Racine history: 1861 Joshua Pierce home

by | Aug 4, 2011 | 0 comments

We were talking gardening with our neighbor Katie last month when she mentioned that her daughter, Mary, has an interest in Racine history and has been researching our neighborhood’s past online. I handed Katie my business card and told her I would be very interested if Mary could pass along any links.

One of the most striking buildings in our area is the house pictured above and below, at 2800 Taylor Avenue (Taylor Avenue & Pierce Boulevard) with the name “Highland” in leaded glass above the front door. I always hear “Ashokan Farewell” in my head when I pass that house, and imagine its owner gazing out over his estate in Civil War days. According to Katie, Mary was interested in the house’s history too.

Not long after, Mary emailed me with a detailed overview of her findings, beginning with the “Treaty with the Chippewa, etc.” of 1833 and the “X” signatures of tribal leaders purportedly ceding “to the United States all their land, along the western shore of Lake Michigan … about five millions of acres.”

Searching through the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office Records website by town, range, sections, and quarter sections, Mary was able to find out who first bought the land we now live on.

In the case of 2800 Taylor, Daniel Slawson bought the parcel for Joshua Pierce (born September 15, 1814) of Steuben County, New York. Pierce came to Racine in 1840, acquired 160 acres and later another 80, and built his “large and beautiful home” in 1860-1861, according to the Commemorative Biographical Record of Prominent and Representative Men of Racine and Kenosha Counties, Wisconsin published by J.H. Beers & Co. of Chicago in 1906.

That same volume also notes:

Joshua Pierce was a thrifty farmer, and had one of the finest residences and farms in Racine county. At an early day he helped to lay out nearly all of the roads in Mt. Pleasant township and was road commissioner for many years. He died on the farm on which he had settled Dec. 20, 1904, aged ninety years, three months, five days.

Shown here are Mary’s photos of the Pierce family gravesite at Racine’s Mound Cemetery.

Mary writes,

According to the information I received, the entire plot was purchased April 29, 1880 prior to anyone’s passing. Then on August 29, 1913, a few months after William died in Nov 1912, it looks as though the surviving siblings had the family grave marker (seen in the photo I’m sending) placed on the site. Just to the right (south) of the spire marker is an small, old and I assume original marker corresponding to the location for William’s resting place as shown on my map from the cemetery. Plus it says “William” on the top of it.

An 1899 map of Mount Pleasant that Mary found at Historic Map Works shows J. Pierce’s land just outside the southwest corner of the City of Racine. Another map of Mt. Pleasant Township from 1908 shows his land divided up among his children.

Another Racine history book, the History of Racine and Kenosha Counties, Wisconsin, published in 1879 by Western Historical Company of Chicago, lists Joshua Pierce among the “old settlers” and says he “used to raise 40 bushels of wheat to the acre” and “is the owner of some fine race horse stock,” including one named Gov. Hayes, “a horse that will have a good record.”

As Mary explains, racehorses were extremely popular back then, and an 1887 map of Mount Pleasant shows a race track near Lake Michigan, east of Pierce’s land on property owned by J. I. Case, the founder of Case Corporation and a breeder of champion race horses — including “Jay-Eye-See,” a black gelding that broke the mile trotting record of 2:10 at Narragansett Park in 1884, then three years later set a pacing record of 2:06.25 at Independence, Iowa, making him a national celebrity immortalized via trading cards, product promotions, and a series of Currier and Ives prints.

Jay-Eye-See outlived J. I. Case, and in 1909 the horse’s obituary ran in newspapers everywhere, including the New York Times. Jay-Eye-See died and was buried on a Mount Pleasant farm. Eighty-eight years later in 1997, the horse’s bones were exhumed when construction began on the Sturtevant Menards store. The champ’s burial spot was located close to where motorists now enter the Walmart parking lot from Highway 11.

In 1998, there was a plan to add the horse’s bones to the Case family mausoleum in Mound Cemetery, but as of 2003 they were still in a Rubbermaid container at the home of Racine history buff (and Voice of Elvis) John Van Thiel, awaiting a $10,000 investment.

But let’s return to Joshua Pierce — and specifically to Taylor Avenue, the street in front of his house.

Mary writes:

Back in 1835 when the first survey was done, there was an old Indian trail that became a wagon trail that angled toward the northeast through sections 19, 20 & 21. It can be seen on the field notes and maps marked “Road NE” on the Bureau of Land Management website. That location is what’s now Taylor Ave! I’ve seen it referred to “The Road to Racine” on other maps. In July of 1911 when this area was bought from William Pierce, the son of Joshua Pierce, by Wolff Realty company and surveyed into lots, Taylor Ave. was called “Asylum Ave” after the Taylor Orphan Asylum that was just to the south of Durand Ave. then.

Budget cuts curtailed operations at the Taylor Home and Education Center, 3131 Taylor Ave., back in 2005, but the Taylor Orphans’ home cared for hundreds of children from the early 1870s onward. The orphanage and Taylor Avenue were both named for Isaac Taylor, an early lumber merchant who spent his own childhood in an orphanage in England, then founded and endowed the Taylor Home after establishing his fortune in Kewaunee.

Update: November, 2016

Checking a previously unnoticed Facebook message one evening, I was surprised to read that someone across the lake in Lansing, Michigan had found this post:

Dear Sir, My name is Wendy Brandell. I was researching an address of an ancestral home on “Asylum Dr” in Racine, Wisconsin and discovered your very nice article not only about the house, but also (mostly) about the builder. My Great, Great Grandfather is Joshua Pierce, his daughter Rose Sophronia L.D. (Pierce) Briggs is my Great Grandmother. Her son Mulfred (Fred) DeGarmo Briggs is my Grandfather and his daughter Vernagene Evelyn (Briggs) Brandell is my mother.

 

I discovered some new information about Joshua Pierce and enjoyed your enthusiasm about him. We knew that he was a successful farmer and it was rumored that he bred horses, but we had no idea that he was such a prominent figure in the Racine community.

 

I (and Joshua’s descendants) would love more information about Joshua and the family. Our knowledge is limited since Rose moved to Michigan and as far as we know is the only one of the family to settle in the greater Lansing area. A couple of the other siblings moved to the Detroit area, but my generation doesn’t know much about most of them. Information and photographs did not seem to follow Rose to Lansing, so any other information that you may be able to help me find would be greatly appreciated if that is something that is possible.

 

I have a few pictures of the home in its original condition if you would be interested in seeing them. The building and grounds look quite different, and as near as I can tell there are no neighbors. Thank you for your interest and your time.

In a subsequent email, Wendy sent the following photos:

We have no reason to believe that the couple in front of the home is anyone other than Joshua and Catherine.

The lady in the back yard picture is unknown to us. They had several daughters and my pictures are not dated, so that will remain a mystery.

I included a family portrait and individual portraits of Joshua, Catherine and my Great Grandmother Rose (Pierce) Briggs. Unfortunately when my mother and Aunt put together the genealogy book, the latest technology they had was a Zerox copy machine.

Joshua Pierce

Catherine Hayden Hadden Pierce

Rose Sophronia Luella Delphine Pierce

This Racine history stuff is absolutely fascinating. If anyone out there has additional information about Joshua Pierce and his family, please let me know and perhaps I can add it here as well.

Here are few other links that Mary sent my way:

Plus a couple more links to great local history resources:

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