Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Watertown, Wisconsin - A Brief History

A Brief History of Watertown | Wisconsin Historical Society

Watertown is located halfway between Milwaukee and Madison and, sits on the border between Dodge and Jefferson counties. Timothy Johnson settled in Watertown in 1836, near an old French fur trade post. Originally called Johnson's Rapids, the town changed its name to Watertown in 1842 after receiving an influx of settlers originally from Watertown, New York. Watertown incorporated as a city in 1853.

The first grain mill opened on the Rock River in 1842, providing power, too, to saw mills and later, two hydroelectric dams. In 1853, a plank road connecting Watertown to Milwaukee allowed Watertown to export wheat, barley, flour, corn, potatoes, and wood, and to import merchandise, lumber, carriages, wagons, and other goods. Later, Watertown's proximity to the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, as well as the North Western Railroad enabled further exports of the city's cereals, livestock, tobacco, butter, cheese, flour, paper boxes, shoes, and peas.

In 1855, Watertown was the second largest community in Wisconsin with a population of 8,500, due in large part to a flood of German immigrants. Prominent Watertown residents include Margerethe Mayer Schurz (1833-1876), who, in 1856, taught the first kindergarten class in the U.S.; General Carl Schurz (1829-1906), Margerethe's husband and lawyer, Civil War General, and later the first German-American U.S. Senator representing Missouri; and Wisconsin Governor William D. Hoard (1836-1918), who strongly advocated for advances in Wisconsin's dairy industry in the 19th century. The Wisconsin Dairyman's Association was founded in Watertown in 1872.

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[Source: WHS Library-Archives Staff, 2009]