This file part of www.watertownhistory.org website
Information from 1948 Milwaukee Sentinel article by August Derleth with additional annotates by Bill Jannke
Together with Milwaukee and Sauk City, Watertown shares the distinction of being one of the three Wisconsin towns which for many years has so prominent a majority or German born inhabitants as to make them predominately centers of German culture. Yet none of the three was founded by a German immigrant, however great the subsequent influx of Germanic people.
Timothy Johnson, a New Englander, was the first white settler in that part of Jefferson County, Wisconsin which was to become Watertown. Johnson had come west looking for a place to live. He examined Racine in late 1835, and in the next year he looked over Janesville. He was not satisfied with either place. He followed the Rock River up some distance and built a log house along that stream not far from the present site of the town of Jefferson.
After clearing a little ground for a garden, he went exploring and thus found the Rock River rapids, which was to be named after him, at the site of Watertown. There he immediately staked out a claim of 1,000 acres, on which the greater part of the city of Watertown stands today.
With his permission Johnson's claim was invaded in June of 1836 by Philander Baldwin, Reeve Griswold, and Charles Seaton, all of whom put up cabins on Johnson's land. In the autumn, Johnson's family joined him, thus becoming the first family to live at the site of Watertown. Johnson's enterprising explorations enabled him to discover the prehistoric earthworks at Aztalan, though there is no record that he recognized their importance.
In the following year, Watertown had one log house and the beginning of a saw mill, which was being erected by Luther A. Cole for C.F. Goodhue and Son. This saw mill was the first of its kind on the entire length of the Rock River, and the log house was the property of the saw mill company, having been built by the company's representative, Capt. James Rogan, in January of that year.
Cole and his brother, John, and another pioneer erected a second log cabin later that year, and by the end of 1837 the saw mill was turning out lumber. But throughout 1837 the population of Watertown did not exceed 15, and one of that number, Thomas Bass, and Englishman, was accidentally burned to death. He was buried in a grove nearby, the settlement's first burial.
First Store Erected by Cole
In 1841, John and Luther Cole erected a building on the corner of Main and Second streets. It was the first store in Watertown. Records show that living at that time was a hardship. Provisions were not easily obtained and money was scarce. The people had to live on fresh fish and pork when there was any to be had. At one time they went without bread for nearly a week because they ran out of their supply of flour and many thefts were made by the Indians. After a watch, some wheat, and a supply of tobacco had been stolen, the people decided to put a stop to robbery if possible. They found the Indian who had caused the trouble and forming a ring around him, forced him to strip his blanket. Then they proceeded to lash him. Following that incident few robberies were heard of around that part of the country.
Growth of Town Slow at First
The little town did not improve rapidly. Lumber was taken to Janesville, Beloit or Rockford. Finally the Cole, Bailey and company erected what was known as the old yellow grist-mill on the east side of the river. The city was then laid out in blocks and lots. Milo Jones of Fort Atkinson was the surveyor.
As has been said before Luther and John Cole had the first store. The second one was owned by Walter Besley. M.J. Gallagher had the first store on the west side, and the first druggist was Ed Johnson. Fred Kusel, Sr., was the first tin smith and Dr. J. R. Goodnough was known as the first physician. John Richards (Octagon House) was the first lawyer.
Because of its proximity to Milwaukee the growing settlement of Watertown seemed a logical terminus for a road as well as for a railroad. During the decade of the 1840's the Territory of Wisconsin, moving toward statehood, drew settlers from the east and from foreign countries. It became necessary to construct serviceable roads in place of the wild trails which were often impassable and imposed much hardship on travelers in Wisconsin.
The first agitation was, naturally, for such water traffic was possible, and for construction of canals to further that traffic. But waterway travel was not practical into many parts of Wisconsin, and it did no permit the movement of large numbers of people and their belongings. The next agitation was for plank roads, and the first of these roads was constructed to Watertown from Milwaukee in 1847, at a cost of $119,000. This was a toll road, and a toll house stood in Watertown after its completion in 1850.
however, even as plank roads were being built, the iron horse was preparing to
invade Wisconsin. In the very year of the beginning of the Milwaukee-Watertown
plank road, a charter was granted to the Milwaukee and Waukesha Railroad Co. By
1855 the Milwaukee road had reached Watertown. And in November, 1859, the
Janesville and Fond du Lac branch of what is now the
The coming of the railroad was accompanied by an amusing incident when Michael O'Hara, the engineer of a locomotive approaching Watertown, not convinced that the two mile bridge east of Richards' Cut near Watertown would support his locomotive, started the engine, then jumped off at the head of the bridge, letting the locomotive go over alone to be caught on the far side by the waiting firemen.
The Plank road and the railroad connection Watertown with Milwaukee played an important part in the growth of the settlement along the Rock River. The waterpower at the site was soon harnessed for other saw mills and for factories to make carriages, barrels, wagons and firkins. Even before these connecting links to the port city of Milwaukee, Watertown was being settled by German immigrants, many of whom were political refugees who had been university students and men in professions for which there was as yet no need in a new settlement like Watertown. As a result, for many years everything these men turned their hand to was a failure; they could not make shoes, they could not manufacture cigars, they could not even brew. When they congregated at the Buena Vista House, they habitually conversed not in German, but in Latin, as a result they were locally known as "Latin Farmers."
Not all the German refugees who came into Watertown were so beset by difficulties, however, Leopold Kadisch, for instance, transplanted to Watertown early in the 1850s the "Viehmarkt," or cattle fair, still held on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month.
The first newspaper was the Watertown Chronicle, established by J. A. Hadley in 1847. Gen. Henry Bertram came to Watertown from Prussia in 1858, became postmaster of Watertown in 1866, and mayor four years later. Since 1895, the Watertown Daily Times has been the city's newspaper.
Watertown's most famed refugee was Carl Schurz; who arrived in 1855. In the face fo the acknowledged democratic leanings of most of the German immigrants in that region, Schurz espoused republicanism, and succeeded in converting most of the German settler to the party of Lincoln. Schurz, a great liberal thinker, ran for the lieutenant governorship of Wisconsin in 1857, but was defeated. In 1861 President Lincoln made him minister to Spain. Before the Schurz's left Wisconsin, Mrs. Carl Schurz, a pupil of Frederic Froebel, established the first kindergarten in America in 1856, in a building once near the Municipal Building. It was moved to the Octagon House Grounds in 1956 and today is a museum. In the field of education, Watertown also was the first Wisconsin city (1877) to provide free textbooks in its public schools.
Watertown was incorporated as a city in 1853. Its population had grown notably. In 1840 the population of the settlement was 218; in 1855 it was 8,526; by 1868, this population had grown to 10,000 largely Germans from Mecklenburg, Prussia, and Pomerania. In its growth, agricultural and industrial pursuits grew in a steadily maintained balance.
Though Watertown today is an industrial city with a population in excess of 20,000, it is also the center of a rich agricultural country where the descendants of many of the original German immigrants are still on the land as well as in the city.
Industrial Watertown produced cutlery, cash registers, locks, furnaces, shoes, table sleds, canned peas, house dresses, mechanical rubber goods, apiarists supplies, condensed milk, airplane propellers and automobile linings. The city was famous for it geese, and a Watertown goose came to be synonymous for the best in such fowl. Noodling, or forced feeding of geese with cooked noodles made of wheat, corn, and barley, for a month or so before marketing them, resulted in geese of great size and greatly enlarged livers. It was for these enlarged livers that Watertown geese were prized, the livers being made into pate de foie gras. As much as 50,000 pounds of Watertown geese had been shipped to New York markets in a single season. The last noodling was in the 1970s.