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A Very Brief History of Whitewater

Updated: Aug 22, 2023


Prehistoric Whitewater and Native Americans


Our knowledge of pre-historic Whitewater begins at the end of the “ice age,” about 10,000 B.C., when the last glacier retreated from Wisconsin. During the pre-historic era, there were changes in the landscape over time, and many groups of animals, ancient people, and historic Native Americans moved through this area. After about 8,000 B.C., the land took on its current features. The geology, appearance, water resources, plants, and animals considered “native” to Wisconsin date to this time.


Whitewater’s original landscape was an oak savanna, a prairie-like environment dotted with bur, white, and red oak trees. The terrain was both flat and hilly, with prairie grasses and plants. Whitewater Creek ran through the landscape. It was an important fresh water source for both ancient people and early settlers. Oak savannas were ideal habitats for deer, wild turkeys, grouse, quail, squirrels, rabbits, and dozens of other species of birds and small mammals. Many of these animals can be found today in the area, including wild turkeys and sand hill cranes.


Archaeologists have divided ancient peoples into several groups, with early groups leaving little traces of their habitation of the landscape. The earliest group is the Paleo-Indian (10,000-8,000 B.C.) culture. During this era, the landscape consisted of partially frozen tundra, swamps, and spruce forests. Archeological sites have shown that Paleo-Indian people butchered giant mammoths for food.


The second group of ancient peoples have been labeled the Archaic (8,000-100 B.C.) culture. During the era of the Archaic people, the landscape of Wisconsin evolved into its current appearance, and most of the native animals and plant life that we associate with the state were in place. Archaic people hunted deer and small animals, and gathered nuts and berries. Most Archaic people used stone tools and weapons, but around 1,000 B.C. they began to use copper for this purpose.


The group that left the most evidence of their habitation in the area is the Woodland (1200 B.C.-1200 A.D.) culture. Woodland people are notable because they built ceremonial or burial mounds. At first these mounds were conical or linear. Around 500 A.D., the Woodland people began building “effigy,” or figural, mounds. Woodland people were primarily hunters and gatherers, but they also developed early seed cultivation, made pottery, and hunted with a bow and arrow. Artifacts from this culture have been found, but although they have helped describe the Woodland culture, there is still much that we do not know about these people.


Whitewater’s Effigy Mounds Preserve, on the west side of the city, is an example of an artifact left by Late Woodland people. This mound group is an important collection of conical, linear, and figural mounds thought to be constructed between 400 and 1100 A.D. The effigy figures include a turtle, panther, mink, and birds. The mounds are the most important existing link to prehistoric people who once lived in the Whitewater area.

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. They did build an outpost near present-day Lake Mills 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, with a different culture, the Oneota (1000-1600 A.D.), taking its place. The Oneota continued to build mounds in their early period, but eventually ended this practice along with making significant lifestyle changes. Their lifestyle was based on corn agriculture, and they lived in established villages. When European explorers and white settlers arrived, the Oneota virtually disappeared because of disease and pressure from competing Native American groups.


After white Europeans established colonies in the eastern United States, many existing Native American groups were forced west. This movement began the Historic Native American (1600-1830s A.D.) culture in Wisconsin. Historic Native Americans in Wisconsin included the probable descendants of the Oneota people, the Ho-Chunk. They were joined by several groups who were pushed into Wisconsin by white settlement. One of these groups was the Potawatomi, who lived in the Whitewater area just before white settlement arrived permanently in the state.

The Potawatomi were part of a large group of Algonquian-speaking people who migrated into Wisconsin from Canada via upper Michigan. This group split into two tribes that are still important in the state; the Ojibwe in the north and the Potawatomi in the south. Until 1833, the Potawatomi lived in southeastern Wisconsin, including the area that became Whitewater.


The United States government convinced most of the Pottawatomi to cede their lands in southern Wisconsin in 1829 and 1833. In 1832, a group of Sauk and Fox people, under the leadership of Blackhawk, travelled through southern Wisconsin as they fled from both Illinois and Wisconsin militia and Federal government troops. Blackhawk’s people, who had been forced to move from their settlement near today’s Quad Cities area into Iowa, tried to reassert their claims in Illinois. Known as the “Blackhawk War,” the conflict between the Sauk and Fox following Blackhawk and local settlers and federal troops was, in reality, a chase and eventual massacre of many of Blackhawk’s followers. During the chase, the Sauk and Fox traveled around southern Wisconsin, including near Fort Atkinson. Blackhawk’s people were eventually caught near the Mississippi River and most were killed.


