Researched and Written by Ruth Ann Montgomery
Published in the Evansville Review, March 1998
Hiram G. Spencer, one of five Spencer brothers who located in Evansville in the mid 1840s owned the property
on what is today the Coldwell Banker Realty office at 7 West Main Street.
Spencer sold the land described as the "east 6 feet of lot 8 and west 15 feet of lot 9, Block 8, original plat of
Evansville," to Daniel Johnson in October 1864 for $95. The land was bounded on the east by a lot Spencer
had deeded to Henry C. Millspaugh and was 6 rods, or 99 feet deep. (This property was described in the
articles on 5 West Main.)
By the time the 1866 tax assessment rolls were made, Daniel Johnson had built a store valued at $500 on the
property he had purchased from Spencer. Occupants of the store before the 1870s are unknown.
Daniel Johnson was one of the earliest settlers in Union township. He had arrived in 1840 with his young bride,
Angeline, and they had farmed near the village of Union until 1863 when he retired and turned the farm over to
his sons, William H. H. Johnson and David Johnson.
Although he had begun life in rather poor circumstances, he had accumulated sufficient wealth to be able to
retire and become active in local politics. In their leisure time, Daniel and his wife, Angeline, traveled throughout
the United States.
According to his biography, Daniel Johnson was "an honored pioneer and retired farmer" when he began
investing in real estate in Evansville in the 1860s. He owned a farm of 200 acres in Union township, a beautiful
home on the southeast corner of Liberty and Third Street, and commercial property on West Main Street.
In his retirement years, Daniel Johnson was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1865. When Evansville
was officially incorporated as a village in 1867, Daniel Johnson served as its first President of the Board of
Trustees. Johnson served as Rock County Sheriff from 1869 to 1870 and also served on the Rock County
Board of Supervisors.
Johnson purchased the property as an investment. However, he had little interest in operating a business on a
day to day basis. By the 1870s he had rented the building to Ransom Griffin who opened a grocery store.
Griffin had been a resident of Evansville for a number of years. He is listed in the registered voters of the
village in 1867.
The earliest ads for R. Griffin's grocery appeared in the Evansville Review in October 1872. Griffin was
competing with five other businesses that sold groceries as part or the whole of their business.
His ads read: "R. Griffin deals in cigars, confectionery, soap, tea & shelf groceries, and a great variety of knick
knacks, and articles of general household use. All of which I am offering cheap. Call and see."
Griffin is again mentioned the following year in local newspaper accounts. In January 1873, the Evansville
Review ran a series called "Our Business Directory". The editor prefaced the first article with the following:
"During the interim of our regular publication, we have had an opportunity to look around a little and see what
was going on in town, the weather being cold our observations scarcely extended beyond good fires,
consequently the stores nearest our office shared our greatest attention."
On his visit through the commercial district, one of the first stores the Review editor entered was the grocery of
Ransom Griffin. "In the confectionery, notion and grocery business is RANSOM GRIFFIN, who keep a small but
well selected stock." The editor sampled some oysters and crackers at Mr. Griffin's store, but refrained from
smoking a cigar offered by the store owner.
The following year, in 1874, Daniel Johnson and his son, David, opened a general grocery in his own store.
Their new ad, dated October 14, 1874 read : "New opening, be it known throughout this bailywick that we the
subscribers hereof, have opened a comfortable large and well selected stock of groceries at the old stand of
Ransom Griffin. We shant advertise to undersell everybody in town; nor have combined with them against the
people, but we have got a good article and shall sell as low as we can afford to. Call and See us. Daniel
Johnson & Son."
While Daniel's name appeared on the business signs, it is likely that he turned the day to day operation of the
store over to his son. During this period of time, Daniel Johnson was also a partner with Reuben Winston in a
lumber yard on the east side of the railroad tracks near the Evansville Furniture factory.
In 1875, Daniel's son William H. H. Johnson purchased his father's share in the grocery business and the firm
became the Johnson Brothers. William had concentrated his activities on running the family farm and waited
until the end of the harvest season in 1875 before joining his brother in the grocery business.
William and David decided that the grocery business was not for them. David and William returned to farming
near Union. William also purchased a store in the village of Union that burned to the ground in the 1880s. Both
brothers later retired from farming to large and comfortable homes in Evansville.
