Dine in Historic Elegance at the One and Only Wilmot Stage Stop
This door to the past has been rejuvenated as the Wilmot Stage Stop offers the public a glimpse of a by-gone era that you may have heard about but never experienced. The aptly named Wilmot Stage Stop, formerly the Wilmot Hotel, still serves hungry and thirsty patrons today as it did when it first opened its doors during the Wisconsin Territory Days.
Following the Black Hawk War Treaty in 1832, this area was opened up to the white settlers. These homesteaders eagerly settled in the Wilmot area because farmers could buy land for only a $1.50 an acre. Railroads were unknown, and the life of travel was the life of the trail. It took six long grueling months via covered wagon to arrive in present day California. For the pioneers “getting stuck in the mud” was a common dilemma. It also was a time when $20.00 would pay for an ocean passage fare from Germany to New York. Store bought conveniences were not available, and what we consider today’s “bare necessities,” were to them, rare indulgences. And so, the Wilmot Stage Stop opened its doors to the weary travelers and truly had a “ringside” seat to history.
As more homesteaders farmed the rich soil, farmers grew more wheat than they could use. Several days of travel on dusty trails became necessary to reach the Wilmot Mill. From there they would continue to Southport (present day Kenosha) which was one of the largest ports available in those days. For these tired worn travelers, the inn was one of the first chances they had to get a warm room, a solid meal, board their stock, and rest with a roof over their heads. In addition to the land travelers, stevedores and rivermen made the Wilmot Inn a frequent stopping place on their journey down the heavily traveled Fox River.
The Wilmot Stage Stop remains the oldest generational operating restaurant in Wisconsin. It also continues to be owned and operated by the same family, currently spanning into the seventh generation. The Wilmot Hotel was built by Ephriam Wilcox in 1848, the same year that Wisconsin became a state. The building was constructed of white oak and held together by square nails. The Stage Stop’s appearance resembled a southern colonial mansion with its six 10 foot white pillars and second floor porch. It was constructed with three floors each serving a specific purpose. Guests could partake in a hot meal and quench their thirst after along dusty journey on the main floor; whereas, the second floor was used primarily as a ballroom. On the third floor, there were 13 cubicles off a central hall. Some are still appointed with the furnishings of a by-gone era; old “spool beds” dominate the compact bedrooms located directly under the building’s roof. The rooms are full height only on their inner sides, where the central hall is located. The sloping roof reduces head room on the far side to about three feet. When Wilcox constructed the thirteen small sleeping rooms on the third floor, he felt quite confident that Wilmot would serve as the perfect location for his hotel on the stageline between Kenosha and Galena. While stopping at the Wilmot Grist Mill, teamsters could seek a hot meal and lodging for the night and continue on their way to Southport the next day. Today, you can still view these sleeping rooms with one tiny window, a bed with rope springs and a mattress filled with corn husks or straw as if waiting for the weary traveler of long ago. The only heat to these rooms was that which flowed up through the floors from the stoves in the story below. One can still go into the basement of the building and witness the timber bark that remains on the hand hewn lumber.
During normal times, a guest would receive lodging, three meals, and stabling for his horse for $1.75.
The first generation to run the Wilmot Hotel was John and Anna Hegeman. It has been over 165 years since James K. Polk was president. A common sight was to see horses tied to hitching posts in front of the hotel. Carriages brought men dressed in dark suits with high stiff collars and bowties. The Wilmot Hotel became a resting stop for settlers traveling from Galena, Illinois (Rockford) to Southport (Kenosha). Travelers could get lodging, horse stabling, as well as, a good hearty meal. As John Hegeman made the hotel a place for social gatherings, he also saw the opportunity to make the inn a place of business. Hegeman offered the travelers food, shelter, entertainment, and other minor conveniences. The Wilmot Hotel served as the center for an informational board of trade, a travel agency, and a mail order house. He also sold fruit trees, cigars, tobacco, liquor, and oysters, as well as ice cut from the Fox River. In hard times, the lodging could be acquired for 10 cents. During normal times, a guest would receive lodging, three meals, and stabling for his horse for $1.75. The barn located just north of the hotel, was where the horses were cared for, but unfortunately it was destroyed by a fire and no longer exists.
