Chances Restaurant and Tavern

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Chances

The Union House/Hotel now Chances
Address: 205 Main Street W
City/locality-
State/province
Rochester, Wisconsin
County-
State/province:
Racine County, Wisconsin
State/province: Wisconsin
Country: United States
Year built: 1843
Primary Style: Greek Revival
Historic Function: Restaurant
Current Function: Restaurant
Material of Exterior Wall Covering: Brick
Material of Foundation: Stone
First Owner: Peter Campbell

Rochester Racine County


Chances restaurant and tavern is located on 205 W Main Street in the small village of Rochester, Wisconsin. The building, originally called The Union House, also referred to as The Union Hotel, is the first brick building built in the village.

The building has a long and storied history. It was built in 1843 by Peter Campbell on the former site of Godfrey's Tavern, the early log cabin hotel built by one of Rochester's founders, Levi Godfrey. Although it was closed as a hotel after the introduction of the railroad in the area, it is believed to be the oldest continuously functioning bar and restaurant in the state of Wisconsin.

The now famous "Rochester Cheers" has a rich local lore including a connection to the Underground Railroad. More recently, the restaurant has gained attention for its reported paranormal claims.

Formerly a major stop on the old plank road from Racine to Janesville and currently a popular hangout, Chances has a tremendous amount of historical, local, and collective value.

Contents


Memories and stories

Memory

As a child, I was eating at Chances for the first time when my mom began reading the story of a haunted restaurant. When she finished the story, she revealed to us that the restaurant she was referring to was the restaurant we were sitting in. Since that moment, Chances has always stuck in my mind.

Currently, I live just up the road and around the corner from Chances. I can see and hear its many activities from my bedroom window, which I consider to be an integral part of the ambience of Rochester.

History

In the 1830s, Rochester, WI was settled by Levi Godfrey and John Wade. In 1836, Levi Godfrey built a large log house which became the first tavern in Western Racine County. Godfrey's house was used as a hotel in which guests slept on the dirt floor.

In 1843, Peter Campbell bought the land from Godfrey and built a two-story brick Greek Revival building, the first brick house in the village. Campbell's building became known as The Union House, which is sometimes referred to as The Union Hotel. At the time, Rochester was the third largest city in Wisconsin. In fact, reportedly, "One Hundred wagons and teams were said to go through Rochester in a day." The hotel and tavern quickly became a popular stop along the old plank road from Racine to Janesville.

Historic view from the corner of N. State and Main Streets, n.d., Chances is the second building on the right
Historic view from the corner of N. State and Main Streets, n.d., Chances is the second building on the right

In 1856, Campbell added a large stone addition to the rear of the building. The addition expanded the dining room and added a 2,000 square foot dance hall with a springboard floor, which is thought to be one of the last remaining of its type in the state. Unfortunately, Campbell died shortly after the addition was completed.

Historic photo of Chances, n.d.
Historic photo of Chances, n.d.

With the introduction of the railroad, Rochester was passed by for nearby Burlington. Thus, The Union House/Hotel was officially closed as a hotel in the late 1850s. Since then, it has been owned by many people including Edward Reynolds, Peter Silvernale, and James H. Gibson and has been called Big John's, The Rochester Inn, Smitty's and the Village Inn. However, it has always been used as a restaurant and tavern. Reportedly, it is the oldest operating bar and restaurant in the state of Wisconsin.

The current restaurant and bar, Chances, is owned by Tom and Debbie Schuerman.

Building Description

Chances still stands as a two-story brick building with a stone addition in the rear. The original balcony and columns have been removed and the second floor door has subsequently been covered by the current Chances sign. Additionally, the three windows to the left of the front door have been filled into make room for bathrooms. The spot where they were once located is decorated with closed shutters as a nod to the original structure.

