Milton celebrates 50th anniversary of merger this Sunday

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Jim Dayton
Friday, November 3, 2017

MILTON—Newcomers to Milton, perhaps even some longtime residents, might have no idea the city they live in was once two separate communities.

On the west side, Milton Junction allowed alcohol while the original Milton held steady to its temperate Seventh Day Baptist roots. The villages eventually merged in 1967, and today the last remnant of the original, 19th-century arrangement is the city's two separate downtowns.

Milton will commemorate the 50th anniversary of this merger Sunday with a ceremony at Milton House.

The free, open house-style event will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Cake and other refreshments will be provided. A historical video and commemorative photos will be shown but otherwise there will not be a formal presentation, Administrative Service Director Inga Cushman.

Prize winners from a citywide, week-long historical scavenger hunt will be announced at 3 p.m., she said.

Joseph Goodrich founded Milton in 1844 on Seventh Day Baptist principles. Several years later, he helped lure a new rail line that would connect Madison to Beloit and run through Milton, Milton Historical Society Assistant Director Doug Welch said.

Goodrich knew the railroad would help Milton grow, but he also predicted it would bring vices to the area. He pushed for the route to pass a mile west of the village.

“This was basically a Seventh Day Baptist town at the time,” Welch said. “He wanted to make sure the influences that would be moving to that (rail) junction weren't really close to his temperance inn or to the church he founded on this end of town. He made sure that junction was a mile down the road.”

Goodrich's prediction was prescient.

The new community known as Milton Junction generated a blue-collar influence of railroad workers and local farmers. Working-class taverns populated the area now known as Merchant Row, Welch said.

Whether it was because of alcohol or the rail crossing, Milton Junction's growth outpaced Milton during the late 1800s.

Alcohol might have been outlawed in Milton, but its residents still enjoyed a visit to their western neighbor.

“It was a standing joke,” Welch said. “The front doors of the taverns were for the Milton Junction people and the back doors were for the Milton people.”

In 1920, the construction of Milton Union High School set the merger in motion. The new high school transformed local education. Each community's school changed from serving first through 12th grades to only first through eighth grades.

The location of those schools are the present-day sites of Milton West and Milton East elementary schools, Welch said.

Over the next few decades, leaders from both communities suggested merging. Finally, in 1966, shortly after Milton opened its current high school and Milton College built the present-day library, the public works departments from Milton and Milton Junction provided the impetus for the move, he said.

Each village needed to buy a new garbage truck, but it would've been expensive for each to buy its own. In the end, they decided to purchase one vehicle together.

After that, leaders asked what else they could share to save money?

A year later, 77 percent of voters approved the merger, Welch said.

He hopes Sunday's event will teach people more about this history and lead to more appreciation for Milton.

“For newcomers who come to Milton, they say 'Why is there two downtowns?' Then you start talking about the two villages and they go, 'No kidding that's interesting,'” Welch said. “It helps people who are new to the community connect some dots and learn why their town is how it is.”

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