39 West Liberty
Researched and written by Ruth Ann Montgomery
Allen S. Baker is the man whose name is synonymous with industrial development in Evansville. He was also
the first to propose public utilities including electric lighting a public water system and a telephone company for
With the exception of two years Baker served in the Civil War, his entire life was spent in Evansville. Baker's
mother and father, John and Jemima Robinson Baker came to Union township in the 1840.
John and Jemima Baker were both children of early Ohio pioneers. Like many of the early settlers in the area,
the Bakers were descendents of another generation of pioneers who had fled the crowded areas along the
eastern coast to seek their fortune in the new land opened in West Virginia and Ohio.
The John Baker family also chose to pioneer the a frontier and came west to the Wisconsin territory in 1837,
settling first in Avon township in the southwest corner of Rock County. The Baker's moved several times in
Wisconsin and northern Illinois before finding a permanent residence in Section 26 of Union township.
Their son, Allen Baker, was born in 1842. Allen was one of nine children, seven sons and two daughters born
into the Baker family. Allen was still a child when his mother died and his father remarried a widow, Jane Sale,
who had four children..
As a young man, Allen was an apprentice to a blacksmith. When he was just nineteen years old, the Civil War
began and Baker was determined to join the first company of Wisconsin volunteers.
Allen and his friends, Waldo Sterns, Theodore Sutphen and James Cook took the Stearn's family mule team
and a wagon to Madison. By the time they reached the recruiting station, the quota for the first regiment had
been filled and the young men were sent home.
A few days later, a recruiting officer came to Evansville to sign up volunteers for the second regiment. This
time, all four young men were accepted, along with several others from Union township. Fourteen men from
Union township were assigned to Company H of Wisconsin's Second Regiment. Allen Baker was one of these.
The Wisconsin Second Regiment was part of the famous Iron Brigade and took part in some of the bloodiest
battles of the Eastern Front of the Civil War. The poorly equipped unit was mustered into service on June 11,
1861 at Camp Randall in Madison.
Wisconsin volunteers were issued caps, flannel shirts, flannel drawers, a wool blanket, canteen, knapsack,
stockings, haversack, cap cover and leather stock, according to a June 6, article in the Janesville Gazette.
There were not enough rifles for the young men and so they had no shooting practice during their time in
camp. Arms for the Second Regiment were issued in Philadelphia as the troops passed through that city on
were on their way to Washington D. C. to protect the nation's Capitol.
Allen Baker was present at many of the famous battles of the Civil War, including Gainsville, Fitzhugh Crossing,
Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. He was wounded twice. At the battle of Gainsville in August 1862, Baker was
shot in the shoulder and sent to a hospital at Philadelphia. His friend, Theodore Sutphen, was killed in that
same battle on August 28, 1862.
While Allen was confined to the hospital in Philadelphia, the Southern forces invaded Maryland and during the
battles of South Mountain and Antietam, even the wounded in hospitals were needed as volunteers to guard
the railroads between Philadelphia and Washington, D. C. Baker volunteered and served with a small unit near
A widow invited the young men into her home and the soldiers befriended her son, Robert Sayers. The young
Sayers would often spend time with the soldiers as they guarded the railroad. One morning Robert accidently
shot himself and the soldiers carried him to his home.
Robert's sister, Margaret Sayers, was called home from Wilmington, Delaware, to take care of her brother.
Baker and the other soldiers continued to visit the Sayer family during Robert's confinement. Robert recovered
from his wounds. During Allen Baker's visits to the wounded young man, he became acquainted with Margaret
Sayers and fell in love with her.
Eventually, Baker was well enough to return to his regiment. The two young people, who had met in such an
accidental way, continued to send letters to each other.
Within a few months after Baker rejoined his regiment he was wounded again. This time his wounds were
serious. On the first day of the battle for Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 Allen was shop in the abdomen. The
bullet hit his hip bone, bounced off the bone and became imbedded near his spinal column. Surgeons were
afraid to operate to remove the miniball because it was located very close to an artery.
