The Allis family traces its roots to a passenger on the third voyage of the Mayflower in 1630. The Allis name made its way to Milwaukee two centuries later, when Edward Phelps Allis — after graduating college at the age of 21 — moved from his hometown of Cazenovia, New York to Milwaukee in the spring of 1846. Milwaukee had just become a city in January of that year, after having been a village for ten years. Two years later, E.P. married Margaret M. Watson of Geneva, New York. Allis quickly established himself in business. (For more on the E.P. Allis story, visit the Allis-Chalmers page.)
Charles Allis was born May 4, 1853 in Milwaukee, the third of E.P and Margaret’s twelve children. Charles grew up in the Yankee Hill neighborhood and was educated in public schools and at the Markham Academy, also in Milwaukee. He then went to Little Blue Academy in Farmington, Maine.
Charles married Sarah Esther Ball of Milwaukee in 1877. Sarah traced her lineage back to William Bradford, a passenger on the first voyage of the Mayflower and a signer of the Mayflower Compact. Bradford later became governor of the Plymouth Colony in 1621. Sarah’s family also migrated to southeastern Wisconsin in 1846. Her father, Edward Hyde Ball, came to the Wisconsin territory and began a grocery business in East Troy. He moved to Milwaukee in 1861 with his wife Sarah and their four children.
Charles embarked on his professional career with a four-year apprenticeship with the Edward P. Allis Company, owned and operated by his father. After his father’s death in 1889, he became secretary-treasurer and ran the company with his mother and brothers. In 1901, the Edward P. Allis Company merged with Fraser & Chalmers and the Gates Iron Works, both of Chicago, forming the Allis-Chalmers Company. Charles became its first president.
Charles and Sarah lived in the Yankee Hill neighborhood and then the Pfister Hotel for almost 35 years. They never had children.
After retiring from Allis-Chalmers in 1904, Charles continued his involvement with industry and civic society, holding various directorships, including ones with Northwestern Mutual Life, the First National Bank and the Chicago Belting Co.
Like his father, Charles was very interested in the fine arts. He served as the first President of the Milwaukee Art Society and a trustee of the Layton Art Gallery.
Charles and Sarah decided in 1908 to commission a residence on Royall Place and Prospect Avenue to house what had become a world-class art collection. They built the mansion with the intention of bequeathing it and their collection to the people of Milwaukee.
Charles and Sarah collected art their entire adult lives, traveling to Europe, California and New York, and frequently to Chicago to view and purchase fine art, artifacts and furnishings. Charles also worked with many dealers of fine art and antiquities, including Gump’s of San Francisco and Tiffany’s of New York. Many of those dealers would ship him containers of items for his approval, based on their knowledge of his tastes.
Charles resided in the mansion until his death in 1918, after serving as director of Milwaukee’s civil defense effort during World War I. Sarah then maintained it as her residence, living in the home with a cook and chauffeur until her death in 1945.