The “Blackhawk War” was short-lived and tragic for Blackhawk’s people, but has had a lasting mythology in southern Wisconsin. Abraham Lincoln was part of a militia unit chasing Blackhawk and Blackhawk, himself, has been given almost “heroic” status in Wisconsin. But, the lasting result of this conflict was that after Blackhawk’s defeat, Native American claims to land and, for the most part, their ability to reside in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, was terminated.


Evidence of Historic 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 “Indian Village” of circular pole structures without their coverings. These house frames were the type of buildings constructed by Potawatomi people.


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 at the Whitewater site, but he never settled there permanently. The man credited with being the first permanent white settler in Whitewater was Samuel Prince. In July of 1837, he erected the first log cabin. Other settlers arrived in both 1837 and 1838, not only settling at the Whitewater site, but 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 the group of people 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; or 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, bringing a mill to town was an early consideration for the first settlers, especially because most of the pioneer farmers were growing wheat and wanted to process it locally. By the fall of 1838, owners of the two water power sites had failed to build a mill, and other pioneers were anxious that Whitewater would lose out to another location if a mill was 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 site on the east side of what would become Whitewater’s downtown. In April of 1939, Trippe began construction on the dam and grist (flour) mill on this site. In the fall of 1841, Trippe completed a dam on the second water power site at what is now Trippe Lake and built a sawmill.


The decade of the 1840s was filled with “firsts” in Whitewater. The first industries were started, along with the first commercial businesses. The first frame houses were built, along with the establishment of the first school and the first churches. 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, perhaps the most important business decision made in Whitewater capped the decade of “firsts.” In the fall, citizens met to discuss purchasing stock in the newly-formed Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad company in order to help convince the owners to build through Whitewater. The area around Whitewater was a thriving wheat-growing region and the rail line was seen as a better 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 Era


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. Small retail businesses boomed and fostered the construction of several two-story brick buildings in the downtown. The small industries, shops, and retail businesses dominated the economy of Whitewater during this time, but a few industries grew into larger, thriving businesses.


One of these industries was local pottery and brick making. Whitewater had an abundance of natural clay deposits and during the maturing village era, these deposits were used to make earthenware and bricks. Earthenware was fired at a relatively low temperature, creating a porous ceramic that was not as durable as stoneware, but was popular until stoneware and other manufactured household goods were more readily available. The pottery industry was active in Whitewater during the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s in three different locations.


Related to the pottery industry, Whitewater’s brick industry developed during the maturing village era. George Dann opened the first major brickyard in 1847. Four more brickyards were opened in 1852, 1879, and 1903. Most of Whitewater’s brick buildings in both the downtown and in residential areas were built with Whitewater brick.


The growth of Whitewater during the Maturing Village era can be seen in the local school system. An old brick school house, built in 1844 near where the current White Memorial Building is located, was soon inadequate and in the fall of 1853, the public voted on a new “Union” school building for elementary grades, and it was completed in 1854 (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 Side School, was completed. It was a brick structure of two stories in height and as families moved to this area near the growing Esterly Manufacturing Company factory, the school was soon filled.


During the 1850s and 1860s, Whitewater’s downtown was still dominated by small, one and two-story, frame-constructed, commercial buildings. Beginning in the 1850s, though, some brick or stone constructed buildings were added to the downtown. Unfortunately, a series of fires in the late 1860s and early 1870s that wiped out several downtown buildings at a time resulted in the new construction of brick buildings that were sturdier and have stood to the present time. Only a couple of buildings from the maturing village era are still standing in the downtown today. The best example is the three-story Central Block at 147-151 Main St.

Two important industries that dominated the industrial era (1870-1900) in Whitewater had their beginnings during the maturing village era. These industries were both developed in the 1850s and were related to agriculture and wheat growing. 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, the now Winchester and Partridge Manufacturing Company rapidly expanded its wagon production and the “Whitewater Wagon” became known for its high quality.