The ball remained in place for many years, eventually working its way to the surface. On March 19, 1889, "the
bullet appeared at the surface, punctured the skin and was removed by Mr. Baker easily without surgical aid."
The small miracle was noted in Baker's biographical sketch in the Rock County Biographical Album issued in
The injuries from his wound at Gettysburg made Allen eligible for a discharge from the Second Regiment. He
returned to Evansville and once again worked as a blacksmith. Margaret Sayers and Baker continued their
On March 23, 1865, Allen and Margaret were married in Newark and returned to Evansville to live. That year,
they purchased property on the southeast corner of First and Liberty streets and built their first home.
The Baker's oldest daughter, Elsie, was born on October, 1867. Their second child, John S. Baker was born
July 17, 1869, and their third child, Elizabeth, often called, Bessie was born in November 1875.
The Baker's home life was quiet and seldom noted in the columns of Evansville's newspapers. The family
joined the Congregational Church and Baker was elected a trustee in 1866. He served in that position for more
than 30 years. Margaret also was active in church work.
Allen Baker's business life received frequent notice. In 1866, Baker purchased a building and blacksmith
business on the south side of West Main Street's business district from E. Bemis. Baker's ad ran in the
Evansville Citizen. "I am prepared to do all kinds of work in my line, with neatness and dispatch. Give me a
A few years later, in April 1872, he purchased land on the opposite side of the street and built another
blacksmith shop. By the end of the year, Allen Baker was busy with another project that would take him out of
the small blacksmith shop and into the world of industry.
Baker and a partner, Levi Shaw had developed a steam engine and they dreamed of forming a manufacturing
firm to build the engines. Others in the community agreed that it was a worthwhile project and six major
investors, including Allen Baker organized the A. S. Baker & Co.
Over the next few years, Baker became the motivating force behind the new firm. He acted as superintendent
of the factory, advertising agent, and inventor.
As his children grew older, they were also brought into the firm. John began working in the factory at the age of
12 and his father recognized and encouraged his talent for mechanics and invention.
The Baker Manufacturing firm was well established and their family growing rapidly. In 1877 they made an
addition to their home with Theodore Shurrum did the mason work on the foundation and William Morgan the
One of the few early gatherings noted in the house took place in March 1880 when the Baker's invited about
fifty friends to their house to help celebrate their fifteenth wedding anniversary. The Evansville Review gave
the couple their best wishes, "A good time was enjoyed, a good supper eaten and all went merry as a marriage
bell till quite a late hour. May the host and hostess live to celebrate their "diamond wedding" sixty years
Allen continued to receive new patents for machinery he developed. In September 1880, he was issued a
patent for a pump and a mechanical movement that he had invented. Baker also became interested in other
firms. By the end of the year 1880, he had received ten patents and in the next few years, he received many
Although Baker's next door neighbor was Isaac Hoxie, publisher of the Evansville Review, Allen apparently felt
there was a need for another newspaper in the community. Baker purchased shares in the Evansville
Publishing Company, publisher of the Enterprise and in September 1881 was elected to the firm's board of
directors. The Enterprise prospered and for the next few years Evansville had two weekly newspapers.
With a growing family, Margaret and Allen decided to build a new home. In March 1883, the Bakers purchased
land fronting on South First Street from Peter F. Spencer and had their original house moved to that lot.
Before they left their old house, the Bakers held a "Sociable" at their home. These gatherings were fund
raisers for the Congregational Church.
In May the laborers began digging the cellar for the two houses on First Street. One basement was for the
house that was to be moved and the second basement was for a house that Baker intended to build and sell.
While their new house on the corner of Liberty and First was under construction, the Bakers planned to live in
the old house they had moved to First Street. Then they began construction of a new home on the spot where
the original house had stood. This new house was to be "a much finer building" than the Bakers had lived in
It was a boom year in construction with new buildings, the Tack and Match Factory and other construction
going on in the village. The Baker house was one of nine to be constructed on Liberty Street in 1883. Isaac
Brink and Thomas Fidlier were the masons for the foundations of all three houses being constructed by Baker.
