443 South First
The Leota School for Girls
By Ruth Ann Montgomery
A remarkable historic building outside Evansville's Historic District is the home built for Vivas C. and Phila Holmes at
443 South First Street, known to many in Evansville as the Leota School for Girls or the Bone School.
Vivas C. Holmes and his partners, T. C. Richardson and John Porter, owned the Evansville Mercantile Association,
more commonly called The Grange Store. In the 1890s, they were considered to be some of the richest men in
Evansville and the big three in the City's commercial district. Like his three partners, Holmes paid more than $100 in
taxes to the city in the early 1890s and was considered on of Evansville's "solid men".
The land chosen by Vivas and Phila Holmes' as a building site for their home had been in the hands of Peter F.
Spencer, one of the five Spencer brothers that settled in Evansville in the 1840s. It was in a section of Evansville
that was platted as Hunt and Spencer's addition.
The subdivision included more than 50 lots between first and second streets, south of the school property and the
west side of second street from Lincoln Street, south to the city limits.
Lot 17 of Hunt and Spencer's addition was the largest, including nearly 7 acres of land. Spencer had sold 13 rods
off the north part of the lot but the rest of the lot was vacant. Shortly before his death, Spencer gave the property to
his daughter Rusha V. Spencer in 1899 and she sold it to Phila A. Holmes in 1904 for $14,000, a large sum to pay
for vacant land. However, because of the size of the lot, it had great potential for more building sites.
It was fairly common for businessmen to put their residential property in the name of the wives'. In case of business
failure or setback, the property would not be lost to the family. When the Holmes' purchased the property, they
decided to keep the large lot in one piece, rather than sectioning it off into smaller lots. The land would
accommodate a very large house with a spacious lawn, more than adequate for a family the size of the Holmes'.
The Holmes' did not start to build on South First Street for a few years. In November 1909, Vivas hired men to begin
the foundation work for the new residence. The winter weather halted further progress on the building but in May
1910, Robert Hankinson, the contractor, had his crew on the grounds to begin construction.
Robert Hankinson built houses in Evansville at the turn of the century and was responsible for many of the fine
homes on Garfield Avenue and the John Robinson house on County Highway C, west of the City.
A six-inch water main was extended to South First Street, just opposite the new residence. Holmes was determined
to have every modern convenience in his new home. It was considered to be one of the finest houses ever erected
in the city.
The frame, ten-room house stood on high ground that gave its occupants a fine view of the countryside to the south
and a view of the City to the north especially from the third-story ballroom windows. The interior was commodious
and handsome. There were fireplaces in many of the rooms. Leaded glass in doors and windows ornamented the
exterior walls of the home. Built-in china cupboards with leaded glass as well as built-in shelves and drawers gave
ample room for storage in the large home.
The Holmes' moved into the house in December 1910. "It is said to be one of the most substantial and elegant
homes ever built in this locality," proclaimed the notice in the Evansville Review.
It was a fine monument to the successful life of V. C. Holmes. He was a native of Wisconsin. His parents were
pioneers of Albany township and the first couple married there.
Vivas was born on a farm near Albany and after attending a rural school, he entered the Evansville Seminary. For a
few years he taught in a school near the home farm. Then he became manager of the butter and egg department in
the Grange store. Soon he was manager of the store's hardware department and became one of the major
stockholders when the organization incorporated in the 1890s as the Evansville Mercantile Association.
In 1881, he married Phila Ann Chase, also from the Albany area. Before her marriage, Phila had also taught school
at the old stone schoolhouse in the Moore district, south and west of Evansville.
The Holmes had four children. One daughter, Neva, died just before her seventh birthday in September 1889. Their
oldest daughter was married by the time they moved into the house. Their son, Albert, "Bert", was in college and
their youngest child, Martha, remained at home with her parents.
It was one of the last large Victorian houses built in Evansville. The bungalow style home was becoming very popular
and the older styles, such as the Holmes' built, were considered to be "warehouses". The large houses were
designed for entertaining and Vivas and Phila and their youngest daughter, Martha, invited their friends to enjoy
their comfortable home.
