Holton heritage holds strong in Elkhorn

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Margaret Plevak | August 23, 2015

ELKHORN — It was 19th-century pioneer Col. Samuel Phoenix who, according to local history, gave Elkhorn its name after he spotted a pair of elk antlers hanging from a tree along an old army trail between Spring Prairie and Delavan.

But credit instrument maker Frank Holton and an entirely different kind of horn for really putting the city on the map — and making a community presence that's still felt today.

Holton, a cornet player and trombonist whose professional gigs included the Barnum & Bailey Circus Band and the John Philip Sousa Band, started selling secondhand musical instruments and his own blend of oil for slide trombones in Chicago in 1896. By 1904, he had his own factory, where workers turned out band instruments that were renown among professional musicians.

In 1917, stymied for space in Chicago, he looked to Walworth County, where he had often vacationed, to build a factory.

He was courted by Elkhorn city officials, who got him to sign an agreement that gave him the title to the land and the building if his company paid out $500,000 in wages over seven years to support the community workforce. Holton met the agreement in three years.

As World War I brought a demand for military band instruments, Holton encouraged his Chicago workers to move to Elkhorn. Although more than two dozen employees agreed to relocate, they found little available housing in the primarily rural area, which at the time had a population of 2,000. So Holton bought 17 acres of land blocks from the Church Street factory, and contracted 27 houses to be built, creating Holton Heights, the first planned residential neighborhood in Elkhorn.

Designed by a Chicago builder, the sturdy bungalows were “kit-houses,” shipped by rail as kits of ready-cut lumber that could be constructed quickly.

The homes were finished by October 1919, and a trade publication, “Music Trader,” called the neighborhood “one of the showplaces of the city.”   

The homes still can be seen today along the 600 blocks of Wisconsin, Broad and Church streets.

Holton, who also created a company community band — and a band shell where they played — became a fixture in Elkhorn. According to a newspaper account, Holton could be seen driving a Pierce Arrow car, its hood topped by a gold radiator cap shaped like a trombonist.

In her book, “Elkhorn,” historian Doris Reinke wrote, “The industry employed many workers, which brought increased prosperity. On the 10th anniversary of the move to Elkhorn, Holton used silver dollars to pay his workers' wages. When Elkhorn's merchants saw their cash registers filled with silver dollars, they vividly realized what the coming of the music factory meant to the city.”

Even after Holton's death in 1942, when his business had been sold, Holton Band Instrument Co. was a major employer in the city. The factory relocated to Ohio in 2008.

Heather Bartell sees Holton's influence in the community every time she drives past the “Welcome to Elkhorn” sign, with a brassy French horn standing for the letter “o,” and the sign's added play-on-words message, “Living in Harmony.”

She's come to know a little more about the man since Holton Manor, the nonprofit skilled nursing home facility in Elkhorn where she works as the administrator, purchased Frank Holton's old home two years ago.

Known as the Holton House, the square brick Italian Renaissance-style house was built in 1925 on an acre of land along Broad Street, at one end of Holton Heights. Elkhorn masons and a Darien carpenter contributed in its construction.

After Holton's wife died in 1951, the house briefly was converted to a nursing home before reverting back to a private residence. The 4,000-square-foot house is virtually next door to the nursing facility at 645 N. Church St. When the home's previous owners wanted to sell, they approached Bartell about buying the property. For Holton Manor, which wanted to expand, the sale was perfectly timed, Bartell said.

The house is being renovated to become a pediatric therapy center — complete with speech therapy services for a growing number of autistic children — as well as a meeting room for community and support groups, and space for a home health services organization.

A pediatric center fits in with current geriatric care models, said Bartell, who noted many nursing homes now include day care centers in their facilities.

“There are a lot of studies on intergeneration therapy and honestly, the old and the young motivate each other,” she said.

Bartell said the city approved the plans, but requested that the renovations flow with the look of the nursing facility, which itself went through a recent $7.2 million remodeling job.

Bartell said local contractors, many from Lakeland Builders Association, have volunteered their time on the project, which is expected to be completed in 2016.

“I'm excited to see the change and how this house will help support people in the community,” she said.

During a recent fundraiser for the project, people were given a tour of the house. Bartell said many told her they were happy for Holton House's new life.

The house will retain its original exterior, although the windows will be replaced with more energy-efficient ones. New sidewalks were installed, and a walkway between the house and Holton Manor is planned. A  wheelchair ramp will be added.

“We're not planning on changing a lot of the footprint of the house,” Bartell said. “We want to spruce the rooms up and make them functional.”

Because the house will be used as an outpatient facility, it won't face inpatient emergency code regulations, such as sprinklers in ceilings.

Some work still needs to be done on the electrical, heating and cooling systems.

Bartell said much of the house's original features will be retained, from a dark walnut stairway and ceiling beams to wooden floors and stained glass doors.

“(Children) won't feel like they're going into a hospital-type setting. This makes them feel like they're coming home for some therapy,” she said.

The first floor will be converted to therapy space and meeting rooms. Upstairs, offices will fill what once were Holton family bedrooms.

Bartell said traces of the original Holton family are still very much a part of the house, from built-in laundry chutes to a dumb waiter — a small elevator used to carry food and dishes between floors.  

Then there's an unheated second-story enclosed porch on the north side of the house.

“It's an unusual feature (for the Midwest),” Bartell said. “It's more often seen out East, near the ocean, like a widow's walk, where women could stand and watch the ships come in.”

But Bartell learned Frank Holton specifically wanted it built there, for from its wrap-around windows, he could see his family farm miles away.

Bartell said future plans for the Holton House also may include using it as a setting for intimate weddings.

“Can you picture a bride in her wedding gown standing on that staircase?” she said. “It's a gorgeous house and a gorgeous setting for photographers.”

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