Thanks for Asking | May 23, 2013

our local Jack-of-all-Facts tells you how it is

Frank Smoot |

The horses’ heads that are on the brick wall outside on The Livery on Wisconsin Street: Are they “new,” or left from when the building was actually a livery stable years ago?

Thanks for asking. They are not. John Mogensen tells me they were installed as decorative elements after the building was recently renovated. (He said there might be more to the story. If so, I’ll pass it on.) But they surely are fitting for the building, which, as you note, was a livery. For those of you not born in the 1800s, a livery was a business where horses were boarded for a fee, or owned by the stable and let out for hire.

The Oleson brothers, George and Peter, started the livery in the early 1880s. The business survived well into the 1920s, meaning it pretty much spanned the era of Eau Claire liveries. Our fair city had six liveries in 1880 and peaked at thirteen in 1890. By 1910 we’d dropped back to seven, then to four by 1920 as new-fangled automobiles and trucks took over the work of horses.

The Oleson’s first building, a wood-frame, stood as early as 1883. I’m told that in 1893 it burned, at least partially. By 1897, the Olesons had put a brick addition on the back. The building as you see it now dates from 1901. The Oleson family sold out in the 1920s. In what seems like a metaphor, it became a “drive yourself auto livery” for those locals who didn’t yet have their own cars. For years afterward, it held one or another auto-related business.

I’m going to quote the Historic Preservation Foundation of Eau Claire about the significance of the livery, since they’ve done a much better job than I was planning to do. “Historically, when people came to Eau Claire they built or rented homes, worked in or began businesses in the central part of the town. In rural areas, people owned their own horses, but in city settings, residents relied on liveries. When they needed a horse, a doctor, or to move a household, or a ride to or from the train station, they called on a livery.

“As a result of using, rather than owning horses, cities structures were built closer together, and the commerce generated created city centers — downtowns. Eventually, the automobile era eroded the center of the city as people moved their homes and businesses to the outskirts of Eau Claire.”

The building retains its architectural integrity as fully as any building in Eau Claire. You can still see evidence of what was probably a hayloft, an original office, and a car elevator from its later life. Although so common at one time in America, vintage liveries have quite vanished from the landscape. The National Register of Historic Places lists fewer than twenty nationwide, a number no greater than the relatively remote northwoods burgs of Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, and Menomonie had, combined, in 1890.

Plank Hill — now Harding Avenue — was it really made out of planks?

It really was. I’m told Plank Hill was graded in 1860. East Bluff Road, as it was sometimes called, gave south-side farmers access into the bowl that is downtown Eau Claire, but it had one problem. It was all sand, almost impossible for horses to climb pulling a load. In 1871, the county planked the uphill grade: I guess prayer was your only help on the downhill. It wasn’t paved with concrete until the early 1920s, during the short-lived Harding administration: hence the name.

Got a local question? Send it (205 N. Dewey St.) or email it ( and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 44 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.