The Johnson Store was once again rented to other parties. By 1879, Ransom Griffin had returned to the
Johnson building. His stock of goods had not changed from his earlier ventures. Candies, ice cream, tobacco
products and fruit continued to be his stock. In the summer he carried "champagne cider" and the Review editor
advised readers to try it. "We did, and it went to the right spot."
Other than his advertisements, Griffin received very little notice in the local news. However, in 1883, a window
decoration caught the editor's eye. In his store window, Griffin displayed a large bunch of bananas. One bunch
was so impressive that the local press noted that there were over 200 bananas, with a total weight of 100
pounds, hanging in the front of the store.
In the 1880s, Griffin sold groceries and operated an ice cream parlor in his store. "Green fruits and early
vegetables always fresh and the best of the market affords. In the ice cream room, Griffin made and served his
own ice cream.
In 1895, the grocery firm of Emery & Searles took over the Johnson store. W. A. Searles and ? Emery were the
owners. They purchased the grocery stock of Levi Kneppers who was going out of business and advertised
their new store in the local newspapers.
Ownership of the property changed in March 1896 when Daniel Johnson died. The property was inherited by
his wife, Angeline and son, David.
A few months later the store burned to the ground and Angeline Johnson and her son decide to reinvest in
building a new store. In the fire that destroyed nearly 25% of the local business district, Emery and Searles lost
all of their merchandise.
The Evansville Badger reported the fire loss from the September 1896 blaze that destroyed or damaged 13
buildings. "Emery & Searles in the Johnson building lost about $700 by fire and damage to goods."
The Johnson building was valued at $1,200. Many of the buildings burned in the disastrous fire were not
insured or under-insured. In some cases the lots in the prime commercial district were more valuable than the
buildings. If a structure was lost, the property was still a valuable asset.
The attached row of wooden buildings was a known fire hazard and insurers charged rates so high that many of
the property owners did not carry insurance on the buildings. David Johnson and his mother, Angeline
Johnson, carried no insurance on the building, but the occupants, Emery and Searles carried insurance on the
The Johnsons used their own funds to rebuild the store. This time the building was constructed with a fire wall
to the west with Byron Campbell's building and a fire wall to the east, with Dr. Charles Smith's building.
In an unusual purchase agreement, the second story of the building and that of the building next door at 9 West
Main was sold to the Leota Lodge of the International Order of Odd Fellows (the I.O.O.F.) to be used as their
In January 1897, Emery & Searles moved back into the Johnson building, but their stay was short lived. Another
grocer had his eye on establishing a business in the new store.
The structure at 5 West Main was barely finished when Mrs. Johnson got a purchase offer for the new store, in
February 1897. An agreement was reached and in April 1912, Frank Devendorf, a grocery store operator, and
his wife, Hattie, purchased the building from Mrs. Johnson. He paid $2,500 for the structure and made plans to
open a grocery, forcing Emery and Searles to seek another location.
For the next 15 years, Devendorf owned the store. He operated his grocery out of the store at 7 West Main. He
rented the store to Charles Bartlett for a restaurant who was operating out of the building in 1912 when it was
sold. Barlett then moved into the Magee Opera House building.
Devendorf and his wife, Hattie sold the store to Liew Van Wart in April 1912. Van Wart operated the drug store
next door to the Devendorf building and rented quarters in Dr. Smith's building at 5 West Main.
After selling the building to Van Wart, Devendorf purchased a farm in Mobile County Alabama. His family moved
to the farm located near Citronville.
Van Wart paid the Devendorfs $4,000 for the building and after the purchase, he began immediately to remodel
the former grocery and restaurant into a drug store. The new owner had a new tile floor installed, purchased
new fixtures, and had the interior repainted. In December 1912, Van Wart moved into his newly purchased and
remodeled drug store.
The December 5, 1912 Evansville Review announced the opening of the store. "L. Van Wart has put in a new
set of the finest fixtures including the latest design shelving and show cases, together with a modern store front
that makes his new store one of the most attractive in the city."
The new owner was the son of David and Ann Jones Van Wart. The Van Warts were early settlers in Union
township and David had also gone to California during the gold rush. He was hired to transport gold from
Marysville to San Francisco.
David returned to the Evansville area and was the inn keeper of the Ball Tavern. David and Ann's son, Liew,
was born at the Ball Tavern, three miles east of Evansville, in 1866.
