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A History of Waterford, Wisconsin

Paul has lived in southeastern Wisconsin all his life. He attended Saint Thomas Aquinas School in Waterford in 1957 and 1958.

A History of Waterford

Waterford circa 1921

Waterford circa 1921

This is a brief history of Waterford, Wisconsin, from its founding in 1836 until 1965.

I attended Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in the town of Waterford from 1957 until June 1958 when I graduated from the eighth grade. During high school and college summer vacations, I often went to church and shopping in Waterford.

After joining the Navy and moving away from home near Honey Creek, I seldom visited Waterford anymore. However, I always have reminisced about my school days at Saint Thomas. This has stimulated me to learn the history of Waterford.

In this article, I rely on historical books and newspaper articles to recall the history of Waterford. I divide the history of Waterford from its founding until 1965 into the following periods:

  1. Founding in 1836 until Civil War Years — 1861–65
  2. Post Civil War — 1865–1900
  3. Modernization — 1900–1940
  4. The Waterford I Knew — 1940–1965

Each period is described in this article.

Where is Waterford?

Map of Racine County, Wisconsin

Map of Racine County, Wisconsin

The Town and Village of Waterford are located in the northwestern part of Racine County, Wisconsin. Their neighbors are Walworth County to the west and Waukesha County to the north. Racine County Town of Norway is to the east and the Town of Rochester is to the south.

Founding in 1836 until Civil War Years — 1861–65

Waterford was founded in 1836 by Samuel E. Chapman and Levi Barnes. After settlers moved in, they built a sawmill, gristmill, paper mill, and flour mill after damming the Fox River near Tichigan Lake. The territorial legislature authorized the building of plank roads. A hardware store, blacksmith, dry goods, and grocery stores also appeared. The first school appeared in 1850 and by 1863 there was free public education. During the Civil War, young Waterford draftees served in the Union Army. Each of these happenings is further described.

The Founding of Waterford in 1836

In 1833, the United States signed a treaty with the Pottawatomie, Ottawa, and Chippewa Native American tribes to cede the southeastern part of Wisconsin in the Michigan Territory to the government. During the period 1833-36, the treaty allowed the Native Americans to relocate west of the Mississippi River and the U.S. to survey the land in preparation for settlement.

After Michigan became a state in 1836, Wisconsin was made into a territory on April 20, 1836. The Wisconsin Territory also included the northeastern corner of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and parts of the Dakota territories.

In May 1836, Samuel E. Chapman, a 25-year-old practicing lawyer, and Levi Barnes, Chapman's 62-year-old father-in-law, emigrated from the Waterford area in upper New York State. Their destination was southeastern Wisconsin where they were seeking cheap government land for economic opportunities.

Chapman and Barnes weren't the earliest settlers in the Waterford, Wisconsin, area. Levi Godrey and John Wade settled one mile downriver in today's village of Rochester to harness the power of the Fox River.

After Chapman and Barnes arrived at the site of today's village of Waterford, each staked claim to 160 acres. They then built a small cabin to hold their legal claim.

Chapman and Barnes then returned to Lockport, Indiana, to get their families.

Meanwhile, In October 1836, Wisconsin's first territorial legislature established 15 counties including Racine, Walworth, Rock, and Jefferson. Iowa was made a separate territory.

In the winter of 1836-37, while Chapman and Barnes were in Indiana reuniting with their families, Mr. Beede made a claim to water power at Waterford and built a shanty. After Chapman returned, he bought the rights to the Waterford land from Beede for $700.

In the fall of 1837, Chapman, with aid from eight local settlers, dammed the Fox River and built a sawmill. Logging activity was now important in the clearing of land and building of cabins.

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On January 2, 1838, the territorial legislature split Racine County into townships. Township four became the Town of Rochester including Waterford.

In 1839, Chapman built a flour mill next to the sawmill. This later became Chapman's primary business.

At this time, Chapman and Barnes still did not own their land. During the Great Land Sale of 1839, however, people could buy land for $1.25 per acre. This had to be done by licensed agents hired by buyers.

Therefore, on March 9, 1839, Chapman and Barnes hired Eliphalet Cramer of Milwaukee to be their agent. Cramer paid $400 for 320 acres and transferred a deed with the mortgage for $1200. Barnes and Chapman got the east half of Section 35, Township 4. Township 4 became the Town of Rochester.

In January 1847, however, the Wisconsin territorial legislature petitioned to form the Town of Waterford and separate it from the Town of Rochester.