The basement for the new residence on Liberty Street was finished in July and it was ready for the carpenter
work. The house was enclosed by the middle of August and by October, the Heron brothers, John and Will,
were completing the job of lathing the interior walls of Baker's new residence.
That same month, after the lath was in place, three men began to plaster the new house. Two brothers, John
and Will Herron put up the lath on the walls of the home.
Three of the top masons in Evansville, Theodore F. Shurrum, Issac Brink and Tommy Baker, sometimes called
Tommy the Tramp, were all employed at the Baker house. The Enterprise reported that the three men had put
1,248 yards of "scratch coating" on the house in 27 hours.
The three coats of plaster on the walls were considered an excellent finish to the interior of the new home. "Mr.
Baker's job is to be a first class job of three coat work throughout", the paper reported.
The Bakers hired A. F. Gibbs and a Mr. Tewkesbury to paint the house. By November, the family had once
again settled into their new home. The following February, they purchased new furniture from the local
furniture firm of H. J. & S. Smith, who advertised that they "keep constantly on hand one of the largest stocks to
select from between Chicago and St. Paul."
Bessie Baker, the youngest child, held one of the first parties in the new house. Thirty of her friends were
invited to the house for a tea party in July 1886. "The yard was full of joyous laughing voices and Mr. Baker's
large commodious dwelling gave ample room for all when called to tea."
The two oldest children, Elsie and John graduated from high school in the 1880s. Elsie went to Oberlin College
and John attended the University of Wisconsin. Both worked for their father, John in the factory and Elsie in the
Elsie took training in typewriting and phonography, an early name for shorthand. In the summer of 1888, she
worked as her father's secretary. "Miss Elsie Baker is turning her knowledge of typewriting and phonography to
good account in her father's office by aiding his extensive correspondence," the Evansville Review noted in its
August 7, 1888 issue.
Allen S. Baker was the first in the community to propose the use of electricity in homes and businesses. The
power would be provided by the Baker Manufacturing Company.
In 1886, Baker proposed to the Village Board that they replace the kerosene street lamps with electric lights.
Allen estimated that an electric plant "of the best Edison Pattern" installed at the Baker Manufacturing
Company factory could produce lights at a cost of one cent per hour per bulb.
The Village Board refused to spend the money to install the electric lights and pay Baker's for the service.
However, many of the merchants who had recently formed a Business Men's Association, supported Baker's
In May, Allen Baker wanted to see for himself how other communities were installing electrical power. He took
his family on a tour of other communities that had already installed systems. They visited Whitewater and
Waukesha and the tour increased Baker's enthusiasm for the project.
In July 1887, Allen S. Baker decided to take his proposal directly to the people. He personally visited potential
customers of an electric light plant to solicit their opinions about his idea.
Encouraged by the support that he was given in the community Baker once again faced Evansville's Trustees.
Twice, in July and August 1887, Baker made an offer to the Village Board to establish electric lights instead of
the kerosene street lamps. However, the Trustees said no to the electricity proposal. They vetoed Baker's
plan, believing that the kerosene lights were cheaper.
Baker's personal solicitation of Evansville's citizens had created new interest in electricity. There was such a
public outcry to accept Baker's offer that the Trustees decided to leave it to the voters. "We do not like to take
any responsibility in the matter and will ask for a public expression by vote."
The voters favored the electric lights and the Trustees accepted their decision reluctantly. In yet another
attempt to save tax payer dollars, the Trustees quibbled about whether the electric lights should be used on
moonlit nights. Finally, the Village Board made a contract with Baker to provide electric street lights every
night, moonlit or not.
