The Owners of the Octagon House
First Owner: Edward Smith
Edward Smith, the first owner of the Octagon House in Neenah, Wisconsin, was a very influential figure in this town’s history. He was born in March 1822, in New York, and attended school while working on his family’s farm. He moved to Winnebago Rapids in 1850 and subsequently, started doing business in merchandising. A man with an active role in many businesses over the years, Edward Smith co-founded the Winnebago Flouring Mills almost immediately after his arrival there. He then proceeded to buy it out in 1855 to become the sole owner. Smith worked very closely with his lifelong friend and partner John Proctor, with whom he shared the flouring-mill beginning in early 1857. Smith also founded or co-founded several other businesses, including the Smith & Proctor law firm (again partnering with John Proctor in 1857) and the Neenah Paper Mill in 1865-66. Smith also helped to build a general store in downtown Neenah in 1855 and helped coordinate the Wisconsin Central Railroad in 1872. The next year, 1873, he was elected as Neenah’s first mayor. He was re-elected in 1874, and the year after that he earned a seat on Neenah’s first board of education.
Aside from his business interests, Edward Smith also had a family life. Smith, the son of a well-off farm family of Ostego County, New York, was married to Sarah H. Wood in 1851, and the two of them had four children. Unfortunately, only one child survived, a boy named Charles F. Smith, born around 1877. Edward had bought the Octagon House for $4,000 in 1855 as a place for his family to live in. Smith sold the Octagon House to his brother Hiram in 1870.
Second Owner: Hiram Smith
Hiram Smith, the brother of Edward Smith, is the most well-known of the Octagon House’s historic owners. This is why the building is often called the Hiram Smith Octagon House, even though Hiram’s brother was the original owner. Smith came to Neenah in 1854 to join his brother in merchandising and subsequently, became business partners with D.C. VanOstrand, a partnership which lasted throughout the rest of his life. Hiram and Edward, along with several others, co-founded the first paper mill in Neenah in 1866. Together, Hiram and VanOstrand, along with another local man, were co-founders of a combined hardware store and stove factory in 1873. Hiram and VanOstrand also helped co-found the Manufacturers’ National Bank of Neenah. Hiram Smith himself was on the first Board of Directors for the bank. He held this position from its opening in 1881 until his death in 1900, upon which VanOstrand took over the role of president.
Born to wealthy farmers in 1829 in Ostego County, New York, Smith was educated at the Franklin Literary Institute in Franklin, New York. He eventually married Vesta Olmstead in 1856. They then bought the Octagon House from Edward Smith in 1873. The couple had two daughters, Bessie (full name Elizabeth) H. Smith and Hattie (full name Harriet) B. Smith. Bessie was born in 1868 and married George Porter in 1900. Hattie was born in 1875 and married Charles Benjamin Read in 1902. Vesta’s parents were from Connecticut, but she was born in New York around 1833. After her husband’s death in 1900, Vesta took control of the Octagon House and kept it until she passed away in 1919.
Third Owner: John F. Brown
John Brown purchased the Octagon House from Hattie Smith (daughter of Hiram Smith) in 1919. He lived at 419 Sherry Street, and his occupation was moving and construction. He owned several rental houses in the area, so he never actually lived in the Octagon House. However, he did rent it to other people. Brown had his own children, but he also became the foster parent, and later the official guardian, of William Jr. and Cornelius Quinn, who were the sons of William Quinn Sr.
Fourth Owner: The Quinn Family (Cornelius and William)
Mr. Quinn was a railroad engineer until a work-related injury caused both of his legs to need amputation. His friends helped him acquire the Green Shack Restaurant on 427 Sherry Street with borrowed money. Sadly, Mrs. Quinn passed away, causing William Quinn Junior and Cornelius Quinn, the couple’s two sons, to be raised by Mrs. Quinn’s mother, Mrs. Johnston. She was a Lutheran, while Mr. Quinn was a Catholic, and he did not like his sons being raised as part of a different religion. He had his children kidnapped and moved to an orphanage in Green Bay. After that, he asked John F. Brown to care for the two boys. William J. Quinn ultimately became the owner of the Octagon House. He and his wife Theresa lived there with their two sons, William and Donald, and their daughter, Joanne. William worked in retail, more specifically selling home appliances.
Fifth Owner: Neenah Historical Society
In 1993, the Neenah Historical Society bought the Octagon House, and it, subsequently, became their headquarters. Any information about the Neenah Historical Society can be found at http://www.focol.org/neenahhistorical/. Any information about the exhibits that have been in the Octagon House can be found under the "The Story" section of this website, in the subpage "Exhibits".
1880 Census. Rep. roll 1452. p. 122B. Neenah, Winnebago, Wisconsin: 1880. Ancestry.com. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.
1930 Census. Rep. Neenah, Winnebago, Wisconsin:1930. Ancestry.com. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.
Adams, Peter. Neenah Historical and Architectural Survey and Nomination Project Intensive Survey Report.
Rep. Neenah, Wisconsin: n.p., 1982. Print.
Andreas, A. T. History of Northern Wisconsin. Chicago, Illinois: Western Historical, 1881. Print.
Mulder, Donna. "Restoring a Piece of History." The News-Record [Neenah, Wisconsin] 30 Apr. 1997: Print.
Schroeder, Rick. Hiram Smith House. Historic Structure Report. N.p.: n.p., 3 March 2003. Print.
Shattuck, S. F. A History of Neenah. Neenah, WI: S.n., 1958. Print.
*Pictures were taken by Olivia Will, courtesy of Ms. Jane Lang and the Neenah Historical Society.