Town of Waterford Developments — 1843–1865

From 1843 until 1865, Waterford witnessed the following developments:

  1. Plank roads built in southeastern Wisconsin
  2. The first private school in 1850
  3. More mills and businesses started
  4. Civil War service 1861-65
  5. The first public school in 1863
  6. Other significant happenings

Plank Roads Built in Southeastern Wisconsin

In 1848, the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature authorized plank roads from Milwaukee to the town of Muskego and then to the Fox River. Finally, the roads would go to Waterford and Wilmot.

The Territorial Legislature also authorized plank roads from Racine to Janesville with branches to Waterford, Rochester, and Burlington in 1848.

The plank roads were built in 1849. 8-12"x4"x8' long planks were used in the construction. It cost $1600 per mile to build and a toll of 1.5 cents per mile was collected for its use.

The First Private School in 1850

In 1850, Ruth Chapman taught school in the upper front room of her home. At that time, a little brick schoolhouse was built where a grade school was later located. The schoolhouse was also used as a church and town hall until 1859. In that year, the First Church Congregational was built on that site where the high school was later built in the early 1900s.

More Mills and Businesses Started

By 1859, S.C. Russ and Co. had a grist and flouring mill, as well as Chapman, and a new flouring mill. C.A. Gale had a paper mill. Dry goods, groceries, and a hardware store also appeared as well as the Waterford House which served as a hotel.

Old Waterford House Built in 1843

Old Waterford House on corner of Main and Jefferson on Old Plank Road

Old Waterford House on corner of Main and Jefferson on Old Plank Road

Civil War Service 1861-65

During the Civil War, Waterford young men served in the Union Army. Most notable was a Scandinavian Regiment that was also known as the 19th Regiment and Colonel Hans Heg's 15th Regiment.

The First Public School in 1863

The Union School District # 1 that included the townships of Spring Prairie, Rochester, Troy, and Waterford started on November 23, 1863. It had 100 students.

6. Other Significant Happenings

The following other significant happenings were witnessed during the period 1860–65.

  1. In 1860, a new bridge was built across the Fox River in Waterford village.
  2. In 1860, census figures from enumerator Hoyt listed the town of Waterford as having 1,031 residents and the village of Waterford having 416.
  3. In 1864, Good Templar Societies were organized in Rochester, Waterford, and Honey Creek. These Societies advocated abstinence from alcohol and other drugs.
  4. In 1864, diphtheria was raging in Waterford.

Post Civil War — 1865–1900

In the second half of the 19th century, Waterford grew with the addition of industries, hospitality, and professional services.

Public services appeared with the introduction of telephone service, the first fire engine with hook and ladder, and the advent of the Waterford Post newspaper.

For entertainment, residents took cruises on the Fox River and enjoyed a Ringling Brothers circus performance.

In this period, there were also tragic fires. They occurred in 1873 and 1898.

Each of these happenings is described in the sections below.

Addition of Industries, Hospitality, and Professional Services

The following main industries were established.

  1. 1869 — Iverson, Harden, and Erikson began as carriage manufacturers.
  2. 1871 — Don Thompson built a mill
  3. 1888 — McCanna and Co. built a cheese factory
  4. 1891 — A brick and tile factory was started

These hospitality services appeared.

  1. 1873 — John Halbach opened the Wisconsin House and Saloon.
  2. 1875 — Ole Heg Saloon opening
  3. 1875 — William Plucker established a restaurant and billiard hall on the corner of Main and 2nd Streets.

Professional Services First Appearing

  1. 1871 — Dr. Sherman is listed as a physician and surgeon.
  2. 1871 — Nowell and Harden opened a drug store.
  3. 1875 — Henry Ensing started an undertaking and furniture business.
  4. 1887 — A dentist began doing business.
  5. 1897 — A jewelry store and barbershop appeared.

Public Services

The following public services were introduced.

  1. 1875 — Waterford had its first fire engine and hook and ladder.
  2. 1877 — The Waterford Post Newspaper was started.
  3. 1880 — The cornerstone of Saint Thomas Aquinas Church was laid.
  4. 1881 — Telephone poles were put up between Burlington, Rochester, and Waterford in 1881. M.P. Petrie made the first call on this line. In 1893, poles were set for a new telephone line for Waterford to Norway and Dover.
  5. 1886 — A.J. Hannas delivered mail between Rochester, Waterford, Honey Creek, and Vienna.
  6. 1889 — A new iron bridge was constructed across the Fox River in Waterford.


For Waterford entertainment, the following items were noted in newspaper articles.

  1. 1868 — Daniel Thompson's steamer made regular excursion trips from Waterford to Tichigan Lake on the Fox River in the summer.
  2. 1885 — Ringling Bros. Circus had a performance at Waterford.
  3. 1898 — The Waterford Amusement Co. announced it was building an opera house.

Tragic Fires

The following tragic fires occurred.