By September 1887, the electric light poles and wires were being installed. There was a provoking delay when
the lamp manufacturer did not send the street lights on schedule. Other cities and villages throughout the
United States were also installing electricity and there was such a demand for the new apparatus that the lamp
manufacturer could not keep up with the orders.
When Evansville's street lights were finally installed, there were fifty-six, sixteen-candle lights and the street
were lit from early dusk until eleven at night. Each lamp cost the taxpayers ten dollars a year and Baker had
also convinced 150 customers in the private sector to purchase electricity from his plant.
Baker met many challenges in the next few years, when he proposed new utilities to the Village Board. When
he proposed a water works system and a telephone company operated by the Baker Manufacturing Company
the governing body board refused to consider his proposal and sought vendors outside of Evansville.
At that same time, Allen Baker seemed to hold no animosity towards the local governing body and often
showed them generosity. In November 1896, Evansville found they could not pay the Baker company's bill of
less than $70 for a month of electricity without borrowing money.
Allen assured the finance committee that they could pay after the tax money had come in after January 1897.
He then offered to renew his contract for lighting the streets for the year 1897.
Baker also faced challenges with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. The railroad held a monopoly on the
transportation to and from Evansville and they began to impose heavy tariffs.
Other forward looking communities were courting successful manufacturing companies to move. Baker began
looking at offers from other communities. In 1892, Waukegan, Illinois businessmen approached the Baker
Manufacturing Company offering incentives to move to that city. Allen Baker made a trip to Waukegan in
December 1892, amid rumors in the Evansville newspapers that the company was considering moving the
windmill plant to Illinois.
He returned to Evansville with the news that "Although the inducements held out and the advantages of low
freight rates were considered, yet Mr. Baker does not think it best to pull up at present." The community
breathed a collective sigh of relief that one of the major employers would not move away.
In 1898, Baker advocated a privately operated water works system. He had seen the need for a water supply
with fire hydrants and a water tower since 1884, when his company's buildings and the Evansville Furniture
manufacturing plant were destroyed by fire. A second major fire in 1896 that burned a major portion of the
commercial district on West Main Street increased the need for a water supply for a fire protection system.
During both fires, the closest and largest water supply was from Allen's Creek. Had there been a sufficient
water supply from hydrants, more of the factory and commercial buildings might have been saved.
By the time he made his offers to a water system, the officials had changed from a village to a city form of
governance. Allen Baker made two proposals to the City Council members.
The first proposal was for the City to own and install the system and Baker's would provide the pumping
facilities. In the second proposal, the Baker Manufacturing Company would furnish the water hydrants for the
City and faucets for private homes and businesses and the City would grant the company a franchise to
operate and own the system.
Private operation of the water system received very little support from the City Council. There was a primitive
form of fire protection already in place.
In the 1880s, then under the village form of government, the trustees had ordered large cisterns dug at various
locations. The cisterns were filled with water to be used in case of fire.
One of the cisterns was on the corner at the intersection of Liberty and First near Baker's house. Others were
located in the business district and industrial area.
Some people felt this was an adequate system, and certainly an inexpensive one. Many believed that residents
and business could build at their own risk, without protection from a fancy public water system.
Although, they rejected all of his offers, the City Council still considered Baker one of the experts on a water
system and named him to serve on the committee to investigate the franchise for the water and electrical
power. The question of installing a water system was not resolved for three years.
In 1901, the city decided to hire an outside firm to build the system, rather than grant the Baker Company the
privilege. At the same time the water tower, pipes, and hydrants, were constructed, a new electric power plant
was built for the city. The electrical and water works systems came under city for management for the first time
While the water works system was under consideration, Baker had another utility problem he wanted to solve.
In September 1896, Allen Baker and Marshall Fisher appeared before the City Council to ask them to delay a
decision to sign a contract with the Wisconsin Telephone Company, because they were in the process of
forming their own company.
With several other successful businessmen, Baker helped organize Evansville's first telephone exchange. In
1898, A. S. Baker, A. C. Gray, M. J. Fisher, Robert Richmond, and George L. Pullen and several others formed
a local telephone company. Baker was chosen President of the organization.
