Industry and Manufacturing in the Whitewater Area

Since the earliest settlers arrived in the Whitewater area in the 1830s, industry and manufacturing have played important roles in the establishment and continued growth of the area.

One of the earliest industries in Whitewater was grain milling, performed at the Old Stone Mill. Built in 1839 and later demolished in 1972, the Old Stone Mill served as the area’s primary location for grain processing and helped put Whitewater on the map.

Black and white photo of Esterly Harvesting Machine
Esterly Harvesting Machine Company looking north across Milwaukee Street. Buildings shown include the Packing and Shipping Department (far left), the Paint Shop (left center), the Pattern Shop (near center), and the company office behind the pine tree. Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS 34249.

In 1856, the Esterly Manufacturing Company opened in Whitewater, producing mainly farming equipment. At its height, this factory employed over 500 workers, mostly Irish and Norwegian immigrants, and was one of the main sources of employment for Whitewater’s young and growing population. In fact, the eastern half of the city became known locally as “Reaperville” because most people living on that side of the bridge worked at the factory. The existence of the Esterly Manufacturing Company factory, along with several other large Whitewater-based industries like the Winchester, DeWolf & Partridge Manufacturing Company, also played a role in the arrival of the railroad, and, subsequently, the establishment of the State Normal School (now known as the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater).

The Wisconsin State Normal School
Exterior of “Old Main” at the State Normal School, founded in 1868. A dirt road leads to the main entrance, flanked by columns. A central tower is visible above. Copyright 1910, by H. J. O’Connor. Image courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS 79671.

In 1892, George Esterly abruptly decided to move his factory to Minneapolis. However, a nationwide financial panic and an unfortunately timed lawsuit ultimately brought about the end of the company before the new location was totally operational. Esterly died less than a year later in 1893. Nonetheless, during the company’s nearly 40-year existence, it significantly impacted agricultural efficiency, and provided an economic boost to the city of Whitewater and the surrounding areas.

Front of George Esterly's House after it was converted to a school
George Esterly’s house was converted into a school after his death. Here is the front of the school, pictured in 1910. Image courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS 35494.

Although Esterly and the other early manufacturing plants in Whitewater closed around the turn of the century, manufacturing in Whitewater continued, spurred by the rise of the dairy industry in Wisconsin. Over the course of the twentieth century, the dairying industry evolved from the condenseries, creameries, and cheese factories that dotted the rural landscape to larger and more centralized dairy processing facilities. One of these larger operations was the Chicago-based Hawthorn-Mellody company. Purchased from Hoard’s Creamery of Fort Atkinson in 1944, the Hawthorn-Mellody’s Whitewater plant produced Grade A fluid milk until the company went bankrupt in 1992. Today, the local dairy farmers that persist provide a glimpse into Whitewater’s dairying legacy.


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About the Author

Elizabeth Farrey


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Apps, Jerry. Wisconsin Agriculture: A History. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015.

Cartwright, Carol. “A (Very) Brief History of Whitewater.” Whitewater Historical Society, 2014. Accessed 5 November 2019. https://www.whitewaterhistoricalsociety.org/whitewater-history.

Cravath, Prosper, and Spencer S, Steele. Early Annals of Whitewater, 1837-1867. Edited by Albert Salisbury. Whitewater: Whitewater Federation of Women’s Clubs, 1906.

McCready, Bo. Early Whitewater Industry. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2008.

Wisconsin Historical Society. “How a Disaster Made Wisconsin the Dairy State.” Accessed 4 November 2019. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS407.

WisContext. “Before Dairy Ruled, Wheat Reigned in Wisconsin.” Accessed 4 November 2019. https://www.wiscontext.org/dairy-ruled-wheat-reigned-wisconsin.