In 1890, Liew married Rose Clifford. For several years, he clerked in the store of Dr. John M. Evans with Frank
Crow. Both became registered pharmacists and each opened his own drug store in the same block of West
Main Street in Evansville.
Liew Van Wart was an experienced businessman when he purchased the store from the Devendorfs. He had
been a registered pharmacist since 1893 and had operated his own store since 1898. In the new store, he
continued to operate as an independent owner with the national company, The Rexall organization.
When Liew Van Wart went into business for himself, the Evansville Tribune noted: "Mr. Van Wart has been so
long and favorably known in the Pioneer drug store that he needs no recommend as a business man to this
community and to say that he has been one of the most honest, upright accommodating men both in and out of
business that we ever knew, is no exaggeration, and we bespeak for him continued prosperity and success."
For the next twenty-six years Liew Van War was known as the "West Main Street Druggist".
During World War I, Van Wart also was asked to be the enrolling agent for the United States Merchant Marine.
In 1919, he was appointed the permanent enrolling agent for the United States Shipping Board Recruiting
Service by the director, Henry Howard.
Liew Van Wart owned the building at 7 West Main in the early 1920s. He employed Robert L. Collins as a
In December 1923, Grant E. Johnson purchased the pharmacy business of Liew Van Wart and rented the
building from him. The sale of the business had been the talk-about-town for a number of weeks. The sale was
finalized on the anniversary of Van Wart's twenty-fifth year in business for himself.
At nearly the same time, his employee, Robert Collins, purchased the drug stock of Frank M. Crow, further west
on Main Street and opened his own drug store in competition with the new owner of Van Wart's store. In 1923
there were four drug stores operating in Evansville, the Pioneer Drug Store, Johnson's Drug Store, Collins' Drug
Store and Groh's Drug Store.
In addition to selling his business to Johnson, Van Wart also rented his home at 144 West Liberty to Grant and
Gladys Johnson and their son, Jerry. Liew Van Wart and his wife intended to spend the winter visiting their
daughter, Mrs. Fred Howe in Hollywood,
The new owner, Grant Johnson, was an experienced pharmacist. He was a native of Bloomington, Wisconsin
and a graduate of the Marquette University school of pharmacy. Johnson had been a registered pharmacist
He enlisted and served in the U.S. Army during World War I. Grant's most recent business experience before
coming to Evansville was working as a druggist in Viroqua for six years. He had also worked in Hayward and
Washburn drug stores."Grant E. Johnson comes to this city with the best of references, both as a man and a
druggist," the Evansville Review noted in its December 13, 1923 issue.
Grant Johnson continued to carry the Rexall brand of pharmaceutical merchandise. He also sold paint and
varnish, Kodak cameras and film, perfumes, candy, and chemicals for spraying orchards and gardens.
Five years after Johnson had purchased the merchandise and good will of the business of Liew Van Wart, he
purchased the building. On October 19, 1928, Liew Van Wart sold the store at 7 West Main Street to Grant
Johnson for $8,000.
Land values for the commercial district had doubled from the time Van Wart purchased the building in 1912 for
$4,000. The Evansville Review passed the information about the sale to its readers in the October 25, 1928
issue. The item noted that the drug store was "one of the best appointed stores of its kind in this state."
The City of Evansville was still requiring pharmacists to purchase permits for the sale of intoxicating liquors in
the late 1930s. Johnson applied and received a permit during each of the years he was in business.
In September 1938, the Johnson Drug Store, two other Evansville pharmacies and a grocery were victimized by
a team of counterfeiters in September 1938. At the Johnson store, the counterfeiter purchased 40 cents worth
of mineral oil from the clerk, Olive Cain.
The sharp-eyed clerk, recognized immediately that the money was counterfeit and asked Charles Gibson, a
customer who happened to be in the store, to get the license number from the counterfeiter's vehicle. Gibson
wrote down the number, then notified police officer, Orville Jones, who immediately called the Janesville police.
The criminals were arrested in Janesville and turned over to the F.B.I. for prosecution.
For many years, Grant Johnson served as the local Greyhound Bus Company agent in Evansville. He was also
an avid baseball fan. In September 1938, Stan Sperry, a local sports hero who played for the Philadelphia
Athletics, was to be honored at the White Sox stadium in Chicago. When Philadelphia played the White Sox,
there was to be a special "Stan Sperry Day" so that his fans could honor him.