Vivas retired from active business life a year after they built the house and the Holmes' were away from the house
several times a year. The winters were spent in California and many weeks during the summer at a cabin on Long
Lake, seventy-five miles north of Chippiwa Falls. Their children joined them on their travels whenever possible.
Eventually the large house and surrounding grounds became a burden and the Holmes' moved to a smaller house
on West Church Street.
In October 1934, the Holmes' sold the house to S. E. Miller for $5,000. That December, Miller leased the house to
William and Jenny Bone for a boarding school, known as the Leota School for Girls.
The Bones were married in 1915 and four years later came to Evansville to teach at the Evansville Seminary,
operated by the Free Methodist Church. When it became a private boys school, known as the Wyler School, William
and Jenny were again hired as teachers. Jenny taught the younger children. William was in charge of the manual
training department at the boys' school.
They soon made plans to open a boarding school for girls. At first, the young couple operated a school in their
home at 123 South Third Street. The school started with a few girls, taught by Betty Snow.
The second year, Julia Broughton taught twelve students. The following year, Mrs. Bone had an enrollment of 14
girls between the ages of 5 and 15. Many of the girls were sisters of boys who attended the Wyler School. With the
larger enrollment the house on Third Street became very crowded.
As the number of students kept increasing, the Bones began looking for a new location and decided to lease the
Holmes' house from S. E. Miller. It was an ideal location for a boarding school. Its three floors allowed ample living
quarters and the seven acres of land surrounding the house provided a large playground.
The house was divided into three large dormitory rooms with bunk beds. It could accommodate a large number of
girls. During the school year as many as fifty girls enrolled.
The girls came from many parts of the United States and lifelong friendships were formed in the small private school
that became their home for several months of the year. William and Jenny tried to assign rooms to girls with similar
temperaments, so that they would become good companions.
They strived to maintain good physical and mental health for the girls by providing many physical activities, as well
as a home-like atmosphere. The girls gathered in the living room after class activities were finished and listened to
the radio, played the piano and sang together.
"Parents could desire no more healthful spot for their daughters," according to their advertising brochure. William
and Jennie chose as a motto for the school, "To grow more lovely in voice, manner, mind and heart." The
advertisements also stressed the friendship, Christian leadership, recreation and academic training.
The regular school year opened around labor day. The age of the girls ranged from five to eighteen years old. The
younger girls attended classes at the private school and the older girls attended the city high school.
William Bone loved Palomino horses and as part of the school's recreation program developed a special riding
program for the girls. Bone rented land at the fair grounds to pasture his horses and used the quarter-mile track
there. After weeks of training, the girls performed in the school's horse show for beginning and advanced riders.
Those who won the top prizes were allowed to compete in an open horse show organized by Bone that included
riders from throughout the state of Wisconsin. Often there were more than 150 horses in the competition. The
shows were held on the Evansville Fair Grounds, just west of the school. The tack room at the school held the
ribbons, medals and trophies won by the girls.
The school held its own eighth grade graduation ceremonies. After a program, which included speeches, dancing,
and music, the girls were presented with a diploma. The 1936 program included piano and solos by Beatrice Roden,
Arlene Gold, and Joyce Bone, daughter of William and Jenny. Tap, acrobatic and ballet dancing followed the
singing. After the musical entertainment, the graduates presented papers. Then Mrs. Bone gave out the diplomas.
A summer camp provided many athletic activities for the girls. Archery, badminton, long hikes around Evansville,
bicycle rides and swimming in Lake Leota were offered. Bone also built a tennis court and another novel feature, a
trolley ride, which was very popular with the girls.
William and Jenny bought a school bus to transport the girls to popular Wisconsin scenic spots, including Wisconsin
Dells, Tower Hill, Devils Lake and Cave of the Mounds. The size of the staff increased in the summer to supervise
the girls in their camp activities.
