East Side History Madison’s Blog

By and for the East Side History Club, a project of the Goodman Community Center

Sommers-Hoffman families looking their finest

Posted by eastsidehistorymadison on October 31, 2009

As photographic technology developed in the 19th century, portrait photography quickly became popular. People who could afford to have their photograph taken visited studios and choose a setting from a range of backdrops and props on hand. Clients would generally chose a backdrop to convey a particular message, such as the classical column fragment in Conrad Hoffman’s portrait (below). The Sommers, as prominent Madisonians, were probably among the first East Siders ever immortalized by a photographer’s camera.

Janice Zimmer sent these pictures to our club.

2009_11_Conrad Josephine Hoffman100dpi

Conrad Hoffman and Josephine Sommers were married Sept. 17, 1872 in St. Raphael's Church, Madison.

2009_11 Ernst_Max_Anna Sommers 1866

This photo of Ernst Sommers and his wife Anna, with their son Max between them, is from a tintype taken about 1866.

2009_11 Sommers house

Ernst Sommers' house, built in 1853.

Janice Zimmer of Greenwood Wisconsin, the great-granddaughter of Ernst Sommers and granddaughter of Josephine (Sommers) Hoffman and Conrad Hoffman, has been corresponding with her friend Joan Phalen who lives in the Schenk’s Atwood neighborhood.  In addition to the photos, they have shared the following information with the East Side History Club:

Ernst Sommers was born in 1822 in Saxony Germany.  He came to Milwaukee in 1846 and found employment with Leonard J. Farwell, who later became the governor of Wisconsin.

Together they came to Madison in 1849.  Farwell purchased James Doty’s land on the east side of the city.  Under Sommers’ direction, the grist mill on Lake Mendota at the Yahara River was rebuilt, a dam constructed, and the water course straightened.  Ernst Sommers also built roads through heavy timber which are now Atwood Ave., Winnegabo and Williamson Streets.  He helped lay out all the streets in East Madison and set out many shade trees.  In 1853 he bought land on Atwood Ave. from Mr. Farwell and in 1856 built his home near what is now Division Street.  (It no longer stands.)  He was a gardener and florist by trade.

In 1851 he married Eva Marie Fuchs, a native of Bavaria, who came to America in 1848. They had 12 children.  Eva died in 1895 and Ernst died in 1909.

Their oldest child, Josephine,was a school teacher until she married Conrad Hoffman on Sept. 17, 1872.  Conrad came to America at the age of 16.  Conrad was successful in real estate and built homes to resell.  They lived on Atwood Ave.  Conrad died in 1934 and Josephine died in 1938.

Another of their children, Max Sommers, was born in 1861 in his father’s house which was “entirely constructed on the East Side.”  Max described it as follows in a 1933 article in the Wisconsin State Journal:

“Trees were felled in a grove where the East Side high school now stands.  The logs were sawed at the old saw mill which was located in the vicinity of the (bus barns on S. Fair Oaks Ave.)”  In 1897 Max Sommers plotted Tierney’s Addition (near Winnebago and 2nd Streets) and got is start in the real estate business on the East Side.  “They did not begin to improve the mud streets out there until the late 1890s.  Water mains and sewerage projects were not constructed until after 1900.  We wallowed around in the mud out there for a good many years.”

Thanks, Janice Zimmer and Joan Phelan, for sharing this info and thanks, Ann Waidlich, for the additional research!

-Sarah White


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