In his leisure time, family and church occupied the activities of Allen Baker. After their studies at college, John
and his sister, Elise Baker, returned to their parents' home at the corner of First and Liberty Streets.
In 1893, Bessie Baker, the youngest child, left home to attend the Rockford Seminary, in Rockford, Illinois.
Bessie lived in Rockford and attended the school for four years, spending her vacations with her parents and
brother and sister.
Allen Baker's family enjoyed music. Elsie was an accomplished organist and pianist. The family and friends
formed a choral society. The group was organized at the Baker home. Meetings were held weekly at the
homes of members and Allen S. Baker was chosen president of the organization.
The Baker house was also the scene of elaborate and unique gatherings. In late February 1892, President
Washington's birthday was the occasion of a party for a crowd of young people.
"From every window gleamed incandescent lights. A large American flag floated over the central doorway and
in nooks and corners about the spacious parlors floated miniature flags." Friends of John and Elsie Baker
acted the parts of the President and his wife. Will Clark played George Washington and Mabel Snashall, his
wife, Martha. The impersonators greeted guests at the entrance of the Baker residence.
Church activities were often the focus of the social gatherings at the Baker home. Allen served as Sunday
School Superintendent of the Congregational Church in 1876-80 and again from 1888-89. In 1891, he was
appointed to the building committee when the church wanted to build a new parsonage. The man who would
become the Baker's son-in-law, Robert Hartley, served as treasurer of the building fund.
There are frequent notices in the Evansville newspapers of meetings of the Congregational Mite Society at the
Baker home. The women of the church organized these fund raisers to help to support church projects.
It was estimated that women's circles and social fund raisers provided about one quarter of the church's
operating expenses. The programs included "birthday socials" and chicken pie dinners held at the Baker
house. One meeting raised thirty dollars toward the church's debt on their new parsonage.
On September 19, 1895, the home was the scene of the wedding of Elsie Baker and Robert Hartley. The
young couple stood before the Congregational church pastor, Rev. John Schofield, and repeated their vows.
Elsie's sister, Bessie and her brother, John, were the attendants. The young couple went on a short
honeymoon and then returned to the Baker house to make their home with Elsie's parents.
The two families lived together in the house at 39 West Liberty for the next 21 years. Robert Hartley was the
assistant cashier at the Bank of Evansville and a trustee of the Congregational Church. Hartley also had a
beautiful voice and was often asked to sing at church and other community gatherings. His wife, Elsie,
accompanied him on the piano or organ.
Allen's wife, Margaret Baker volunteered in church work and was also a member of Evansville's committee for
the relief of the poor. Before there were government appointed and funded welfare agencies, each community
took responsibility for feed, clothing and housing its poor. In Evansville, the churches organized a relief
committee and a representative from each church served on the relief committee. The relief committee was
elected at the joint services held by the local churches on Thanksgiving Day.
A union service held by the church on Thanksgiving day also served as a fund raiser for the Relief Committee
and the collection taken at that service was used to support the Relief group during the year. The committee
also received donations of food and fuel and committee members distributed it to those in need. One year, the
committee received so many donations of food and fuel, that it helped six families. The cost for that year was
In 1898, Allen Baker added one more activity to his long list of achievements. He entered politics and was
elected to the office of County Supervisor for the Second Ward in the City of Evansville. Evansville had
changed to a city form of government and elected three supervisors, one from each ward, to serve on the
The realm of politics was new to Baker, but with his usual enthusiasm, he chose to educate himself in this area.
The Evansville Center of Economic League was a discussion group of men and women who had as their goal,
to "better understand political economy, political service and sociology."
Many of these same men and women became active in the Evansville Improvement Association organized in
1902 to "look after cleaning and improvements of streets, alleys, public parks, grounds, buildings, and
sidewalks." Margaret Baker was named to the finance committee and Allen backer to the "school grounds and