Kenosha County History: Images and Texts, 1830s-1940s

URLs to browse or search the collections

Kenosha County is situated in the most southeastern part of Wisconsin adjoining the Illinois State border. In 1830, Kenosha County was a remote corner of the largely unsettled Michigan Territory. Beginning in 1835 settlers arrived from New York and New England, making Kenosha County and City the southernmost settlement in the state. From 1835 through the 1880s the region’s main commercial activity was agriculture. In the 1870s the County and City barely survived a local depression, which stifled industrial growth. By 1890 industrial expansion had greatly improved in the City and County with continued growth until the Great Depression of the 1930s. The C.E. Dewey Lantern Slide Collection contains images of this time period from the 1830s to the early 1940s. The Louis M. Thiers Glass Negative Collection contains images from the 1880s into the 1910s.

The eight books chosen for this collection represent the early days of European-American settlement in Kenosha County, document the history of Racine and Kenosha Counties, and profile prominent residents. Kenosha landscapes, parks, public buildings, residences, businesses, and industries from the early 20th century are described and photographed. A visual presentation of soldiers and sailors training or fighting on the Western Front during World War I offers a glimpse into Kenosha’s role in this international conflict. An original copy of the City Plan, commissioned by the City of Kenosha and proposed by Harland Bartholomew and Associates in 1925, demonstrates the vision of leaders as they prepared for the community’s growth and civic life in subsequent decades. This report was a landmark example of urban planning and development in the 1920s. The family albums in the collection are two of the most well-preserved documents created by L. M. Thiers. Handwritten photograph captions and detailed descriptions make them the most personal works featured in this collection.

The collaborative relationships between staff members at the Kenosha Public Library and the Kenosha County Historical Society and Museum made the selection and description of these materials possible. The images and texts offer the public another “window into the past” of Kenosha County; the project promotes and preserves local historical resources available in two of Kenosha’s educational and cultural institutions. Named collectively for Cortland Ernest Dewey, a prominent citizen, the lantern slides are considered one of the Kenosha History Center Archives’ most significant iconographic collections. They primarily depict people, buildings, landscapes, objects and significant events in the City and County of Kenosha from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Louis Milton Thiers materials are unique, and the majority of the images captured by this versatile and dedicated photographer have never been published. These lantern slides and glass negatives are considered the Kenosha History Center Archives’ most significant iconographic collections.

Kenosha Public Library is the resource library for the Kenosha County Library System. Established in 1895, the Kenosha Public Library currently provides services at four library locations and on a bookmobile. Its mission is to provide the highest quality library resources for information, recreation, and lifelong learning for residents of all ages in the City and County of Kenosha. Southwest Library houses the largest circulating collection and central reference collection for the Kenosha Public Library, including the Library’s local history and genealogy collections, local newspapers from 1840 to date on microfilm, an extensive clippings file, and offers a variety of other materials and services. The Kenosha County Library System, established in January 1981, enables all residents of the City and County to have full access to all city branches and the Community Libraries in Salem, Twin Lakes, and Silver Lake.

Kenosha County Historical Society’s C.E. Dewey Lantern Slide Collection

The C.E. Dewey Collection is comprised of 1,232 glass lantern slides. Cortland Ernest Dewey collected Kenosha County photographs, images, drawings, and maps and also provided detailed descriptions of these materials from old settlers, their descendents, and news stories. In 1933 the images compiled by C.E. Dewey were the stimulus for a cooperative project between the Kenosha County Historical Society, Mr. Dewey, and the University Extension Division of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The University Extension was offered the loan and use of these valuable regional pictures for duplication purposes.

Cortland Ernest Dewey was born in Paris Township in Kenosha County on March 21, 1861, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Cortland A. Dewey. In 1868 his parents moved to the City of Kenosha where his father established a hardware business. He was educated in Kenosha elementary schools and the high school. At the age of seventeen he entered the hardware business with his father. He was actively engaged in the Dewey Hardware Company, a landmark in the city’s downtown area from 1878 to 1938. The business was located on the northwest corner of Park (57th Street) and Main Streets (6th Avenue).
In the 1890s, Mr. Dewey added an Eastman Kodak Company department to the hardware store. He supplied photographic materials to professionals as well as amateurs and was an avid photographer himself. This photo department was significant because it enabled Mr. Dewey to establish contacts to acquire photographs from the locals. He was a member of the old volunteer firemen known as the Gem Hose Company, served in the Wisconsin State Assembly, was President of the Civic Council of Kenosha and a long-standing member of the Elks Lodge. A leader in community activities, Mr. Dewey was known for his interests in the Kenosha County Historical Society, an organization in which he served as President from 1933 until his death in 1945.