  1. 1873 — There was a big fire on August 19. It started in the Hollenbeck Blacksmith Shop and destroyed the blacksmith shop, Harden Carriage, and Wagon Works, Christianson Shoe Store, and the Weage Building.
  2. 1898 — A disastrous fire occurred on Main Street in Waterford. Many businesses were destroyed. This fire became the impetus for Waterford to incorporate as a village a few years later.

Aftermath of Fire of 1898

Aftermath of Waterford Fire of 1898

Aftermath of Waterford Fire of 1898

Modernization — 1900–1940

In the first four decades of the twentieth century, Waterford developed and became a modern village. The lives of the people became easier, more productive, and more democratic in the following ways.

  1. Expansion of Telephone Service
  2. Electrification of Waterford Village
  3. Electric Train Service to Waterford
  4. The Advent of Automobiles, Better Roads, and a New Bridge
  5. Waterworks and Gas Lines
  6. New Industries and Businesses
  7. Democratic Government
  8. School Advances
  9. New Banks
  10. Entertainment
  11. Other Public Services

1. Expansion of Telephone Service

The following are examples of the expansion of telephone service.

  1. 1903 — A line was built between Rochester and Waterford and a local exchange was installed for 20 telephones.
  2. 1905 — A telephone line was extended from Waterford to Caldwell.
  3. 1914 — A 100 wire telephone cable was strung between Waterford and Rochester by the Burlington, Rochester, and Kansasville Telephone Company.

2. Electrification of Waterford Village

The electrification of Waterford Village proceeded in the following manner.

  1. 1903 — An electric light plant was installed and power was taken from the plant of the Waterford Milling Company.
  2. 1906 — The Waterford Milling Company got a 10–year lease to light Waterford streets.
  3. 1911 — The Milwaukee Electric Rail Line (TMERL) bought the Waterford Lighting Plant.
  4. 1913 — There was a change from direct current (D/C) to alternating current (A/C)
  5. 1913 — TMERL turned on Waterford street lights.
  6. 1926 — A new electric substation was built.

3. Electric Train Service to Waterford

Electric train service to Waterford developed in the following way.

  1. 1904 — The survey of a proposed electric railroad from Muskego through Waterford and Rochester to Burlington was conducted.
  2. 1909 — TMERL began running electric trains or streetcars from Milwaukee to Burlington through Waterford. A one-way fare between Milwaukee and Burlington was $0.70. The round trip fare was $1.25. Fares between Burlington and Waterford were $0.15 one-way and $0.25 for round trip.
  3. 1912 — Freight service to Waterford started.
  4. 1914 — TMERL shipped milk from Waterford to Burlington.

4. Advent of Automobile, Better Roads, and a New Bridge

The advent and expansion of the use of automobiles hastened the building of better roads happened in the following manner.

  1. 1913 — Fred Johnson opened an automobile garage.
  2. 1916 — Waterford had 31 automobiles.
  3. 1916 — Racine County planned two roads between Racine and Waterford.
  4. 1917 — The first all-auto funeral was held.
  5. 1917 — The Ford Garage opened
  6. 1919 — The concrete paving of Main Street in Waterford took place.
  7. 1919 — Racine County issued bonds to build 125 miles of hard roads.
  8. 1921 — A filling station opened in Waterford.
  9. 1922 — The road between Waterford and Rochester was concrete paved.
  10. 1923 — The town of Waterford had 210 automobiles and the village 108.
  11. 1937 — A new bridge was built across the Fox River in Waterford.

The Ford Garage around 1920

Ford Garage around 1920

Ford Garage around 1920

5. Waterworks and Gas Lines

Waterworks and gas lines came into existence this way.

  1. 1912 — The installation of a waterworks system began.
  2. 1913 — The Chicago Bridge and Iron Works received a contract to build a water tower and tank.
  3. 1928 — Gas mains were laid in August. Gas from Wisconsin Gas and Electric started flowing in December. The gas came from a high-pressure gas line from Racine to Waterford.

6. New Industries and Businesses

The following new industries and businesses appeared.

  1. 1900 — The Waterford Creamery was receiving 16,000 pounds of milk daily and had 125 patrons.
  2. 1902 — Waterford had a grain and feed business.
  3. 1902 — Chickens were sold to Texas and Minnesota customers.
  4. 1907 — A.M. Rittman manufactured the Universo cigar.
  5. 1913 — The Alby Cigar Factory was in Waterford.
  6. 1918 — Waterford had the only flour mill in Racine County. In 1918, it sent wheat flour to France.
  7. 1920 — Waterford had a new pickle factory.
  8. 1921 — A.M. Rittman and A. Woesle opened a clothing store.
  9. 1921 — Scheele's had a new hardware store.
  10. 1924 — Mealy Undertaking and Furniture business noted
  11. 1925 — Existence of Steinke Plumbing and Heating business

7. Democratic Government

Two examples of democratic government are as follows.