Around the same time as the Winchester and Partridge Company was expanding their 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 mechanical reaper. By 1844, he had a patent for an improved harvester and he built them on this farm until 1855. In 1857, Esterly consolidated production in a new factory in Whitewater.


Esterly continued to improve his harvesters and added the production of other agricultural equipment at his factory. The company branched into furniture manufacturing and together, all of Esterly’s product lines employed an average of 200 to 300 people during the 1880s, when the factory was at peak production.


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 and other agricultural equipment, along with a furniture line. The Winchester and Partridge Manufacturing Company was turning out hundreds of wagons during the 1870s and 1880s, along with plows and other agricultural equipment.


The downtown commercial business district thrived during this period. Most brick blocks in Whitewater’s current downtown were built between 1870 and 1890, and included several double storefront blocks, such the Stewart Block built 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, that was built in 1890.


Between 1860 and 1890, most of the large and architecturally distinctive churches were built on Whitewater’s west side, as well as the city’s most prominent school building. The current Episcopal and Methodist churches were built in 1869 and 1872-73, respectively. The current Congregational Church was built in 1882. One block east along Main Street, the Baptist community would build their large church in 1886 (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 Sts and soon a high school program was started there. The Union School, known fondly 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. Since George Esterly had moved out of his large mansion a few blocks west, the school administration moved the elementary school pupils to the Esterly house. From 1894 until 1927, west side grade school pupils attended school in this large home known as the Esterly 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 large addition to the school was completed and this school was used well into the 1960s, with a modern addition attached in the 1950s. The historic East Side School was demolished in the later twentieth century for a new school building renamed the Washington School.


But, perhaps, the most important event related to education during the industrial era was the founding and development of the Whitewater Normal School, one of several state teachers’ colleges founded 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 was constructed in 1876 and doubled the space. It burned in 1891, but was quickly rebuilt along with a gymnasium addition. In 1897, a new addition on the front of the building was completed.


The population of Whitewater reached 4,158 in 1885 and only 1890’s population of 4,359 was higher. But, the 1890s ended Whitewater’s industrial era. The Esterly factory and the Winchester and Partridge factory closed by 1893, putting between 300 and 500 men out

of work. The industrial depression of 1893-1897 meant that no new industry filled the empty factories. Whitewater’s population dipped by 1,000 people between 1890 and 1900.


At the same time, though, area farmers were becoming more and more prosperous by making a significant change in their farming culture. Wheat growing had been the agriculture of choice between the 1830s and the 1870s and at one point, Wisconsin was a leading wheat producer. Wheat was a very profitable cash crop, but many wheat farmers were not good stewards of the land and wheat growing depleted the soil of nutrients that farmers were not putting back. So, many farmers joined the growing movement further west and north into Minnesota and the Dakotas, seeking new, fertile, land to exploit.

Farmers who wanted to stay in Wisconsin, including the many German and Norwegian farmers coming into the state, needed to find other types of agricultural production to survive. Dairying had always been done on farms and surplus dairy products were often sold. These products lacked consistent quality and profits were small. What farmers, especially Yankee farmers, wanted was a cash crop to take the place of wheat. They found it when progressive Yankee farmers in the Jefferson and Dodge County areas had an idea to switch their operations to larger scale dairying. But, instead of producing low-profit products on the farm, they would sell raw milk to cooperative butter and cheese factories. The butter and cheese factories would pay cash to the farmer, then sell their higher quality, more consistent, products to larger markets.


This idea took off and by the 1880s, most farmers were transitioning to full-time dairying. At the same time, to provide a constant year-around level of milk production, farmers grew animal feed crops they could store for longer periods of time, like corn, oats, and hay. And, they took note of immigrant farmers’ better land stewardship and began to rotate crops and fertilize their farm fields. Dairying was a big success for Wisconsin farmers, so much so that the industrial depression had little impact on the farm economy and that kept towns like Whitewater thriving even after losing their largest employers.