Kenosha County Historical Society’s Louis M. Thiers Glass Negative Collection

The Louis M. Thiers Glass Negative Collection is comprised of over 1,000 glass plate photographic negatives. In 1938 Mr. Thiers gave his glass negatives, albums, notebooks and other items to the Kenosha County Historical Society. The stability of the glass plates has wonderfully preserved the images of people, homes, buildings, industries, domestic and recreational scenes, animals, landscapes, and events in Kenosha County, primarily from the late 1880s into the early 1910s. Devotion to family, friends, and civic life, the enjoyment of simple pleasures, and the beauty of nature are clearly evident in this collection. The aesthetic appeal, strong composition, and mastery of photography demonstrated by these shots are readily apparent.

The Thiers collection complements the Society’s C.E. Dewey Lantern Slide Collection, which was digitized in 2008 as part of the State of Wisconsin Collection’s subcollection, Kenosha County History: Images and Texts, 1830s-1940s. Cortland Ernest Dewey was a friend, and a significant number of his slides were created from Thiers’ photographs.

Established in 1879, Kenosha County Historical Society has been actively collecting historical artifacts and archival collections since its founding. The Kenosha County Historical Society’s collections are located in the Kenosha History Center in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The mission of the Society is to “Preserve the Past to Teach the Future.” Our collections provide an opportunity to appreciate Kenosha County’s rich heritage and demonstrate the importance of preserving reminders of that heritage for generations to come.

Source of information: Focus on Louis Thiers: a Photographer’s View of Kenosha, by Diane M. Giles, Beverly Brandl McCumber, Dane F. Pollei. Donning Company Publishers (c1998 by Kenosha County Historical Society).

For further resources related to Kenosha County history, visit these educational and cultural institutions or their Web sites:


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Searching the Collection

In addition to the predefined subject groupings at the top of the page, you may search by keyword(s) to find images or locate information within books and albums of the collection. You may also choose from a variety of library subject headings to retrieve more specific topics from the C.E. Dewey Lantern Slide Collection and the Louis Thiers Glass Negative Collection. Some of the frequently used subjects to describe the lantern slides and glass negatives include the following terms or phrases:

  • Advertising
  • Artistic photography
  • Automobile industry and trade
  • Bedding industry
  • Fire departments
  • Fire extinction
  • Harbors
  • Interior architecture
  • Leather industry and trade
  • Libraries
  • Parades
  • Parks
  • Pioneers
  • Plazas
  • Post office stations and branches
  • Railroads
  • Roads
  • Schools
  • Stores, Retail
  • Streets

Full-Text Histories

Discover the history of Kenosha and Racine Counties, learn about well-known individuals, and see Kenosha buildings and landscapes from the 19th and early 20th centuries through these texts.

Pioneer Life in Kenosha County: a Sketch / by H.M. Simmons. 1876.

The History of Racine and Kenosha Counties, Wisconsin. 1879.

Kenosha Illustrated: Historical, Descriptive and Biographical. 1897.

Commemorative Biographical Record of Prominent and Representative Men of Racine and Kenosha Counties, Wisconsin, Containing Biographical Sketches of Business and Professional Men and of Many of the Early Settled Families. 1906.

Greater Kenosha: Interesting Views, Public Buildings, Churches, Schools, Handsome Residences, Parks and Manufacturing Industries. 1911.

Kenosha’s Part in the World War. [1919?]

Souvenir, Kenosha County Court House: and Bits of Yesterday, Foundations of Today. [1925?]

The City Plan of Kenosha, Wisconsin / Harland Bartholomew. 1925.



These projects were funded, in part, through 2008 and 2009 Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grants. The grants provided financial support to digitize and make available online local library resources. For more information about LSTA grants in Wisconsin, contact the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) Division for Libraries and Technology or visit the LSTA grant Web site at

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.