Racine Remembers: The Welsh in Racine

Welsh

WelshPeople of Welsh ancestry have been a vital part of the Racine community since its earliest beginnings. In 1841, 67 immigrants from North Wales, led by Griffith Richards, a well-to-do farmer and merchant, settled on homesteads near Green Bay Road in Pike Grove. The 1850 census recorded almost 100 Welsh residents in Mount Pleasant and an additional 285 in the city of Racine. By 1890, they and their descendants numbered several hundred more. The 1895 City Directory listed 104 Racinians named Williams, 90 named Jones, 61 named Davis or Davies, 48 named Evans and 40 named Roberts. A century later, more than 500 persons still boasted Welsh ancestry.

Within the city itself, Welsh newcomers soon established an enduring enclave just southwest of the Central Business District in the Old Third Ward. The area was bounded by 6th Street on the north, 14th Street on the south, Park Street on the east, and Center Street on the west. Most of the men worked on the river, lake, or railroad, or in fanning mills, brickyards, tanneries, machine and woodworking shops, or wagon and farm implement factories. Over time, they and their sons opened their own stores and shops, or rose to supervisory and managerial positions in businesses owned by non-Welshmen.

One of the defining institutions of the Third Ward was the fire company founded in 1852. Its original crew consisted of Evan Lewis, John Jones, Richard Davis, Owen Roberts, Hugh Williams and David Pritchard. Onlookers were frequently astounded to hear directions and commands shouted exclusively in the Welsh language. Fire Station Number 3 still stands on Sixth Street, just northeast of City Hall, and houses the museum of firefighting. Equally defining were the Welsh Congregational Church on Park between Eighth and Ninth Streets and the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist/ Presbyterian on Villa between Seventh and Eighth Streets. Despite their denominational differences, the two churches were united in their determination to preserve the Welsh language and culture. In 1920, the Calvinistic Methodist Church merged with the Presbyterian Church in the United States to become Covenant Presbyterian, which eventually relocated to Ohio Street. The Congregational Church remained distinct until the 1930s, when it dropped the native language for worship, admitted non-Welsh members and merged with Plymouth Congregational, which still stands in original area of settlement.

WelshOf equal importance were the fraternal and benevolent societies that were at least nominally secular. The St. David Benevolent Society was founded in 1869 to assist Welsh newcomers in need, to keep the native language “alive in its purity,” and to “encourage mental culture in its members.” Six years later, Welshmen established the Kymric Club, a social and cultural organization whose major undertaking was to sponsor the annual Eisteddfod, a literary and art festival in which the entire day is devoted to competition in music, poetry, debate, elocution, and essay writing, with prizes award to the winners in each contest. The two organizations also cooperated in the presentation of the Gymanfa Ganu, a hymn singing festival. In 1975, Racine hosted the national Gymanfa, which attracted Welsh people from all over the United States and beyond. Both the Eisteddfod and the Gymanfu continue to provide testimony to the Welsh people’s traditional love of music and the written and spoken word, especially in their ancient language. It would not be too much to say that such festivals are to Welshmen everywhere what the World Cup, the Super Bowl and the World Series are to other peoples. That is particularly amazing because the Welsh language—with its unique ratio of consonants to vowels—is extremely difficult to master, even for those born and raised in Wales. Racine was also home for many years to Cambria Division Number 30 of the Sons of Temperance, an organization that bespoke the ongoing split between “dry” and “wet” Welsh, a controversy that still has consequences down to the present day. After more than a century and a half, the Welsh still maintain an organizational presence in the form of the St. David Society of Racine and Vicinity, which sponsors an annual dinner, complete with hymn singing in the mother tongue.