The hotel became an important hub for communication, travel, and travelers. Imagine a man running through the inn’s doors announcing the California Gold Rush. Based solely on this man’s word… people packed up and headed to California with hopes of becoming rich! Other important events that were talked about at the inn’s bar were the inventions of barb wire, dynamite, the telegraph, the typewriter, electric lights and the railroad. Another newsworthy event, were the breaking headlines of the devastating fire of Peshtigo, WI and the Great Chicago Fire. One of the biggest celebrations that took place in the Wilmot Stage Stop’s ballroom was in 1848 when Wisconsin celebrated their admittance into the Union as the 38th state.
John Hegeman continued to operate the inn throughout his entire life which included the historical times of the Gold Rush and Civil War. During the Civil War, the Wilmot Hotel served as an enlistment station for men and boys to join the Union Army. The hardships of these men are documented in the authentic letters written to their loved ones. Sadly, John passed away in 1896.
John’s son, Louis Hegeman, and his wife, Beatrice, took over and managed the inn with the same philosophy as his father. The Ringling Brothers’ Barnum Bailey Circus on more than one occasion spent the night at the hotel with their trainers, bareback riders, horses, lions, tigers and elephants. The Ringling Brothers had traveled down from Baraboo, WI to take their famous circus around the world. When the new century came, it brought with it many changes such as automobiles and the world wars. Louis made the decision to shut down the rooms on the third floor in 1930, due in part to the death of his beloved wife, Beatrice.
Soon following, the third generation of Hazel Hegeman and her husband, Walter Winn, took over operating the inn. They kept it running through the Great Depression and World War II. Despite the numerous challenges that these tumultuous events presented, they managed to keep the Wilmot Hotel going through these trying times in our country’s history and never closed its doors.
In 1961 Rolland and Mariann Winn became the fourth generation of family to run the hotel. Rolland decided to renovate the Wilmot Hotel and transformed it into the Wilmot Stage Stop, as it is known today. He altered the staircases to both the second and third floors, created the grill area in the main dining room. He developed a new menu consisting of nine steak choices, shrimp, lobster, lamb and pork. Rolland was also the one who prized himself on the baked potato with “heaps of butter”; a tradition that has been carried on. Winn created an updated restaurant while preserving the ambiance of the past. He wanted patrons to witness the historical Wilmot Hotel’s presence while creating a practical restaurant layout. There was talk of turning the building over to the state for historical purposes. Winn responded, “. . . but I am my own historical society of family heirlooms and artifacts.”
Today, the ballroom is a store house of antiques. In the museum you will find a Brunswick pool table purchased for about $200 in 1880, and a sewing machine bought in 1887 for $45. Now the hotel’s “ballroom” hosts a collection of furniture, artifacts, hotel fixtures, and other items that remain family owned.
After renovating the face of the Wilmot Stage Stop, ten years later, in 1971 Rolland handed over the restaurant to the 5th generation, Nancy Winn and her husband, Ronald Hackett. Nancy followed in her father’s footsteps when it came to keeping the limited menu and preserving the past. Over the next 31 years, Nancy & Ron’s hard work and dedication took this relatively “new” restaurant and developed it into the successful landmark restaurant that it is today.
In 2006, the restaurant made its first menu change in over 40 years by adding its signature Cream of Lobster Bisque, which has become a customer favorite. The Wilmot Stage Stop’s original bar was brought back in and they began offering museum tours.
On January, 2nd, 2018, the Wilmot Stage Stop entered its 170th year with NEW ownership and continued traditions. The Cantwell family is walking in the footprints of the 7 generations of the Hackett family by keeping the name, menu, and dining ambiance in place. We proudly handed the business from one family to another with confidence and excitement. We look forward to serving all the patrons from the past and greeting all the customers of the future.
Rolland Winn was frequently fond of saying, “If only these walls could talk, what stories they could tell.” We strive to preserve the times of old with not only the historical documents and antiques, but also with the memories and traditions of those who came before us.