The community of Stoughton began when Luke Stoughton, a Vermont Yankee living in the Janesville area, purchased 800 acres of land at $2.60 nestled in a large bend of the Catfish River (now the Yahara River), on July 3, 1847. He liked the site because the Catfish River had the potential for being able to power a lumber mill. He platted the town, built a dam, lumber mill, and general store and began to publicize his community to relatives and friends. He also sold land and houses, lent money and encouraged others to settle in the new town. The village grew steadily, and in 1853, Luke Stoughton offered free land to the railroad if it would pass through Stoughton. The railroad's presence assured the city's future prosperity, and made the village a center for agriculture.
By 1868, when Stoughton became an incorporated village, the population had grown to 950, with most citizens being of Yankee descent. Most of the town lay between the river and the railroad tracks. The community's economic base was still agricultural. After the Civil War, however, a manufacturing economy began to develop, with Targe G. Mandt's Wagon Works being the most important industry. A second wagon works was opened, and by World War I over 800 men had been employed. At the same time, leaf tobacco became the important local crop, with hundreds of people, many of them women, employed in the seventeen tobacco warehouses in town.
As his business expanded and the City of Stoughton matured, the community became one of the most Norwegian towns in the United States. Over 75% of the town was of Norwegian descent by the turn of the century. The population swelled, and the years between 1885 and 1917 were boom years for Stoughton, with substantial growth in both commercial and residential districts. In 1882, Stoughton incorporated as a city.
The end of World War I marked the end of Stoughton's boom years. The emergence of automobiles and tractors brought about the demise of the wagon factories. Tobacco growing depleted the soil, and that industry collapsed. Then, after lean years in the 1920's and 1930's, Stoughton experienced an economic upswing, as several major industries opened. Today, the city continues to thrive, and the population has grown to over 12,000 citizens.
Stoughton Historical Sites
The Norwegian heritage of many of Stoughton's citizens is celebrated each year as our entire town and thousands of guests observe Syttende Mai. The words "Syttende Mai" are Norwegian for "seventeen May", and the event is held on the weekend closest to May 17.
On that day in 1814, the Norwegian Constitution was signed, giving Norway independence from its 500 year union with Denmark. Stoughton's Syttende Mai celebration dates back as far as 1868, when Norwegian immigration to this part of Wisconsin was reaching its crest.
Syttende Mai reaches its climax when the annual parade, starting at the Mandt Center down 4th St. and turning left nearly the whole way down Main St., starts. Syttende Mai is a very colorful, gala, family-oriented affair with many people wearing authentic Norse costumes. There are folk dancing performances by the world famous Stoughton Norwegian Dancers, exhibits of Norwegian rosemaling (painting) and hardanger (needlework), Norse costume style show, Norwegian church services, smorgasbord of Norwegian foods including lutefisk and lefse, a variety of musical performances, and an Ugliest Troll Drawing contest.
Syttende Mai also features an arts and crafts fair, quilt show, Village Player performances, street dances, Viking encampment, canoe race, 20-mile Run, 17-mile Walk, a sailboat race on Lake Kegonsa, a huge Norwegian parade, and local food stands everywhere! A king and queen, and prince and princess are chosen to reign over the festivities.
This has been an annual event ever since the year Many people from all over the state representing Norwegian communities come to this annual event.
Last year this celebration marked the 100 yr. anniversary of Norway’s independence from Denmark. It was the longest parade with the largest turn out in the celebrations history.