graduating from the University of Wisconsin Law School. But after Stanford’s brother, who lived in California, told him how much money he made off the railroad, Stanford headed west.
    “If you’re a history buff, this has to be fascinating,” Biever said.
    While the descriptions of the properties are often difficult for a layman to read, written in the technical language of surveyors, the document outlines who owned the building when.
    You can see that Harrison sold 11.53 acres of his 75 acres to Thomas Holmes for $100 in December 1835, and Holmes and his wife Ursula sold that land to Solomon Juneau —  a fur trader, land speculator and politician who helped found the City of Milwaukee — a few days later for $500.
    The first mortgage in the document was recorded in 1937, “to secure the payment of $900 payable as per conditions of two notes” for a four-acre parcel sold by David Sprague to Milo Jones.
    The first mention of a bankruptcy was in 1845, when Solon Johnson was declared bankrupt by the Supreme Court of the Territory of Wisconsin, and the first sheriff’s sale, by Milwaukee Sheriff John White, due to foreclosure was in 1852.
    The abstract doesn’t outline the uses of the land, but there are hints. For example, Stelling’s Store was housed in the building along with the post office in the early 1900s — uses confirmed in an old photo that Biever has.
    “The one thing I couldn’t find here was when the building was actually built,” Biever said.
    Biever’s history with the building started in 1962, when his grandfather Emil and his wife Florence purchased it from Port Washington State Bank. The couple had been leasing the space for their Ben Franklin store, which became a cornerstone of downtown, since 1942.
    Previously, Emil and his brother Vincent had an appliance and general store on North Wisconsin Street, Biever said, where today Kissinger Appliance is housed. The general store had been started in the late 1800s by his great-grandfather Henry, Biever said, and when Henry died in his 40s Emil dropped out of school to run the family business.
    When Emil started the Ben Franklin, Vincent opened Biever Appliance, another mainstay of Port business.
    Biever’s father Vernon bought the building in the 1970s, and Biever and his siblings inherited it after Vernon died in 2010.
    Through the years, he said, his father bought the Bowman’s Pharmacy on the corner and Frank Koenen’s men’s shop and incorporated them into the building.
    “If you peel back the siding on the building, it looks like it has chicken pox,” Biever said, because the structure used to be multiple buildings.
    In the 1940s, he recalled, a cleaning woman who had been let go set a fire on the second floor.
    “You can still see the charred wood up there,” Biever said.
    The building has been “good for my family,” Biever said, noting the Ben Franklin Store closed in the late 1980s and Biever Travel, which had been housed in the offices upstairs since 1975, moved to the corner building in 1992.
    But both his siblings live in California, Biever said, so it was time to sell.
    Friday, he sold the building for $675,000 to Dan Sauer of Saukville, who said he plans to retain the current uses.
    Sauer said he’s always been interested in real estate, and the building is the right fit for him.
    “I love this location. It’s right on the main thoroughfare, and I love the rich history,” he said.
   

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