The Commercial-Agricultural Era


The growth of dairy farmers and the cheese factories and creameries that purchased their milk fostered the development of related businesses in Whitewater such as the Wisconsin Dairy Supply, the Dadmun Brothers feed mill, and the Union Produce Company. And, in the early 20th century, the concept of “industrial dairying” came to Whitewater. “Industrial dairying” involved farmers increasing their dairy herds and selling milk to larger factories. Many of these larger factories were condenseries, as the demand for canned milk skyrocketed. In 1913, Libby, McNeill & Libby built a large milk condensery off of Wisconsin Street in Whitewater. During the years prior to World War II, the plant had the capacity to handle over 36 million pounds of milk per year.


Farmers were also broadening their profit margins by selling vegetable crops to canning factories springing up all around Wisconsin in the early 20th century. Vegetables, such as peas, green beans, and sweet corn grew well on Wisconsin farms and selling these crops for cash to the many small canning factories in the state was profitable. 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 canning factory provided employment primarily in the summer and fall seasons, but it added to the economic base of the city.


The most important economic driver in the early 20th century was the growth of the Whitewater Normal School, a state teachers’ college. Students and faculty members were consumers of retail goods and services in Whitewater and kept the city’s downtown vibrant. The growth of the normal school was seen primarily in the growth of Old Main. A large addition to the front of the building was made in 1897, then in 1911, a large west wing, which included a new library and training school, was added. A separate gymnasium building and athletic field were completed in 1917. Finally, a large east wing was added to Old Main in 1924.

Even during the years of 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 the shops and restaurants in the downtown. 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.


Local schools also benefited from modernization during the first part of the 20th century. In 1927, city residents approved a bond to finance the building of a new elementary and high school building on the site of the Esterly School. At the time, the Esterly (west side) school was actually a converted old house that had long outlived its usefulness. And, the high school was crowded into an old 1884 school building that was not constructed originally for a high school program. The community felt it needed a “modern” building to meet the needs of an updated high school curriculum, including better science labs, home economics and shop facilities, and a large gymnasium. The new building, completed a few months after the 1884 high school burned, had all of these amenities and more. It served as a high school until 1960, then as a junior high school until 1994.


Like all areas of the country, Whitewater’s economy slowed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the Normal School helped keep the city’s business district going. 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 there were other factories in the area that were, and there was soon 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, like 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 area 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.


Post World War II Whitewater


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. But, the Whitewater Normal School 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 Whitewater Normal 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 of the 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 beyond liberal arts and education in the state college system, the Board of Regents changed the system to the Wisconsin State Universities. In 1972, the Wisconsin State University 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. Dorms were started in the 1950s and more facilities were built in the 1950s and 1960s. But, much of the classroom space on campus was still 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.


The peak of Whitewater’s downtown commercial district was, undoubtedly the 1950s, when most of Whitewater’s retail businesses were located there. This era lasted into the 1960s, but that decade and the next decade saw a rapid decline of the importance of the city’s downtown. This was part of a national trend in retailing that saw the development of large discount stores and shopping malls built away from downtowns. While Whitewater did not have a large discount store until the turn of the 20th century and no significant shopping malls were built, the ones developed in nearby communities quickly drew Whitewater’s shoppers. At the same time, good roads, cheap gasoline, and reliable automobiles made it easy for consumers to travel out of town for their goods.


Most people still did their grocery shopping in town, but in the 1950s and 1960s, larger supermarkets were built in Whitewater, taking away shoppers from the downtown. 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 some businesses located further west.


By the mid-1980s, Whitewater’s downtown had lost almost all of its traditional businesses. Many merchants closed 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 located in nearby communities.


During the second half of the 20th century, industrial growth never recovered the importance it had in the late 19th century in Whitewater. The shift was on to light industries like the Coburn Company, a catalog marketer of agricultural supplies and the Moksnes Manufacturing Company, now known as Schenk-Accurate, a producer of agricultural-related products.


Recognizing a need for more industrial development, 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 new 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 with grades 6-8.


At the present time, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is still the largest employer and Whitewater will probably always be known as a “college town.” But, there is a much more diversified industrial economy today than 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 cite as a reference, please use:


Carol Cartwright, “A (very) Brief History of Whitewater,” 2014, Whitewater Historical Society web site, www.whitewaterhistoricalsociety.org.





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