IN RIVER FALLS
RIVER FALLS – On South Main Street in River Falls, passersby familiar with the landscape may notice a big, gaping hole in the 600 and 700 blocks.
A developer demolished three historic houses this fall in the area known to many as the McEwen block to make room for a new senior living and memory facility. The houses that were torn
See MEMORIES, Page 10
Judge William McEwen, who grew up on South Main Street in River Falls, gave neighborhood children rides in his horse-drawn sleigh up and down Main Street. Photo courtesy of Nora (McEwen) Wilmot MEMORIES
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down were some of the oldest homes in River Falls and held many traditions and memories dating back years.
If you’re anything like the reporters at The Journal, you may be curious about the homes’ histories. Who owned them? What stories happened between those walls?
660 S. Main St.
The house previously located at 660 S. Main St. was known as the Rosenberg/Levings/ Wygant house and held many memories for River Falls native Charla Kusilek, who has dedicated much of her time to highlighting its history.
She recently wrote a book about her family's history in River Falls and included many memories from the home that stood for so long. The book is called “Legacy of a Family in a Small Town U.S.A, River Falls, Wisconsin.” In the book she outlines where it all began.
Ben and Mary (Levings) Rosenberg (Kusilek’s aunt and uncle) both grew up in Minneapolis and lived there for many years before moving to River Falls. Mary Rosenberg had inherited the home at 660 S. Main St., which had been built in 1858 by Daniel and Rebecca (Loomis) Levings. They were both very active in the community. Kusilek said Ben Rosenberg was an avid businessman in River Falls.
“Ben was a downtown developer and businessman like his father Frank Rosenberg,” Kusilek said. “Frank’s eatery/bakery/saloon combination in the middle of Main Street was a hit and Ben’s most well-known, and longtime remembered, enterprise was the Melodrama live theater (Princess Theatre) housed in his deceased father’s building.”
She tells this story in detail in her book and many other stories about Ben Rosenberg's role in the happenings of River Falls back then. He was also a volunteer firefighter and was one of many who battled a larger fire at the Prairie Mill on North Main Street.
Kusilek’s book recalls many fond memories and traditions her family celebrated during her childhood. A favorite is the “drive-thru” root beer stand that her aunt Mary (Levings) ran in a vacant lot next to the house. She talks about this being one of the first ever fast-food restaurants in River Falls.
“There was a vacant lot next to the house and she had many jobs and she was kind of one of the first liberated women, but she had several little odd jobs and when she didn’t have a job she just decided that she was putting in a root beer stand and of course she was very frugal, everyone was in those days,” Kusilek said. “She bought an old trailer house and they hooked it up and opened it as a root beer stand and it was the first and only root beer stand for many years in the area.”
Ben Rosenberg died in 1933, and Mary married Harve Wygant, a harness maker with a shop on South Main Street associated with Lund’s Hardware. Mary and Harve ran the root beer stand together until Harve died in 1971.
Kusilek remembers it always being busy, despite being pretty young at the time.
“Everyone was always there because it was near the entrance to Glen Park and she had a lot of traffic through there and it was just a fun place,” Kusilek recalled. “It was probably around the beginning of the roller skaters era at the drive up restaurants.”
The Rosenberg family was exceptionally close.
Kusilek said, “Over all of those years of holiday gatherings the families remained close. Ben and Mary hosted Christmas at their house on South Main Street every year.”
After the root beer stand closed, a home that had been located on the north side of the Rosenberg/Levings/Wygant home was moved to the vacant lot, becoming 684 S. Main St. The home was moved when an orthodontist office was built. According to local historical records, Fred and Betsey Brackett had purchased property south of the South Fork bridge to build their home, eventually selling it in 1880 to Hester “Hessie” Dunn. In 1949, Myron and Milton Finstad bought the home, which was then moved in 1972.
702 S. Main St.
Another house demolished in September, and perhaps the most recognizable, was the McEwen/Linehan home, once home to Judge William McEwen. He served as the Pierce County Circuit Court Judge from 1968 until 1984. He spent the remainder of his life at The Lutheran Home in River Falls after suffering from a brain injury stemming from a terrible stroke in 1984.
There were two houses that were on this lot side-by-side for many years. The first house (which used to be red and stand at the corner of Main and East Park streets) was built in 1868 by Eugene Boyer, the owner of River Falls’ first shoe store. He sold the home to Milton Bradley, who used it as a tenant house. When he moved away, Michael Francis Linehan and Mary (Corcoran) Linehan bought the home and six lots south of the Levings’ home in 1891, after they moved to River Falls from their Donegal settlement farm.
The Linehan family purchased the other house on the lot many years later, around 1926, the home that eventually became known as the McEwen house where William and Maureen McEwen lived for several years. They renovated the home extensively, even adding a full secondstory in 1893, according to the Pierce County Historical Association.