Entrance, 2016
Entrance, 2016

Inside, many of the original features still remain. For example, the dining room contains the original pressed tin ceiling. The front entrance, containing the stairs, opens to the bar on the right and a pair of bathrooms on the left. Straight through an archway are the two dining rooms, a smaller one to the left and a larger one to the right. The kitchen is located behind the dining rooms.

Bar, 2016
Bar, 2016

Until the 1970s, the upstairs was a popular spot for dances and weddings, however, stringent building codes forced the historic springboard dance floor to close. Today, it is sparingly used for small community parties.


Underground Railroad

Nearly twenty years after being built, in the years preceding the American Civil War, The Union House/Hotel became a stop on the Underground Railroad. The tavern was said to hide slaves who were on their way to Canada. The runaway slaves were given a warm meal and a place to sleep before continuing on in the morning. Runaway slaves reportedly traveled to The Union House/Hotel by a tunnel that led from the nearby Fox River.

According to an interview with a local Chances' patron, the opening to the tunnel is located in the basement to the right of the front entrance above. It was only big enough to crawl through. Unfortunately, plumbing from the modern bathrooms has blocked the opening. Though, it is still said to be visible. This claim is largely supported by the staff and regular patrons of Chances.

However, the local Underground Railroad tour guide brochure disputes this claim, saying it would be unlikely that a tunnel from the restaurant could reach the Fox River. Yet, this area of southeastern Wisconsin is a documented stop on the Underground Railroad so it is likely that at one time runaway slaves on the journey to freedom took refuge in The Union House/Hotel.

Current Use

Since 1987, the building on 205 W. Main street has been owned by Tom and Debbie Schuerman. The Schuermans had no prior experience running a business but as Debbie recounts, "[They] fell in love with the place because of its history." In honor of the risk they were taking on, they named the restaurant Chances.

Chances, 2016
Chances, 2016

Due to the great condition of the building, the coupled only needed to make minor changes. They added dividers throughout the building and shortened the bar which formerly extended into the dining room.

The newly minted Chances restaurant and bar officially opened on May 13th, 1987.

Paranormal Claims

Since before the Schuermans owned the restaurat, there have been reports of paranormal activity. These experiences were documented in Michael Norman and Beth Scott's book "Haunted Wisconsin." The reported claims of the paranormal speak to the history of the building. Among the seven ghosts said to be in residence, there is a Civil War soldier and a runaway slave cook named Sadie. According to owner Debbie, the paranormal experiences are friendly and often warn of safety concerns. The resident ghosts are thought of as guardians of Chances. Whether or not these claims are true, they help express the building's storied past and attract curious visitors.

Value and Collective Memory

As a young member of the community of Rochester, it is amazing to already feel so much pride for Chances restaurant and the historic building in which it resides. For older member of the community, it represents and even stronger pride and collective memory. In fact, one patron refers to himself as not only as a local but as a "lifer."

There is no way to identify and individually remember the thousands of patrons of 205 W. Main Street since its opening in 1843. However, the recognition of its history through local stories, books, and preservation efforts have commemorated its significance not only locally but as a part of the greater history of Wisconsin and the United States.

It is a true gem in this small Wisconsin town.

Photo Gallery

Notes

Interviews were completed with Chances patrons in 2012 and 2016. Historic photos were taken from Rentedmule09's Youtube video "Esse pt 1 a & b." Permission was given to use all photos.

References

Lunde, Pat. Historic Places and People in the Land of Milk and Honey. Rochester and Burlington, WI: Historic Hoyt House, 1998.

Melby, Becky. “Taking a Chance in Rochester, Wisconsin.” The Barn Door. Last modified April 5, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2016.

Norman, Michael and Beth Scott. Haunted Wisconsin. Black Earth, WI: Trails Books, 2001.

Vande Sand, Don. “Burlington, Rochester, Spring Prairie Underground Railroad Trail.” Tour Guide Brochure, Burlington, 2005.

Western Historical Company. The History of Racine and Kenosha counties, Wisconsin. Chicago: Culver, Page & Hoyne Company, 1879.

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