Whitewater History

A (Very) Brief History of Whitewater

By Carol Cartwright, Whitewater Historical Society


Native Americans


Prior to white settlement, many Native American groups lived in the area that is now Whitewater.  One of the most fascinating of these groups consisted of the mound-builders, three different cultures that inhabited the state between around 800 B.C. to around 1200 A.D.  Evidence of one of these groups can be seen in Whitewater’s Indian Mound Park.  The park encloses most of a large mound group that includes effigy mounds – that is, mounds depicting animal forms. 


Most likely, these mounds were built during the effigy mound era that occurred during the Late Woodland Stage of Native American culture, between 700 A.D. and 1200 A.D.  During this period, the Late Woodland people began building large numbers of mound clusters, including effigy mounds in the shapes of birds, animals, and even humans, along with traditional conical and linear mounds.


After 1200 A.D., Wisconsin’s Native Americans are thought to have been influenced by a new culture, the Middle Mississippian, which developed in southern Illinois.  Middle Mississippian people traded with the Late Woodland people in Wisconsin but did not settle here.  The Middle Mississippians did build an outpost near present-day Lake Mills, however, that white settlers named Aztalan because they thought the stepped platform of the complex was related to the Mexican Aztecs.  After the influx of trade with the Middle Mississippian people, the Late Woodland people’s culture disappeared, and a different culture, the Oneota, took its place. The Oneota built mounds in their early period but eventually ended this practice as they adopted  significant lifestyle changes.  The Oneota people concentrated in village clusters in various parts of Wisconsin rather than being more widely dispersed, as the Late Woodland people had been.  They also became more dependent on corn agriculture, as the Middle Mississippians were.


From the 1600s to the mid-nineteenth century, during the time when white exploration of Wiscosin began and white settlement first moved into the state’s interior, a number of different Native American groups came in and out of the state.  Of these groups, only the Ho-Chunk and the Menominee were permanent, long-time residents.  Other groups were pushed into Wisconsin from the east and elsewhere, of which the most significant were the Potawatomi.


Thus, evidence of Native Americans in the area was present when the first whites arrived at the Whitewater site in 1837.  The early settlers recorded what they called an old “IndianVillage” of circular pole structures without their coverings.  They thought the structures were related to the Potawatomi.  They also discovered the mounds described earlier.


Pioneer White Settlement


When federal surveyors platted southern Wisconsin in the late 1830s so that it could be offered for sale to white settlers, they used a number of land features as markers.  One of these natural markers is Whitewater’s Territorial Oak, located at the northwest corner of West Main Street and North Franklin Street.


Alvah Foster is credited with being the first white man to travel extensively in the area in the fall of 1836 or early in 1837.  He made an informal claim, but he never settled at the Whitewater site.  The man credited with being the first permanent white settler in Whitewater is Samuel Prince.  In July of 1837, he erected the first log cabin.  Other settlers arrived in 1837 and 1838, settling not only at the Whitewater site but also on land nearby.  Like other early settlers in southern Wisconsin, the early pioneer settlers in Whitewater are historically referred to as “Yankees” because they came primarily from New York State or New England.  In fact, they often came in groups from a single location.  For example, the well-known pioneer Cravath and Salisbury families were from Cortland County, New York, and were part of a group known as the “Cortland Colony.”  The Yankees were largely middle-class and came to Wisconsin looking for new economic opportunities, such as fertile, virgin land to farm; a water power site that would attract industry; or an attractive town site at which to acquire land that could be sold to other pioneers at a profit.


Since Whitewater was founded on a water power site, bringing a mill to town was an early consideration for the first settlers.  By the fall of 1838, owners of the two water power sites had failed to build a mill, and other pioneers were worried that Whitewater would lose out to another location if a mill were not forthcoming.  A committee of pioneers was charged with finding someone with the capital to buy a water power and build a mill. The group met with Dr. James Trippe, who had already built a saw mill in East Troy.  Trippe saw the Whitewater mill project as a good investment, and in November of 1838, he acquired the water power. The next spring, he built a dam and grist (flour) mill.


The decade of the 1840s was filled with “firsts” in Whitewater.  The first industries were started, as were the first commercial businesses.  The first frame houses were built, and the first school and the first churches were established. By 1844, there were about 200 people living in Whitewater’s 29 houses, and the small downtown had six general stores, a grocery store, two hotels, a lawyer’s office, three blacksmith shops, a tailor shop, two cabinet (furniture) makers, a wagon shop, a gunsmith’s shop, a harness and leather shop, and a cooper shop.


