By Brian D’Ambrosio
At 9 East Rockwell Street in the small town of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, stands the neat, modest white Greek Revival style house where Joseph Philbrick Webster lived. Webster was the composer of the popular hymn “In the Sweet By and By” and the American Civil War romantic favorite, “Lorena,” which was heard and immortalized in the classic film “Gone With The Wind.” He lived in Elkhorn from 1857 until his death in 1875, at the age of 56. Most of his more than 1000 songs were penned there. Webster’s compositions were eclectic, including music for ballads, religious hymns, nationalistic drama, and a cantata – a vocal composition intended for musical accompaniment and a choir.
Joseph Webster, a precocious musical talent was a businessman, music teacher, and piano tuner, who moved his family to Racine, Wisconsin, in 1856 and finally settled in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, in 1859. The prolific Webster composed “Lorena” in 1857, an antebellum song with Northern roots duly considered the most popular song of the American Civil War era. Lorena was based on Webster’s fond recollection of an Ohio girl named Ella Blocksom. In 1860 he composed “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets”, which later found fame under the titled “Wildwood Flower”. In 1868, he wrote one of the most enduring and recognizable Christian hymns in American history, “In the Sweet By and By.”
Joseph Webster House Museum
Webster’s family continued to live in the house until 1951. After the last Webster descendant passed away, the house was sold to the Walworth County to serve as a museum. The Webster House is loaded with vintage pieces that belonged to Webster and his family. The Music Room displays Webster’s splendid compositions, notes, and song books, as well as his treasured rosewood piano and numerous other 1800s period instruments.
Directly behind the Webster House stands an 1850 hand-hewn oak beam barn, with the carriage of General John W. Boyd inside, as well as other artifacts related to the Boyd Family’s achievements. Webster is interred at the Hazel Ridge Cemetery in Elkhorn, where his epitaph announces, “Joseph P. Webster. In the Sweet By and By We Shall Meet“.
The Webster House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is now the center of the Walworth County Historical Society. The Webster House is located at 9. East Rockwell Street, Elkhorn, Wisconsin, on the corner of Rockwell and South Washington Street, one block from Highway 67.
To read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s Wisconsin travel, art, and history articles.