History of Arena (1836-Present)

Arena township, located in the northeast corner of Iowa County, is part of the scenic Wisconsin River valley.  This broad valley was carved by the mighty river and its tributaries.  Marks on the rocky hill on either side plainly show where the waters receded until the stream found its present bed leaving a long sandy prairie.  Mounds Creek, Ray Hollow, Mill Creek and Coon Rock valleys make up the more wooded and rough portions of the township to the south.  Brigham and Ridgeway townships border on the south, Wyoming on the west, with the Wisconsin River forming its northern boundary.

In June 1673, Marquette, a Jesuit missionary, with Joliet and several voyagers paddled down the Wisconsin in canoes.  They were the first white men to see the site of what was to be "Old Arena."  These and other French explorers gave France its claim to the Mississippi valley, which it held until the treaty of 1763.

"Arena" is thought to have been named by someone who had a flare for Roman history, as it is a Latin word meaning "open sandy place."  It is so named on an 1836 map found in the Wisconsin State Historical Society.  "Old Arena" was on the banks of the Wisconsin River, one mile north of the present Arena.  George Ashmore platted the village on the river bank in the 1840's and by 1847 several buildings of substantial size were erected.  These buildings were the Reeves Hotel and the Barnard House, mechanic shops, a tavern, Gardner Meigs' store and the Indian trading post.  In the 1840s, members of the British Temperance and Emigration society arrived and a settlement was made at Dover on the eastern edge of the township.

"Old Arena" was a lively place.  Boats made regular stops, bringing people, food, lumber, and some luxuries.  Raftsmen tied up their rafts of lumber and logs and rested in the hotels.  A ferry plied between the village and Cassel Prairie across the river.

About the year 1850, rumors began to trickle in that a railroad was coming through the valley.  The railroad reached Madison in 1854 and it became a certainty that the railroad was going on to Prairie du Chien.  Stakes showed that "Old Arena" was to be by-passed one mile to the south, with the tracks following the level prairie.

Residents immediately began making plans to move buildings and to erect new homes.  By 1856, the task was accomplished.  Many of the Irish immigrants who worked on the roadbed stayed to make Arena their permanent residence.  The first locomotive pulling a train through Arena on Jun 7, 1856 was cause for great jubilation.  The engineer was Mr. Ed Wright, uncle of Lee Roberts and great uncle of long time Arena businessman, John Roberts.  John Roberts is one of the esteemed charter members of the present Arena Historians.

By 1860, Arena was well established.  There were several stores, hotels, saloons, blacksmith and wagon shops, and a drug store.  Dr. Addison was the physician.  It was an important shipping point, with droves of hogs driven from beyond Barneveld and Ridgeway a common sight coming to the stockyards.  By the 1870s, as much as a car load of cattle and hogs was shipped daily.  William J. Roberts was the buyer for a long period.  The logs used to build the Iowa County Courthouse in Dodgeville were shipped through Arena from the Wisconsin River and then on wagons.  The first post office in Old Arena was opened in 1847.  One of the oldest buildings in Arena is possibly the former hotel built in 1847 for the railroad workers, where Marion Carpenter Porter, a founding member of the Arena Historical Society, now lives.

Dr. William Brisbane, a southerner, came to Arena with his family and servants in 1854.  He was convinced that slavery was wrong and freed all of his slaves, some of which accompanied him to Arena.  He built the 3 story stone Brisbane house which is presently owned and occupied by Inez Learn, a member of the Arena Historians.

Fires shaped Arena history in the 1800s when in 1869 the new Arena north of the railroad tracks was destroyed and then rebuilt.  In 1895, a fire again swept through the new Arena.  The present village was rebuilt south of the railroad tracks.  Fire struck again in 1908, when much of the business district was again destroyed.


The Congregational Church was organized in 1855 and the present structure was erected in 1864.  Rev. D.M. Jones was its organizer and pastor over a long period.  In the 1870s, five other churches came into being in the Arena area.  They were the German Methodist, the Advent Christian, two sister Congregational churches, Arena II and Arena III and St. John's Catholic.  All these have disbanded except St. John's Catholic Church at its Mill Creek site, the Arena Congregational Church in the village and the Arena Bible church, established in the early 1930s.


The first schoolhouse was built in 1839 in Old Arena and burned shortly after in a prairie fire.  In 1881, a large school with four rooms was built for $1200 that included a new bell.  In 1901, a four-room school was built with a high school.  The Arena High School was built in 1909 and served Arena until the formation of the River Valley School District in 1963. A new gym, built around 1955, still stands as part of a grade school built where the old high school once stood.

William S. Sawle donated land for one of the school forests in 1932.  Professor Ivan Ley, teacher at the Arena High School and also father of Margaret Ley Akins, a founding member of the Arena Historians, organized the high school students to plan tree shelter belts.


The earliest stone located in the present Arena cemetery belongs to Margaret Henderson who died in 1848.  Presently, the Arena Historical Society is working on restoring the oldest stones.  Other pioneer cemeteries are scattered throughout the township.

Many of the Arena residents answered the call to duty during the Civil War.  At least 25 Civil War Veterans are buried in the Arena cemetery as well as others from every American conflict.  Commander Kenny Amble and the Arena VFW recently dedicated a tribute to all Arena Veterans at the Arena Park.


By the year 1875, the population of Arena was 1,930 people.  The Arena Star newspaper was established in the 1870s.  The village of Arena was incorporated in the early 1920s.  Willam Orht, the first village mayor, led the fight to get electricity into the village.  There were numerous meetings and hot debates until one night when two anti-light men fell in the ditch on their way home.  Streetlights soon became a reality.

The Arena bank was formed in 1910 and after two mergers is located on HWY 14 as the People's Community Bank.  Dr. Edward Brown was the resident physician for Arena for over 50 years.  One of the oldest businesses in Arena is the Arena Cheese Factory.  It became the birthplace of Cojack cheese in 1985.  Arena Manor opened its doors in 1975.  The Arena Park was established in 1981.  The new water tower was built in 2005.  Arena has remained prosperous through the years and is growing in population.

Come see what Arena has to offer...

You'll be pleasantly surprised to see that such a cozy community has so much to offer. From our dramatic bluffs and rolling rivers, to our friendly businesses, quality schools, and wide array of recreational activities, Arena is a wonderful place to live, work, and play. Whether you are just visiting or plan to stay, feel free to explore all the opportunities in store for you in Arena, the Gateway to the River Valley. More…