Native Americans once referred to Whitewater as “Minneiska,” meaning the city beautiful. Whitewater received its name from a tribe of Potawatomi Native Americans that had lived 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. Dr. Trippe’s donation of money, in 1839, for the Old Stone Mill started the growth of Whitewater. 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.
This City of Whitewater Historic Landmarks Map shows the 24 Historic Landmarks around Whitewater, along with a brief history about each structure and its significance.
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.
During the world wars and the Great Depression, small trade and light industries were at the the heart of Whitewater’s 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) continued 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, manufacturing and the service industries we have today, Whitewater continues to evolve and grow as a community.