Religious organizations also blossomed in the 1840s.  The new community was primarily Yankee in ethnicity, so the first organizations were Protestant Yankee churches: Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, and Episcopal.


In 1849 came what was perhaps the most important business decision in this decade of Whitewater “firsts.”  In the fall, citizens met to discuss purchasing stock in the newly formed  Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad company in order to convince the company’s owners to build the railroad through Whitewater.  The area around Whitewater was a thriving wheat-growing region, and the rail line was seen as an efficient way for farmers to get their wheat crops to the Milwaukee market.  By 1851, the railroad was built from Milwaukee to Waukesha, and in September of 1852, the line came to Whitewater.


The Maturing Village


The coming of the railroad ushered in a decade of tremendous growth in Whitewater. In the 1850s, local and regional farmers were making money growing wheat on virgin soils, and they were spending it in Whitewater’s businesses and small shops.  Downtown businesses boomed, and during the 1850s, Whitewater’s small, often one-story, frame-constructed commercial buildings became obsolete.  Thus, the growth in the commercial economy in the 1850s resulted in the construction of several large brick buildings downtown.  The large Central Block, which is still standing in the downtown today, was constructed in 1856.


In the mid-1850s, two important nineteenth century industries – both related to agriculture and wheat growing – were founded and began to dominate the community’s industrial base.  In 1844, L. A. Winchester established a small blacksmith shop in the pioneer settlement.  In 1852, William DeWolf joined Winchester, and the partners expanded into plow-making in a larger shop.  In 1857, J. S. Partridge became a partner in the business, and around 1864, the company began manufacturing wagons.  After DeWolf left the firm in 1867, what was now the Winchester and Partridge Manufacturing Company rapidly expanded its wagon production, and the “Whitewater Wagon” became known for its high quality.


Around the same time that the Winchester and Partridge Company was expanding its plow-making operation, George Esterly was developing his innovative wheat “reaper” or harvester on his large wheat farm in the nearby Town of LaGrange.  Esterly was one of the early (1837) pioneer farmers of Walworth County, and the task of harvesting wheat on his large acreage triggered his inventive mind to produce a better reaper.  By 1844, he had a patent for an improved harvester, and he built these harvesters on his farm until 1855.


In 1857, Esterly moved production to a new factory in Whitewater. There, he continued to improve his harvesters and began producing other agricultural equipment. The company also branched into furniture manufacturing.


The growth of the 1850s can be seen in the local school system.  An old brick school house, built in 1844 near where the current Arts Alliance building is located, was soon inadequate, and in the fall of 1853, the public voted on a new “Union” school building for elementary grades. It was completed in 1854 at the corner of Prairie and Center (not extant).


The growth of Whitewater’s east side resulted in a need for a school on that side of the community.  In the summer of 1857, Union School No. 2, better known as the East SideSchool, was completed.  It was a brick structure two stories in height, and as families moved to this area near the growing Esterly Manufacturing Company factory, the school was soon filled.


The Industrial Era


After the Civil War, Whitewater entered a period of economic prosperity that would last until the mid-1890s.  The Esterly Company flourished, making reapers, other agricultural equipment, and  furniture.  During the 1880s, at its peak production, Esterley’s factory employed an average of 200 to 300 people. During the 1870s and 1880s, the Winchester and Partridge Manufacturing Company turned out hundreds of wagons, along with plows and other agricultural equipment.  Other industries included a paper mill making straw paper, several large brick yards, and many other small shops. 


The downtown commercial business district thrived during this period.  Most brick blocks in Whitewater’s current downtown were built between 1870 and 1890, as were several double storefront blocks, such the Stewart Block in 1885.  Whitewater’s downtown had a full complement of clothing, shoe, grocery, drug, and hardware stores.  Several hotels operated during this era, capped off by the construction of Whitewater’s “luxury” hotel, the Walworth, in 1890. 


Between 1860 and 1890, most of the large and architecturally distinctive churches on Whitewater’s west side were built. The current Methodist Church was built in 1872-73, the Episcopal Church in 1869, and the Congregational Church in 1882.  In 1886, one block east along Main Street, the Baptist community built its large church (now First English Lutheran Church). 