Over the years, several people of Welsh descent have particularly distinguished themselves in the economic, political and civic life of the Racine community. One of the earliest was William W. Vaughn, a “foreign and domestic dry goods” merchant, director of the First National Bank and mayor on the eve of the Civil War. His brother John was his business partner, an eight-term alderman and member of the Wisconsin Assembly during the 1860s. William H. Pugh, the son of immigrants from Duffryn, Wales, became the owner of a wood and coal company (originally started by Gilbert Knapp, Racine’s first settler) in 1887. Over the years, he and four generations of his siblings and descendants expanded their holdings into the W.H. Pugh Oil Company (which sold heating oil and gasoline through 16 gas stations in Racine and Kenosha), several restaurants along the river and lakefront, and Pugh’s Peerless Marina. William T. Lewis was a partner in the Mitchell-Lewis Wagon Company that was one of the city’s largest employers for several decades between the 1880s and 1920s, and sold products worldwide. In the early twentieth century, the company pioneered in automobile manufacturing. Lewis was also an influential ally of Robert M. La Follette, Sr., the leader of Wisconsin’s progressive Republican movement, serving in the state assembly where he introduced a primary election law and led the fight against the use of convict labor. His son, William Mitchell Lewis succeeded his father as president of the company and ran for governor in 1910 on a county option platform.

Another distinguished family of Welsh ancestry is the Gittings, whose earliest ancestor arrived in Racine in 1840. In 1892, his descendants founded the Camp Furniture Company, which won a gold medal for craftsmanship at the World’s Columbian Exposition the following year. Renamed the Gold Medal Furniture Company, the enterprise prospered for nearly a century. John H. (Hal) Gitttings, blind since age four, was named Racine’s Man of the Year in 1950, while his brother William, became the first chairman of the Racine Association of Manufactures and Commerce (RAMAC) in 1968.

In some ways, the most influential Welshman in Racine’s history was the grandson of immigrants from Llandysul, Cardiganshire, Wales. Moving to Racine from Waukesha County in 1906, at the age of 26, Thomas S. Rees became superintendent of manual training in the city’s public schools. When Racine became the first community in the state to establish a vocational/technical school in 1911, he became part of the original faculty. In 1917, he became director of the Racine Vocational and Adult Education School, a position he held for the next 35 years. Under his leadership, the school evolved into a vital community educational center that adapted to the changing needs of the community, including night school for immigrants. Due largely to his determination, the city finally constructed a building at 300 Center Street to house all of the school’s various functions, which was renamed the Thomas S. Rees City Hall Annex in 1993. The school that he managed so long and so well had already evolved into the Racine campus of today’s Gateway Technical College.

In the late 1880s, David Paynter Wigley emigrated from Wales to Racine, settled on College Avenue in the Old Third Ward, and went to work as a carpenter for the J. I. Case Company. To supplement his income, Wigley sold flour and cement out of his house, eventually earning enough money to purchase the former A.P. Dutton warehouse on Wisconsin Avenue on the shores of the Root River. There he ran a highly successful feed and building materials business, operated Wigley Hall, a prominent meeting place, and was instrumental in the success of the national Eisteddfod sponsored by the Welsh Men’s Club of Racine in 1902. Upon his death, the business passed to his nephew, T. Gleason Morris, who also served as mayor of the city during the critical years of the Great Depression and World War II. On March 3, 2010, the saga of D. P. Wigley and his fellow Welshmen came full circle when his distinguished descendant, the Honorable Dafyyd Wigley, a member of Parliament, renowned orator and staunch advocate of Welsh autonomy, came to Racine to be the guest of honor at the annual St. David’s Day dinner.

During the past quarter century, the most influential Racine citizen of Welsh background has almost certainly been N. Owen Davies. Longtime board member of the St. David Society and elder of the Covenant Presbyterian Church, he is a veritable encyclopedia of the history of the Welsh people in Racine. As President of the West Racine Business and Professional Association, third district alderman for sixteen years, and former president of the Common Council, Davies also became the third person of Welsh ancestry to serve as mayor– from 1987 to 1995.

Written by John Buenker
© 2010 Racine Heritage Museum – The Outlook Newsletter

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