The Linehan house was occupied by four single women at one time and these women helped to raise William McEwen. He was originally born in Duluth, Minn. but after his father died, his mother sought help from family members and moved home to River Falls into the Linehan house.
Judge McEwen’s daughter, Mary Ellen (McEwen) Wilmot explained her father’s history and how the Linehan house eventually became known as the McEwen house. In 1964, Lenore Linehan, McEwen’s aunt, left the home and property to him and Maureen.
“His father died when he was very young and he was about two when they came to River Falls and he was raised at 702 S. Main St.,” Wilmot said. “His mother’s name was Margaret Linehan McEwen.”
Wilmot, who grew up in the home, shared many fond memories of the property. Judge McEwen loved horses and according to family members, his horses were really one of his biggest passions. Each winter after large snow falls, Judge McEwen would give sleigh rides to all the children in the neighborhood.
“We had a barn behind our home and we had some horses and we would go sleigh riding around the yard, and so many people have come up to me and said that they remember doing that growing up,” Wilmot said.
Kusilek also remembers the sleigh rides fondly.
“When I would see the sleigh out, that was always the first sign that we would have a snow day that day and it was always such a fun way to spend the day,” she said.
The Linehans and the McEwens lived in those two homes for their whole lives. Wilmot’s daughter, Nora Wilmot, shared a story from before her grandmother Maureen died. Early on in the McEwens’ marriage, Maureen McEwen lost her wedding ring.
“My grandma lost her wedding ring in the red house and she thought she lost it doing dishes, and it was gone for many years and they were married for over 50 years,” Nora Wilmot said. “The ring was tiny and was probably only worth around $500 and he eventually replaced it with a beautiful diamond ring.”
She continued, “He went into the nursing home at age 68 and he was in the nursing home for 18 years and he had something similar to dementia, but aside from that, the day of my grandpa’s funeral she got up and she stepped on something that she thought was a paperclip, but it ended up being her old wedding ring.”
The day that Judge McEwen died, Maureen McEwen happened to find the ring in the home and they really felt like it was a sign.
“She found it in the white house but she originally lost it in the red house, which is across the block and to this day I personally think that he was telling her that she was okay,” she said.
Wilmot’s daughter wears the ring as a necklace and it will be passed down and kept in the family for years to come.
The red house was torn down a couple years prior to the other houses. William and Maureen McEwen originally lived in the red house, which is where Mary Ellen Wilmot grew up with her sisters.
The Wilmots recalled so many memories about not only the Linehan and McEwen houses, but River Falls and the community in general. After William McEwen’s death in 2002 and Maureen McEwen’s death, it took about a year for the family to go through their belongings and they found some treasures along the way.
One of their favorite items they found was a photo and news article clipping of William McEwen being the first to refer to Charles Lindberg as the “Columbus of the air,” the article said. “A phrase that has found its place on virtually everyone’s tongue, the boy was one of the winners of The Daily News Lindy essay contest when the flying Gopher visited his home state.”
The family also found photos of McEwen with Charles Lindberg and they recalled the story. The memories that the home held were of real historical significance in the area.
Mary Ellen Wilmot also recalled a skating rink that her grandfather built each year on that lot.
“Between 702 and 726 S. Main, in the 1950s my grandfather on my mother’s side had moved there from St. Paul and he would build a skating rink there every year for the neighborhood to use,” said Mary Ellen Wilmot.
She also spoke about the family's situation when first moving to River Falls.
“I do know that it was a very emotional situation for him, that his family (the Linehans) was very, very poor before they came to River Falls,” Mary Ellen Wilmot said. “My grandmother was born on a dirt floor and it was a settlement called Donegal, but they got that house and they came into the town. They had nothing to eat and he said that the boys went to work to bring home money so that they could buy potatoes.”
The women who lived in the house at that time all went to school for teaching and they all eventually got their masters degrees.
“They became very educated and they worked hard and it really encapsulates the definition of ‘The American Dream’ at the time,” Mary Ellen Wilmot said.
Now that the houses are gone and a senior care facility is going in with a memory care addition, the families acknowledge the bittersweet feeling of these historical homes being gone. However, Mary Ellen Wilmot feels positive about the new memory care facility that will be going there.
“I can’t help but to think that maybe that is the way things should be, and it was difficult to sell that property for my sisters and for me, but with the issues my father had before passing, it almost feels right that this is what will go there and as Bill (William McEwen) said in the 1940s, ‘Things have changed a lot around here Frankie!’”
The home located at 702 S. Main St., prior to the full second story being added in 1893. Photo courtesy of Jayne Hoffman
These homes, located at 660 and 684 S. Main St., were demolished in September 2021. Photo courtesy of Charla Kusilek
Pierce County Circuit Court Judge William McEwen and his wife Maureen lived at 702 S. Main St. for many years. Neighbors have fond memories of horse-drawn sleigh rides there.
Photo courtesy of Charla Kusilek
Judge William McEwen