Ripon’s greatest gathering of historians exists not at the Ripon Historical Society nor Historic Preservation Commission.
No, our community’s most abundant congregation of witnesses of our past are all around us. Yet they are as silent as they are ubiquitous.
While our arbors don’t chronicle what has occurred in their midst, imagine what has transpired when the giants among them grew from sapling to maturity.
Look at that lofty green ash located half a block west of City Hall. You better look quickly as it’s coming down on Friday, which in a sad irony turns out to be Arbor Day.
Bearing the scientific species name of fraxinus pennsylvanica, “Frax” must be removed, tree experts insist. It likely has fallen victim to the emerald ash borer, a destructive insect native to Asia that since 2002 has become a particular pest to ash trees.
But no little bug is going to negate the events that Frax observed in its estimated 155 years as a downtown Ripon sentry, bearing witness to a commercial center as it grew and evolved to meet the needs of its growing number of neighbors.
When Frax was but a mere seedling around 1866, the community already was thriving.
Located up the hill from the Phalanx settlers’ Ceresco, Ripon had been founded by David P. Mapes just 17 years before Frax had emerged. The former steamboat captain built his grist mill just a block away along Silver Creek.
The Republican Party began 12 years earlier during two meetings, the first at a church two blocks to the southwest and the second in a little white schoolhouse just three blocks away.
As Frax began to add a foot to its inches, it watched the three-block downtown before it begin to grow only to have two blocks of wooden, commercial buildings leveled by fire in the latter 1860s and for two decades hence. But flames left the merchants undeterred, so the tree watched the central city begin to grow again with barbers, shoe stores, banks, jewelers, mills, taverns, tobacconists, apparel shops, meat markets, an auditorium and a movie theater, as well as hardware stores, including one from which a washing machine was fashioned that led to the founding of the largest commercial laundry equipment manufacturer in the world.
While Frax continued to reach higher, downtown construction slowed after 1890, except for the southern edge of the commercial center, up to where Watson and Seward street intersect.
The tree watched over a City Hall 40 years its senior, built in 1825 at 125 Watson St. (where Hamilton’s is today) and, as Frax turned almost 100, oversaw construction of a new one a half block away off East Jackson Street.
Frax grew to be taller than most downtown Ripon buildings, dwarfed only by the “twin spires” of the Grace Lutheran and First Congregational churches a block away.
It saw the first car in Ripon in 1904, and stood by as visitors came to Ripon to stay at the Lake View House, Hotel Le Roy, Burke Hotel, Mapes House, the Grand Woods Hotel, which Mapes described as “a palace on the border of this beautiful city,” and the Hotel Englebright, which claimed to be “the finest in the state outside the large cities.”
Frax also had a front-row seat at Ripon’s greatest tragedy, when the Hotel Englebright’s successor, the Grandview Hotel, burned to the ground on Feb. 1, 1949, killing six including beloved teacher Alice Callan.
Frax stood silently over celebrations, parades, carnivals and street dances.
There will be no partying on Friday, when the stately old historian is taken down, limb by limb.
But we won’t forget that Frax watched as beneath its branches, a fledgling city grew up.
— Tim Lyke