Johnson set up a special display in his store window and asked for contributions for a gift to be presented to
Sperry at home plate, prior to the opening of the game. The druggist also made arrangements with the
Greyhound Bus line to have a charter bus leave Evansville at a cost of $2.75 for the round trip to the White Sox
The Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company also offered a special car and a fare of $3.25, if 20 or more
people took the train to Chicago for the game. The promotion was successful, Grant Johnson's fund raiser had
made enough to buy an automatic shotgun that was presented to Sperry. More than 100 people from the
Evansville area watched their local hero accept the gift at Comiskey Park in Chicago.
Johnson continued to operate his pharmacy until, October 1947 when he Johnson sold the business and the
building to William E. Brown. The following year, Grant Johnson and his son, Jim, purchased the Golf Course
Tavern, west of the city of Evansville.
The new owner of the store at 7 West Main, William E. Brown, was a native of Whitewater and had worked in
pharmacies in Monroe, Sheboygan, Delavan and his hometown before purchasing the Johnson drug store.
To expand the merchandise in the new store, Brown also purchased the stock of the O'Connor Drug Store in
Whitewater that was going out of business. Brown began transferring the contents of the O'Connor store to his
new store in Evansville.
The O'Connor store had been in one family for more than 100 years and Brown found many treasures that he
wanted to save. Brown found old dispensing bottles, patent medicine boxes and equipment that was outdated.
Rather than destroy the bits and pieces of pharmacy history he now owned, Brown decided to create his own
drug store museum.
In the basement of his home, Brown created an 8 by 10 foot room, installed shelving, glass cases and a crank
telephone. The door to the room had a bell that rang whenever the door was opened.
The collection soon became widely known and was recognized as one of the finest collections of its kind in the
United States. The Smithsonian recognized Brown's private collection in its publication "Old Apothecaries".
Brown's store was listed as one of the 10 best privately owned collections of drug store antiques.
In his own drug store, Brown carried the usual remedies for people and animals, offering many supplies usually
carried by veterinarians. Brown's merchandise also included gift items, such as candy, perfume, and clothing
accessories advertised as the Botany brand of neckties and socks.
Brown was active in community affairs. He served as President of the Rock County Pharmaceutical Society.
Brown was also an active member of the Evansville Fire Department. From 1950 to 1952, he served as
alderman of the City of Evansville.
When Brown sought election as Mayor of the city in 1952, he lost but was elected in 1954 and served one term.
During his administration, the City Hall was remodeled. He also recommended that the City begin to explore the
possibility of building a new City Hall.
Brown died very suddenly of a heart attack in January 1958. His wife, Isabelle, put the business up for sale. By
the Spring of 1958, Arnold Willis was advertising his drug store business in the location of William Brown's
store. William's wife, Isabelle Brown, maintained ownership of the building at 7 West Main Street for a number of
Willis was no stranger to Evansville. He had worked for the Krebs Drug store from 1948 to 1953. Then he took
a job with the Rennebohm drug store chain in Madison and worked as a pharmacist for a few years until he
heard of the opportunity of purchasing the Brown business.
The Willis family returned to Evansville and the new owner became joined the Rexall chain of stores, following
the tradition that Liew Van Wart had begun in the early 1900s. Willis joined the Lions Club and the Evansville
Chamber of Commerce and became an active member of the community once again.
After Arnold Willis purchased the merchandise of the drug store and rented the building, Isabelle Brown allowed
him to remodel the store and update the appearance. Light birch paneling was placed on the walls and the
prescription department was remodeled.
In 1964, Arnold Willis accepted Larry Lauke as an intern to work in the store. Lauke was studying at the School
of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin. After serving his internship, Lauke moved away from Evansville and
was hired to work in a drug store at Fond du Lac. Later, he also worked at a pharmacy in Oshkosh.
Larry was interested in becoming a missionary and for a short time, the Lauke's lived in Portland, Oregon where
Larry entered a Bible school to prepare for work as a missionary.
Lauke continued to work at a pharmacy. After finishing his course work, the Lauke's were assigned to a mission
in Ethiopia. Larry worked in the central pharmacy of the mission, dispensing medical supplies.
