Williamson Street, one of the major thoroughfares on Madison’s east side, has been home to a variety of interesting characters over the past century and a half.
Charles Marks (1852 – 1940), a native of Wiesbaden, Germany, erected a home on Williamson Street when there were only two other residences in the area. An early east-side developer, he built a row of low-cost homes on East Wilson between South Baldwin and South Dickinson streets. After leaving the contracting business he operated a grocery store in the 1300 block of Williamson Street until 1924.
Charles Starkweather (1849 – 1891) made plows at 841 Williamson. His grandfather Elijah served in the Revolutionary War, and Starkweather Creek is named after his father John. His grandfather was Augustus A. Bird, one of the three commissioners who erected the first Capitol in Madison.
George Breitenbach (1843 – 1904), a native of Bavaria, settled in Madison in 1850 and was at one time foreman in the wood department of Fuller & Johnson. In 1890 he opened the Breitenbach Grocery Store and Saloon at the intersection of Williamson and Paterson, three-quarters of a mile from the Capitol Square in what were then Madison's suburbs, so that he could intercept farmers before they reached the businesses on the Square.
Fred Rentschler (1874 – 1928), a native of Germany, bought a greenhouse at the corner of Williamson and Baldwin in 1897 and renamed it the Capital City Green House. He later opened a store at 230 State Street and moved the greenhouse to 2 Highland Avenue, where the West High School athletic fields are now located.
Charles Billings (1820 – 1890) opened a blacksmith/plow-making shop in 1846. In 1849 he and S. H. Carman formed Billings & Carman, constructing a factory on King Street in 1854 that they moved to Blair and Williamson in 1864. After taking on several partners, the firm was renamed the Madison Plow Company in 1880.
Anna Haerli (1808 – 1899) ran a candy store on Williamson Street, where she also sold fruit and home-made pies. She came to Madison in 1865 from Germany. Among her regular patrons were children from the Soldiers’ Orphans Home on Spaight Street, who stopped by Grandma Haerli’s for rock candy and barbershop sticks. She lived in the rear of her store, frequently allowing Ho Chunk to warm themselves around her old wooden stove.
Peter Fauerbach (1831 – 1886) bought the twenty-year-old Sprecher brewery - Madison’s first - on the corner of Williamson and Blount streets in 1868. He renamed it after himself and operated it until his death. Four generations of the family carried on the business until 1966.
Herman Gaertner (1851 – 1923), a German who came to Madison in 1868, was a barber for 54 years at the Park Hotel and at 1326 Williamson Street. As he recalled in an interview in the Capital Times on January 31, 1922: “I shaved President Garfield when he was a Congressman. I cut President McKinley’s hair and shaved him. Henry Ward Beecher was another. I’ve shaved Robert Lincoln, son of the great president, and as for Senator La Follette, I used to shave Bob when he was a student at the university. In those days the houses didn’t have running water. At the Park Hotel there was a great tank, filled by a pump. Saturday and Sunday were the favorite days for bathing by students at the university. I used to give 60 to 75 baths those days.”
At the turn of the century, Williamson Street was one of the favorite speedways for the new automobile. In October 1905 Judge Donovan sentenced UW student J. M. Castro $10 for speeding, saying: “I suppose there is a certain satisfaction to a man in an auto to go fast, but the lives of other people are more than the mere gratification of a whim to speed.” He declared that a speed limit of 12 mph was too fast when the limit for horses was only 6 mph. He noted that “to be arrested for driving too fast is beginning to be quite a stylish stunt in Madison.”