  1. 1905 — Waterford residents voted to incorporate as a village.
  2. 1906 — The first village election was held. John Rice was elected as the first mayor.
  3. 1915 — Willian Trost succeeded Seymour Barnes as village Marshall. He had the lowest bid at $30 a month for his services.

8. School Advances

These are examples of school advances.

  1. 1902 — An addition was made to the (grade) schoolhouse.
  2. 1905 — 491 school-age children counted in Waterford
  3. 1905 — Waterford residents voted to establish a high school.
  4. 1911 — A high school opened with 76 students.
  5. 1919 — 13 graduates from Waterford High and 57 were attending.
  6. 1925 — High school was closed for 10 days by a scarlet fever epidemic.
  7. 1927 — Waterford high school had 102 students, the grade school 67, and Saint Thomas Aquinas School had 112 students.

9. New Banks

Waterford had the following banks.

  1. 1903 — Waterford Bank was established.
  2. 1906 — Noll's Bank of Waterford was established.

10. Entertainment

The following are examples of entertainment in the early twentieth century.

  1. 1911 — A home talent minstrel show was held.
  2. 1913 — Glueck and Rambo leased the Amusement Hall to show movies.
  3. 1914 — The Ten Club sponsored a dance.
  4. 1915 — A new movie theater, The Strand, opened.
  5. 1917 — The Strand hired a pianist. Note that movies were silent in 1917.
  6. 1919 — The Ten Club was on record wanting land next to the Fox River for a public park.
  7. 1927 — Work was started on an 18-hole golf course west of Waterford village.

11. Other Public Services

These are other public services happenings.

  1. 1913 — A volunteer fire department was organized.
  2. 1919 — Waterford had the first American Legion post in Racine County.
  3. 1925 — The Fox River Hotel was built on Main Street.

Fox River Hotel in the 1920s

Fox River Hotel on Main Street

Fox River Hotel on Main Street

Waterford Circa 1900

Waterford Main Street looking east from the Fox River bridge circa 1900

Waterford Main Street looking east from the Fox River bridge circa 1900

Waterford Circa 1910

Waterford Main Street Circa 1910

Waterford Main Street Circa 1910

The Waterford I Knew -- 1940-1965

Although the village of Waterford's population doubled from 750 to 1500 during the period 1940-1960, the village hardly added any industries and did not change much. In this section, I recall the following.

  1. Significant happenings — 1940–1957
  2. The Waterford I Knew — 1957–1965

Significant Happenings — 1940–1957

The following is a list of significant happenings.

  1. 1940 — The Park Apartment Building opposite Ten Club Park opened.
  2. 1941 — A new Saint Thomas Aquinas School was built.
  3. 1942 — The Aber Engineering Co., Inc. opened a new factory.
  4. 1954 — The new Waterford Community Bank opened.

The Waterford I Knew — 1957–1965

My first glimpse of Waterford was in March 1957 when I started to attend Saint Thomas Aquinas School opposite the Ten Club Park. At that time, I remember the Rivermoor Golf Course and the grade and high school west of the bridge across the Fox River.

On the east side of the bridge on Main Street, I recall Foots Sport Shop and Zimmers Drug on the left side of the street. Hecht's Bar was on the corner of Main and River Road.

After graduating from Saint Thomas Aquinas in May 1958, I made fewer and fewer trips to Waterford. My last trips were to Dick's Market on West Main Street in 1964 to pick up my mother after her work ended.

Waterford in the 1950s

Main Street in Waterford in the 1950s

Main Street in Waterford in the 1950s

Saint Thomas Aquinas Church in Early 1900s

Spire of Saint Thomas Aquinas Church seen on left looking from Main Street down River Road.  Picture taken in early 1900s.

Spire of Saint Thomas Aquinas Church seen on left looking from Main Street down River Road. Picture taken in early 1900s.

Dick's Market on West Main Street

Taken in probably 1950s

Taken in probably 1950s

Waterford in 2021

Village of Waterford Wisconsin in 2021

Village of Waterford Wisconsin in 2021


  • Rochester Historical Society
  • 1879 History of Racine and Kenosha Counties, Wisconsin, page 483
  • Grassroots History of Racine County, page 254
  • History of Wisconsin pages 591-592
  • Lydia Woodhead Carr Manuscript of 1850
  • Waterford Post Historical Articles 1877-1965
  • Standard, Standard Democrat, or Standard Press, 10/14/1863-Present

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Paul Richard Kuehn

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