When the Lauke's returned to the United States in June 1973, he went into partnership with Arnold Willis. Willis
had expanded his store's merchandise in 1969 with the purchase of the Hamacher Pharmacy at 1 West Main
Street. The Hamacher store was renamed One East Main and for a short time, both locations were operated by
With the closing of the Hamacher Pharmacy, the Willis Rexall Drugs was the last remaining drug store in
Evansville. Since 1969, there has continued to be just one operating drug store in Evansville.
Willis and his wife, Beth, were also involved in the organization of the Evansville nursing home. Before the
construction of the nursing home was started, officers and directors of the Corporation were named. Beth Willis
served as secretary of the Continental Manor of Evansville, Inc. in the spring of 1970.
In 1979, the Willis Drug Store moved to the north side of West Main Street, in what had been the old Rex
Theater and later an auto parts store. When the Willis Rexall Drug made its moved from 7 West Main, they also
changed affiliations with their major supplier. They switched from the Rexall to the Walgreen brands of
Lauke, Willis, and the rest of their staff moved the old fixtures and the merchandise across the street. The
Walgreen company also offered new fixtures for the new store. The move was made primarily because of the
increased business. "We have garagefuls of stuff to move," Lauke told a reporter.
Willis and Lauke rented the building at 7 West Main to Dan Newcomer, a clothing merchant from Brodhead.
Newcomer opened a men's clothing store called "Just for Him II". The merchandise included a wide range of
styles from work clothes to formal wear.
Newcomer had no other competitors in the men's clothing line. Once Evansville had five or more merchants
offering clothing for men. By 1980, there was only one, the Just for Him II store operated by Newcomer. The
store also had children's clothing. Through agreements with other businesses, Just for Him II also and offered a
dry cleaning service and a tuxedo rental service.
In September 1981, Newcomer sold his business in Evansville. Dobb's Duds, owned by Larry and Marsha
Dobbs became the new occupants of the building at 7 West Main Street. They planned to offer many of the
same brands of clothing that Just for Him II offered and added the Red Wing line of shoes to their inventory.
After renting the building for our year, Marsha and Larry Dobbs purchased the store from the Adwall Company,
the partnership of Arnold Willis and Larry Lauke in 1985
Larry and Marsha Dobbs had been active in the Evansville community for several years. Larry, a teacher in the
Evansville School system, had also served as an alderman on the Evansville City Council.
Marsha served as organist and choir director for Saint Paul's Catholic Church and also directed the Ecumenical
Choir for the special concert during the holiday season. Both Larry and Marsha had been active in the Jaycees
and Jaycettes and the Lions Club.
Their commitment to supporting Evansville business and civic activities continued during the years that the
Dobbs owned the store. Working with the University of Wisconsin-Extension, the Evansville Chamber of
Commerce and local government officials, the Dobbs' promoted a number of studies made to revitalize the
commercial district of Evansville.
When Marsha was President of the Evansville Chamber of Commerce, one study was conducted by students in
the Landscape Architecture department at the University of Wisconsin. This study promoted a walking and
bicycle route along Allen's Creek. There were also recommendations for planting trees and creating a pleasant
environment along the streets.
Another study conducted with the cooperation of the University of Wisconsin-Extension in 1986, resulted in
models of downtown stores and recommendations for improving the exterior appearance of the buildings. Under
the direction of Prof. Bruce Murray, University of Wisconsin students interviewed citizens about improvements in
the downtown business district, then drew plans for new store fronts.
The goal was to create an attractive atmosphere to draw people to shop in Evansville. Ideas included uniform
street lighting, appropriate signage, new color schemes and face lifts that restored the original beauty of the
Dobb's Duds at 7 West Main was the first of several businesses to use the recommendations. Old siding was
removed from the building, exposing the decorative iron work detail on the beam between the first and second
stories of the building. Restoration to the store front included awnings, new signs, and other decorative details
that enhanced the appearance of the store.
After several years in business, Marsha Dobbs returned to teaching and the building was sold to Chris Flynn for
her real estate business. Chris was a veteran real estate agent when she purchased the building. She had
worked for Jan Davis and Sandy Shuh at Evansville Realty beginning in 1978. Chris then opened her own
agency and became associated with the national real estate firm, as a member of the Coldwell Banker
The business continues at the location at 7 West Main Street.