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Racine County History

For a detailed timeline, click here.

Woodland Indians were the earliest known inhabitants of Racine County. In the latter half of the 17th Century, French fur traders and missionaries, including Nicholas Perrot and Fathers Claude Allouez and Jacques Marquette, found predominately Miami Indians inhabiting the lands along Racine’s Root River. By 1720, the Miami tribe had moved on and the area had become the home of the Potawatomi Indians.

Following the Black Hawk War in 1832, “Wisconsin Fever” brought many pioneers from Western New York State, rural New England and Britain to this area. One of these was Captain Gilbert Knapp, who, in 1834, founded the settlement of Port Gilbert at the place where the Root River empties into Lake Michigan. Soon thereafter, other pioneers were settling areas to the west. Lemuel Smith, who arrived in 1835, was said to have been the first settler in Burlington. David Bushnell and Herman and Elizabeth Loomis arrived the following year. In 1836, Levi Godfrey and John Wade built a log house in what is now Rochester. S.E. Chapman and Levi Barnes came to Waterford the same year.


In 1805, Congress created the Michigan Territory, which included all the land that is now in the State of Wisconsin. In 1818, the land west of Lake Michigan was divided into three counties. As settlers moved in, new counties were split off from those original three. Milwaukee County was founded in 1834, the year Captain Knapp arrived, and included all the land along the lake south to Illinois. In 1836, the Wisconsin Territory was organized. That same year, this area was sufficiently inhabited to warrant separation from Milwaukee County, and Racine County was formed. It did not take on its present-day borders, however, until 1850, when Kenosha County was created out of its southernmost portion.

Racine County holds the distinction of having erected, in 1853, the first high school building in the State of Wisconsin. The present County Courthouse grounds include the former sites of both Racine High School and the County’s first public school.

Racine County land has been farmed for 2,000 years. After the Civil War, dairy farming became more important, and remains so today. In 1998, there were 650 farms, covering 136,000 acres, in Racine County.


The first industry in Racine County was agriculture-related, and included the manufacture of fanning mills, machines that separated grain from chaff. In 1842, 24-year-old Jerome Increase Case came from New York State with a combined thresher-separator that he had invented. He started production of his machine in Rochester, in competition with a local company, Fanning Mills. Case moved his factory to Racine a few years later. The company he founded, originally J.I. Case but now CNH, is still headquartered in Racine and continues to be a world leader in the manufacture and sale of agricultural and construction equipment.

In the years following the Civil War, the Horlick Malted Milk Company of Racine sold the powdered milk and malted milk that British immigrant William Horlick developed. The Wisconsin Condensed Milk Company was active in Burlington.

Racine County has long been known for the inventiveness of its citizens. In 1873, the Rev. J.W. Carhart put together one of the first steam-powered automobiles. J.I. Case and Mitchell & Lewis were among a group of Racine-based car manufacturers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The car companies spurred the establishment of other businesses that provided vehicle parts, including Walker Manufacturing Company (jacks and mufflers), Twin Disc (clutches) and Modine Manufacturing Company (heat transfer products and torque converters).

During this same time period, S.C. Johnson founded a company to manufacture and distribute floor wax products. That enterprise has grown into one of the largest manufacturers of personal, household and professional cleaning products and insect control products in the world, now known as SC Johnson, A Family Company.

In 1927, John Hammes, a Racine architect, invented a better way of disposing of food waste – the food waste disposer. By 1938 he’d patented the product and launched InSinkErator®. Today, disposers are still manufactured in Racine and InSinkErator is the world’s best selling brand of food waste disposers and instant hot water dispensers.

Manufacturing firms that were founded in Racine County include Andis Hair Clippers, Jacobsen-Textron (lawn care products), Rainfair (protective clothing), Young Radiator, Dremel Tools (small power tools), Gold Medal Furniture, Gorton Machine Co., Badger Basket and Veneer Company, and Ruud Lighting.

Today, a large plant producing Nestle chocolate products gives Burlington the nickname “Chocolate City.” Hi-Liter Graphics, Runzheimer International, Hypro, LDV Inc., Echo Lake Produce, and Packaging Corporation of American are also located in the western part of the County.

Many Racine County businesses started here and expanded all over the globe. That is now a two-way street, as foreign-based companies have established plants and offices here. In addition to Nestle, these include Putzmeister, Alloc Flooring, Lavelle Industries, Saint Gobain Containers, and Bombardier. Racine County may sit firmly in America’s heartland, but it touches every part of the globe.

Looking for more local history? Visit Racine Heritage Museum Online

Racine County Convention and Visitors Bureau
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