Nestled within the forest, lakes, prairies, and hills of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in southeastern Wisconsin, visitor’s flock to Whitewater for its many recreational opportunities. As you experience Whitewater, one thing you will notice is the friendly, caring people who will welcome you. We’ve been waiting for your visit and look forward to showing you our city.
Whitewater received its name from a tribe of Potawatomi Native Americans that had settled along the Whitewater River (known today as the Whitewater Creek). The name Wau-be-gan-naw-po-cat, meaning “white water”, was given to the area due to the white sands that lay at the bottom of the creek.
The Whitewater area was first settled in 1836, when Alvin Foster made his stake on the land by marking his name on a tree. At that time, that was all that was needed to make a legal claim on a piece of land. In 1837, Samuel Prince built the first log cabin near the current site of Whitewater’s Indian Mounds Park. After a six-day trip on foot, 20 settlers arrived here from Milwaukee and started the early makings of Whitewater. More settlers began to arrive in the untamed central Wisconsin wilderness. Other early settlers who arrived that first year were Johnson, Hamilton, Brewer, Collins, and Nichols. It was not until 1839, with Dr. Trippe’s donation of money for the Old Stone Mill, that Whitewater started to grow. The mill helped to create the new industrial hub of Whitewater.
By 1840, three main arteries were laid out: Whitewater, Main and Center Streets. The town had a mill, blacksmith shop, store, hotel, and school, with a post office on the way. By 1844 Whitewater had grown to six stores, one grocery, two hotels, three blacksmith shops, a tailor, two cabinet shops, a cooper, a gristmill, and twenty-nine recorded homes.
In 1852, the first railway to cross Wisconsin laid its tracks through Whitewater, spurring industrial growth. Winchester and DeWolf Plow Factory (1850) Esterly Reaper Works (1857), and Winchester and Partridge Wagon Works (1860) were some of Walworth County’s first and largest industries. In 1855 the population of Whitewater was 2,224. By 1888 it had grown to 3,621. Esterly Reaper Works was the largest employer in the 1880s, employing 525. Esterly employees built homes close to the factory on the east side of the city; hence the surrounding area became known as “Reaperville”. Various industries fueled Whitewater’s growth until 1892, when the Esterly Reaper Works moved to Minnesota and the Wagon Works shut down, thus marking the end of Whitewater’s first industrial era.
With the loss of two major industries, Whitewater lost one quarter of its population and did not regain its 1890 population level until 1950. During the world wars and the Great Depression, Whitewater relied on small trade and light industries to sustain its economy. Agricultural products, including eggs, farm produce, cheese, dairy products, livestock and small game made up 66 percent of Whitewater’s trade at the time. Meanwhile, the Whitewater Normal School (which later evolved into the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater) went about its business of training teachers. The school made several changes through the years, including diversifying its studies. After World War II, veterans returning from war boosted enrollment, sending the school well on its way to becoming the university it is today (University Website).Between the university and the manufacturing and service industries we have today, Whitewater has seen many changes. This community looks forward to this century and what the future has in store.