Sun Prairie is a growing city of over 30,000 just northeast of Madison. The history of how it got its name is quite interesting. In 1837, President Martin Van Buren commissioned a party of 45 men to build a capitol building for the territory of Wisconsin. They left from Milwaukee on May 26, 1837. They traveled many days in the rain to scout out the area near Madison. On June 9, they emerged at the end of a prairie and the sun came out for the first time at that moment. They carved the words “Sun Prairie” into a tree and the name stuck. We were able to find the site of where that famous tree was. Take Highway 19 out-of-town about two miles, heading toward Marshall. On Skala Road to the left, the tree was located between the railroad tracks and 19. A farm is here.
Charles Bird was the first settler. Bird Street in the city was named after him.The town of Sun Prairie was created on Feb 2, 1846 (Groundhog Day!). The city, which grew out of the town, was incorporated in 1858.
Some of the city’s historical buildings remain and their downtown is quite active with many festivals throughout the year. Let’s explore the local history. A good place to begin is the Sun Prairie Historical Museum. They have displays that change yearly and seasonally, and with an appointment you can make use of the research room with a docent who can help you find historical information. The museum was built on the site of the home of the first settler, Charles Bird. A street is named after him.
The museum also has received historical records from the Town of Burke, a town that being dissolved by 2026. We live in Burke. The first Burke Town Hall strangely enough, is in Sun Prairie, still in use. It is behind McGovern’s Club and Restaurant.
McGovern’s itself has been a mainstay of Sun Prairie since 1935. Visitors can stay at the hotel for a night or an extended stay.
The Adam and Mary Smith House was built between 1856-1860. It is located at Smith’s Crossing homes community on the outskirts of Sun Prairie.
Sun Prairie also has the distinction of being the first city in Wisconsin to implement free rural mail delivery, you will find the marker at the Post Office.
Downtown you will find the former City Hall building.
Across on the left you will find Ski’s Saloon, open from 2011 to 2016. In the fall of 2016 it has new owners Cory and Abby Barr reopening it as The Barr House. The building was a tobacco shed originally.
Across the street is a row of buildings, including the former hardware store on the left. There now is Atlantis Taverna, a great Greek restaurant. Also Sun City Cyclery and Skates. Al bought a pair of ice skates here too. Emery Art is on the right.
We now come upon Cannery Square, the heart of downtown and the current site of Jimmy the Groundhog’s annual prognostication on Feb 2nd. We have attended many of these since 2002. This used to be where the factories in Sun Prairie were in the 19th and early 20th centuries were. Renovation was complete in 2004 and it’s now a mixed living and retail center. In the square proudly stands a wood carving of Jimmy. You can see it on the right side of this picture of the square. Many festivals now take place here, this is the annual Fall Festival in October.
Famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe was also born in Sun Prairie and a marker can be found on Main St. across Cannery Square. The city has a festival every year to celebrate her contributions to the world of art.
The performing arts also have a strong foothold here. The Sun Prairie Civic Theater puts on four performances each year. This is “The Barn”, where the stage parts and props are stored. They always need more people to come join the fun!
We have enjoyed many great meals at the Market Street Diner on the square. Carl’s Cakes is another business inside of this one, a fine partnership!
Just opened Fall 2013 is The Nitty Gritty, located in the nearby historic Fuhremann Canning Factory, built in 1900. it was a place for farmers to sell their produce. Now it is mixed retail. The Nitty Gritty is on the right.
The Dr. Charles D. Crosse House is another museum in town. They also are a part of many of the city’s festivals throughout the year. He was the city’s doctor early in the city’s history and helped establish the first high school. He later served as a state legislator also.
No longer in use is the Chase Grain Elevator, an interesting structure.
At Angell Park is a mural with all the important landmarks in Sun Prairie. Angell Park is also home to Angell Park Speedway, for Midget Car Racing. The annual Sweet Corn Festival is also here.
On the left side of the mural is the historic water tower on Columbus St., built in 1899.
On Windsor Street is the beautiful Birkinbine House.
This concludes our visit to the historic downtown Sun Prairie. It is expanding way beyond this area, with many businesses on the edges of the city in all directions. It’s called Prairie Lakes and is still growing. Sun Prairie is your destination for fun events and shopping. To learn more, stop at the Chamber of Commerce downtown on Main, next to the Historical Museum.