Birthplace of the Coffee Break

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on July 27, 2003

When customers stop into the Koffee Kup diner in Stoughton, Wis., for a mid-morning respite or afternoon pick-me-up, they’re carrying on a tradition that’s more than 130 years old.

Stoughton (pop. 12,354) is the birthplace of the coffee break and townspeople have known the value of a cup of caffeine since the town’s Norwegian immigrants began roasting their own coffee beans to save money in the mid-1800s.

Coffee is still a bargain at the Koffee Kup, where waitresses place a pot of fragrant black brew on each table, assuring a bottomless cup for only 50 cents. “People have been coming to the Koffee Kup for longer than I’ve been born,” says Ken Gulseth, who with his wife, Trish, own the downtown diner. “This is where the news starts.”

Named after Luke Stoughton, a Vermont farmer who settled the town in 1847, Stoughton’s agricultural economy shifted to manufacturing after the Civil War.

In the early 1870s, T.G. Mandt’s Wagon Works became the town’s major industry, attracting Norwegian immigrants to Stoughton to work in the factory. Mandt’s factory employed all the available men, leaving the leaf tobacco industry with a labor shortage.

Osmund Gunderson, a local tobacco warehouse owner, found it necessary to recruit the women in the community for seasonal tobacco work during the fall and winter.

“He hired the women on Coffee Street to stem tobacco for the cigar factories,” says Lorraine Hawkinson, a Stoughton native and retired local newspaper columnist for The Stoughton Courier Hub, who discovered the town’s long-standing relationship with coffee in 1996 while perusing back issues. A former Courier Hub colleague, Rolf Hanson, had written a story about the town’s coffee break tradition for the paper some 40 years earlier.

The story said the women agreed to work in Gunderson’s warehouse, separating the soft part of the tobacco leaf from the plant stem, on one condition: they had to be allowed to take a break every morning and afternoon. On their breaks, the women would run home, check on their children, start a meal, and have a cup of coffee. Lacking alternatives, Gunderson agreed to their demand.

Incidentally, Coffee Street, now called Hillside Avenue, earned its name long before Gunderson’s acquiescence. When doing their shopping, the frugal homemakers would purchase green coffee beans because the raw beans were cheaper than roasted ones. The women would roast the beans in large pans in their wood-burning stoves before grinding them for use. The resulting aroma could be smelled for blocks and gave the street its scented moniker.

To honor its coffee-loving heritage, Stoughton celebrates with a Coffee Break festival at Mandt Park each year. This year’s festival, scheduled Aug. 9, will feature an art fair, vintage car show, children’s activities, handmade souvenir coffee mugs and, of course, gallons of free coffee.

The coffee break isn’t the only tradition Norwegian immigrants contributed to Stoughton. The town honors its Norwegian history each spring with a Syttende Mai celebration. “This is the weekend where everybody claims to be Norwegian,” says Beth Bauer, coordinator of both the Coffee Break and Syttende Mai festivals.

Syttende Mai means “seventeen May,” the date when the Norwegian Constitution was signed in 1814 and Norway got its independence after 500 years of Danish rule. Naturally, the event showcases everything Norwegian, including exhibits of the traditional folk arts of hardanger (needlework) and rosemaling (stylistic painting on wood).

Scheduled May 14-16, next year’s Syttende Mai events also will include parades, folk dancing performances, a Viking encampment, a smorgasbord of Norwegian foods, and an ugly troll drawing contest.

Afterwards, stop by the Koffee Kup, for a cup of gourmet coffee, a piece of homemade blackberry pie, and a taste of Stoughton hospitality.

“The waitresses always have a smile on their faces and ask how you’re doing,” says Lori Corbari, a Koffee Kup regular.