The industrial era in Whitewater also brought better and larger schools.  A new Union School was built at the corner of Prairie and Center Streets, and soon a high school program was started.  The Union School, fondly known as the “big brick,” was, by 1894, filled with high school students, as that program became more and more popular with middle-class families in the city.  George Esterly had moved out of his large mansion a few blocks west, and so the school administration moved the elementary school pupils to the Esterly house, which then became known as the Esterly School. From 1894 until 1927, west side grade school pupils attended this school.


City residents provided the east side children with a school house as early as 1857, but the growth of the Esterly Company after 1858 meant more and more children resided on the east side of the city.  In 1872, a new and much larger two-story brick school house was built.  This school was used well into the 1960s, after an addition was built in the 1950s.  This historic school was demolished in the late twentieth century for a new school building, renamed the Washington School.


Perhaps the most important event related to education during the industrial era, however, was the founding and development of the Whitewater Normal School, one of several state teachers’ colleges founded throughout Wisconsin in the nineteenth century. Work on the normal school building began in the fall of 1866, and the building was finally completed by April of 1868. Between 1868 and the end of Whitewater’s industrial era in the 1890s, the Whitewater Normal School grew steadily, and the school building, soon named “Old Main,” grew as well.  The first addition to the building, which doubled its space, was constructed in 1876.  Old Main burned in 1891 but was quickly rebuilt.  In 1897, a new addition on the front of the building was completed.


The population of Whitewater reached 4,158 in 1885, and was surpassed only by its 1890 population of 4,359. But Whitewater’s industrial era ended in the 1890s. The Esterly factory and the Winchester and Partridge factory closed in 1892 and 1893, respectively, putting between 300 and 500 men out of work. The depression of 1893-1897 meant that no new industry filled the empty factories.


The Commercial-Agricultural Era


The depression of 1890s hit industry hard, but the Wisconsin farm economy was strong, primarily due to a change from cash grain crops to cash dairying.  Producing milk and selling it to a cheese factory or creamery as a cash crop provided a steady income and did not deplete the land the way wheat farming did.   


The growth of dairy farmers and of the cheese factories and creameries that purchased their milk fostered the development of related businesses, such as the Wisconsin Dairy Supply, the Dadmun Brothers feed mill, and the Union Produce Company.  In 1913, Libby, McNeill & Libby built a large milk condensary off Wisconsin Street.  During the years prior to World War II, the plant had the capacity to handle over 36 million pounds of milk per year, and after the war, the plant operated into the 1980s as the Hawthorn-Mellody milk plant.


Also in 1913, a group of investors established the Whitewater Canning Company.  The Whitewater Canning Company started by canning peas, but it soon added sweet corn to its production.  In 1930, the factory began canning tomatoes.


The growth of the WhitewaterNormal School, a state teachers’ college, also helped keep the city’s commercial businesses successful.  Both faculty and student populations increased during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as reflected in the growth of Old Main.  A large west wing, which included a new library and training school, was added in 1911.  A separate gymnasium and athletic field was completed in 1917.  A large east wing was added to Old Main in 1924.  Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, enrollment at the Normal School remained steady.  Until the 1950s, there were no dormitories on campus, so students lived in the community and patronized downtown shops and restaurants.  Some merchants marketed books and supplies directly to students.  Especially during the Great Depression, the students in the community helped Whitewater’s merchants weather the economic hard times.


Modernization came to Whitewater’s high school in 1927, when city residents passed a bond to build an elementary and high school building on the site of the EsterlySchool.  Typical of “modern” high schools of the era, it had a two-story plan and was classical in design.  It had all the amenities that we now expect in a high school, including a large gymnasium and classrooms with science labs and technical equipment.  It served as a high school until 1960 and then as a junior high school until 1994.


When World War II began, the economy picked up significantly.  Whitewater had few factories that were in a position to become providers of war materiél, but other factories in the area were so positioned, and soon Whitewater enjoyed full employment.  The war brought the farm economy up as well, and Whitewater’s agricultural businesses and industries profited. 


Although goods were rationed during World War II, people now had money to spend.  Downtown commercial business picked up, ushering in the era when downtowns were at their height of activity.  Local businesses flourished, along with modern “chain” stores, such as the A & P grocery store and the Gambles variety store.  Whitewater’s stores offered a wide variety of goods, and there were many competitors in the areas of drugs, groceries, hardware, clothing, and shoes.   Restaurants and taverns had large patronage, both from busy workers and college students.  This downtown era lasted through the 1950s, and it is the source of much nostalgia today.