Sunday was visiting day. However, parents and friends were expected to wait three weeks after the girls enrolled
before they could visit. The staff thought this would give the campers time to adjust to life at the Leota School for
In 1940 the capacity of the residence had been reached and the school had to comply with a Wisconsin law which
prohibited classroom instruction in a dormitory building. Jennie moved the classes to the Free Methodist church until
they could find other classroom space.
The Bones resolved the legal problem when they purchased the building that had once been the Rutland Center
rural schoolhouse. The school had been located in Dane County, seven miles north of Evansville. A. L. Bund of
Brooklyn had bought the school and moved it to Brooklyn.
Bund sold the building to the Bones and the building was again moved, this time to a vacant lot south of the large
house at 443 South First. In order to make the one-room school conform to state regulations, the building needed to
The roof of the schoolhouse was raised two feet, and it was painted. The new school could seat 25 students. A
separate furnace was installed and a basement was dug beneath the building. The 18 by 26 feet basement under
the schoolhouse served as a recreation room. A window on the south side of the house was transformed into a door
that connected the home with the smaller school house addition.
All of the Bone children, Norman, Alvin and Joyce, were raised in the family home at the school and as adults, they
spent part of their working career helping to operate the Leota School for Girls.
In 1940 the Bones' decided to open the summer camp to boys. Their son, Alvin, who had been attending La Crosse
State Teachers College was put in charge of the boys' camping division. The boys were lodged in a separate house
on South First Street that had been owned by Lou Smith. The camp was called "The Badger State Camp for Boys".
However, within a short time, both Alvin and his brother, Norman, were serving in the armed forces during World War
II. Alvin was in the Pacific Theater and Norman on the front lines in Italy. Following Joyce's graduation from
Greenville College in Illinois, she became the head counselor in the summer session of the school.
In September 1949, William Bone died. Jenny, with the help of her family, decided to continue to operate the school.
In the 1950s, her son Norman and his wife assisted her. As many as eight other assistants were hired to manage the
school during the summer session and through the school year. Myrtie Lawry and Florence Walsh were frequently
mentioned as teachers in the news items of the 1940s and '50s.
Jenny operated the Leota School for Girls until 1959, when the school was closed. The home was sold in March
1960 to Evan D. Gregory and Matthew Meredith for $17,000 on a land contract.
After three years, the men asked to be released from the contract and Jennie Bone once again sold the home to
Adair and Gloria Smalley. Adair worked for the Baker Manufacturing Company in Evansville. According to one of the
Smalley children, it was a wonderful family home that was filled with love, acceptance and childhood memories that
lasted a lifetime.
Smalleys were the first to sell off portions of the large property. In 1976, they sold land to Dr. Henry Youngman. He
built a dentist office just south of the large house.
When the Smalleys moved to Texas, they sold the house and remaining land to Kenneth and Mary Neuenswander in
August 1976. The Neuenswanders also sold off a piece of the property to the Evansville Housing Authority in 1978
and the South Meadows Apartments were built on the land that had once been the playground for the Leota School
The Neuenswanders began to transform the old girls' school. The ten-room house the Holmes built had been
divided into seventeen rooms. The house needed major work including roofing, plumbing, heating and
electrical renovation. As work progressed on the house for the next twelve years, the Neuenswanders asked local
people who remembered the house to give them information so they could accurately restore it.
In 1990, the Neuenschwanders sold the house to Michael and Susan Lampa for more than $71,000 and they had
hopes of turning the home into a bed and breakfast. However, it was not until Philip and Kathryn Liautaud
purchased the home in June 1991 that the home fell into the hands of people, with patience and endurance enough
to see this happen.
Room by room the Liautauds carefully restored the large Queen Anne-style home that the Holmes' began building
nearly 90 years ago. They opened two rooms open in the house to bed and breakfast customers.
The Liatauds sold the house to Susan Finque and Maria Martinez . They opened a coffee shop "Real Coffee" at 18
East Main Street and have plans to do theater productions in the former Leota School for Girls.
Many of the former Leota School girls have fond memories of living in Evansville. Some made their permanent home
in Evansville and a few return as adults to see the old school. Some have made reservations to spend the night in
the house to see its transformation from a private school to its original use as a family home.
Click on the photo to