Waukesha County History 1870-1920

URLs to browse or search the collections

In the fifty years between 1870 and 1920, Waukesha County grew from rural villages to lively cities and towns. The materials selected for this digital project depict many elements of Waukesha County history, primarily documenting the industries, people, and structures important to the development of Waukesha County. Many of the images come from the Warren S. O’Brien collection. O’Brien (1898-1988) was a prolific Waukesha photographer, and his work represents Waukesha County Historical Society’s most significant photographic collection.

The 1870s marked the beginning of the Springs Era in the city of Waukesha. As mineral springs were discovered and their waters bottled, Waukesha’s health and tourism industries flourished. Large and small bottling plants cropped up, giving rise to Waukesha’s beverage and bottling business. Known as the “Saratoga of the West,” Waukesha became a nationally recognized destination for those seeking relaxation and restoration of the mind and body. Beautiful parks dotted the landscape, lakes offered recreation opportunities, and grand resorts welcomed visitors. Social events were frequent; theatres, casinos, and dances all added to the entertainment available for tourists and residents in Waukesha County.

Farming and manufacturing were also important to the development of Waukesha County. Waukesha limestone was used for many local buildings and shipped beyond the county borders to build public and private structures. Manufacturing foundries created useful products for farming, railroad, automotive, and other industries. These industries were aided by major rail lines connecting Waukesha to the rest of the United States. Yet, Waukesha County retained its rural ties, as well. Farmers owned a significant portion of Waukesha County land, with wheat being the major crop. Livestock farms were plentiful, too: near end of World War I, Waukesha earned the nickname “Cow County, U. S. A.” based on the claim that more cows than people lived in Waukesha County.

Collaboration between Waukesha Public Library and Waukesha County Historical Society and Museum made possible the selection and description of these materials. The images and texts of “Waukesha County History 1870-1920” offer a broad sample of the historical materials available for research at these institutions.

Thanks especially to Dorris Smith who generously allowed Elida Reynolds’ 1869 diary to be included in the digital collection. The diary documents the daily life of a young woman living on a farm in rural Waukesha County.



This project was funded through a 2010 Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant. The grant 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 https://dpi.wi.gov/pld/lsta.