The University Era


After World War II, Whitewater became known almost exclusively as a “college town.”  There was still a lack of strong industrial development in town, and commercial development did not grow much beyond its boundaries in the existing downtown.  The Whitewater Normal School, however, was transformed between 1950 and 1975.  During this period, student enrollment went from under 1,000 students to over 10,000 students, and the normal school became a university. 


The WhitewaterNormal School began its meteoric rise when, in 1913, the school developed a program for training business teachers.  The program soon became nationally recognized, and with the addition of a four-year education degree, the normal school became the Whitewater Teachers College in 1927.  After World War II, two national trends resulted in major expansion at the college.  One was the GI Bill, which brought thousands of World War II veterans to colleges between 1945 and the early 1950s.  The second trend was the “baby boom,” a skyrocketing birth rate between 1946 to 1964 that, beginning in the mid-1960s, brought thousands of students to colleges.  The good economy of the 1950s and 1960s, and the general support for college education from the state government, also helped expand enrollments.


In 1951, the Board of Regents approved a plan to allow the Whitewater Teacher’s College (and most other state teacher’s colleges) to grant liberal arts degrees along with education degrees.  At that point, Whitewater became part of the Wisconsin State College system and was then renamed the Wisconsin State College-Whitewater.  In the 1960s, recognizing the expansion of the state college system beyond liberal arts and education, the Board of Regents changed the system to the Wisconsin State Universities.  In 1972, the WisconsinStateUniversity system merged with the University of Wisconsin system, and all state universities became affiliated with the University of Wisconsin.  Since 1972, Whitewater’s campus has been known as the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.


The influx of more students at the university meant that the classrooms and facilities in Old Main were not sufficient.  The first dorms were built in the 1950s, and additional facilities were added in the 1950s and 1960s.  Much of the campus classroom space, however, was still located in Old Main.  In 1970, a devastating arson fire destroyed 80 percent of Old Main.  Only a portion of that building, Hyer Hall, could be salvaged.  The important result of that fire was that a number of new classroom buildings were erected in the 1970s, including a center for the arts.


During the 1960s, downtown business began to change.  Shopping malls and large discount stores began to appear in larger communities nearby.  At the same time, good roads made it easy for consumers to travel out of town for their goods. 


Most people still did their grocery shopping in town, but consumers left the small downtown grocery stores in favor of new supermarkets located on the edge of town.  The new supermarkets had plenty of room for parking and a much larger food selection, sometimes with cheaper prices.  The new chain supermarkets in Whitewater were almost all located on the east and west edges of town, along U.S. Highway 12, a road that had become a thoroughfare through the city.  The west side won the battle of retailing, however, as small strip malls made their appearance and businesses located further west.


By the mid-1980s, Whitewater’s downtown had lost almost all of its traditional businesses.  Many merchants, in fact, had to close their stores despite having no competition from retailers on the edge of town.  The merchants simply could not compete with the wider variety and discounted merchandize that people found in shopping malls and “big box” stores.


In the mid-twentieth century, industrial growth still lagged behind commercial growth.  The Coburn Company and the Moksnes Manufacturing Company, now known as Schenk-Accurate, were exceptions and became, over time, substantial light industries in Whitewater. 


In the 1980s and 1990s, the Whitewater Community Development Authority developed a successful industrial park on the northeast side of the city.  Businesses in the industrial park range from a fast-food distribution warehouse to a large factory making generators to a technology innovation center to jump-start new businesses.    


Educational facilities improved during the mid- and late-twentieth century.  In 1953, a new west side school, now known as Lincoln School, was built on Prince Street.  A new high school building on Elizabeth Street was completed in 1960, then quickly expanded in 1962. 


An increase in the school population during the 1990s resulted in more school building.  Additions and alterations were made to the Washington and Lincoln Schools, and a new high school was completed in 1994 at the end of Elizabeth Street.  The old high school was converted into a middle school serving grades 6-8. 


At the present time, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is still the town’s largest employer, and Whitewater will probably always be known as a “college town.”  Nonetheless, Whitewater has a much more diversified industrial economy today than it did 30 years ago.  Whitewater continues to develop, and the newer residential construction on the edges of town prove that families still find Whitewater to be a desirable place to live, with both historic and modern amenities. 


This article is a free public reference from the Whitewater Historical Society and is based on research conducted by local historian Carol Cartwright of the society.  To use as a reference, please cite as follows:  

Carol Cartwright, “A (Very) Brief History of Whitewater,” 2014, Whitewater Historical Society web site,