History of Rochester, Wisconsin
In 1830, Wisconsin was a part of the Territory of Michigan. There
were no white settlers in the area, unless the trading posts at Prairie
du Chien and Green Bay along with their military posts Fort Crawford and
Fort Howard could really be called settlements. There were also some
small groups of explorers in the lead region of the southwest portion of
It was not until after the Black Hawk War, in 1831-32, followed by
the cession of the lands that consisted of Southeastern Wisconsin and
Northeastern Illinois that white men began to make homes in this section
of the country. Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine, Janesville, Burlington, and
Rochester had their first permanent settlements during the same year,
1835. It is interesting to note that then Captain Abraham Lincoln, who
fought in the Black Hawk War, was released from the army in Wisconsin.
On his way home he camped at a place called Cold Spring located about 6
miles north of what is now Whitewater. During the night, someone stole
his horse and Captain Lincoln was forced to walk some 200 miles to his
home in Alton, Illinois.
In the fall of 1835, Levi Brown Godfrey and his friend, John Wade
left their home in Whitmanville, Michigan. They made their way on foot,
around the bottom of Lake Michigan, looking for a place to establish
themselves in a new country. They were looking for an area that offered
good waterpower, which was essential for setting up mills for sawing
timber and grinding grain.
There was a place on the Pishtaka River, (now known as the Fox) known
as the “Lower Forks”( now Burlington ) that they had heard about. Upon
their arrival at Lower Forks, they found a party from Southport ( now
Kenosha) had already settled in the area along the river they wanted.
Locals told Godfrey and Wade about a place up river about six miles
which was known as the “Upper Forks”. Upper Forks was where the
Musquequack and Pishtaka rivers joined. The men liked this place and
Godfrey staked his claim there. At that time his claim comprised all of
the present village of Rochester west of the river. The whole region
around Upper Forks was made up of beautiful Oak Savannas, and lush
prairie land. The Oak Savannas were free of underbrush and were covered
with green turf and many kinds of wild flowers. The Oak Savannas also
provided refuge against the many prairie fires that occurred in the
Godfrey built a rough log shanty along the shore of the Pishtaka
River and eked out an existence for himself while establishing his claim
to the territory. In the Spring of 1836 he felt secure enough to bring
his wife to Upper Forks from their Michigan home.
Shortly after the first settlements were made, there was a move to
name the town. One of the early settlers suggested the name Waukeeshah,
which he said was given to him by the Indians. It was supposed to mean
“Fox” in the Pottowatomie language. The name Waukeeshah did not prevail.
The story has it that many of the early settlers originally came from
the east and there was much support for the name “Rochester” because,
like Rochester, NY, it had waterpower. About the same time, the Pishtaka
River was renamed the Fox.
Waterpower was a factor in the area’s growth. A sawmill was built on the
shore of the Musquequack River and a dam and grist mill was built south
of town along the Fox river. The sawmill flourished there because of the
large supply of oak trees and the demand for building lumber in the
area. The grist mill provided the area farmers with a place to grind
their grain rather than having to take it to Racine, some 25 miles away.
The area was growing.
In 1839, the first marriage took place in the town of Rochester.
Nancy Fowler, who came to the area from Plainfield, Illinois with her
brother Merrill, married Philander Cole. It is said that Mr. Cole walked
to Racine for his wedding license, which cost him $4.00. Other weddings
followed, with one of them reportedly having a large wedding feast of
ginger-bread and water.
The local Indians and wolves caused some consternation to the new
settlers. One settler reported that he was awakened one moonlight night
by a wolf investigating his stock of provisions. “We looked at each
other”, he said, “ but neither of us said anything and the wolf took a
bone that suited him and left.” With heavy hunting, the wolves were soon
less troublesome. The Indians remained for many years.
The Indians camped near the village in large numbers during the
fishing seasons, begging, drinking, quarreling and selling their game.
They were from a tribe of rice eaters and until the late 1850’s came
down the river in canoes every fall to gather the wild rice that grew
along the shores of the Musquequack and Fox rivers. While no serious
confrontations were reported, the white women and children feared the
One of wives recalled a visit to her house by the Indians. “I was at
work in an upper room one day, when hearing unusual sounds below I
looked down through the opening where the ladder was placed and saw the
house was full of Indians. Very much frightened, I hurried down the
ladder to learn what they wanted. One old savage with a hideously
painted face, after vainly trying to make himself understood, suddenly
gave a jerk to a well-filled bag he carried, and dumped a lot of dirty,
squirming fish on my kitchen floor. My husband entered just then and
comprehending the situation, bought some fish and sent the Indians
In the very early days there were no nearby places to buy provisions.
The nearest place to secure supplies was Chicago, a town of two or three
thousand, about 70 miles away. Several men with their ox-teams would be
delegated to make the trip for the settlement. They would travel
together because of the many deep sloughs on the marshy prairies. When
loaded, each wagon would require the combined yokes of oxen to pull it
through some of the deeper sloughs. It usually took several weeks to
make the round trip.
As the area grew, other businessmen came. A grocery store, a pharmacy, a
cabinet maker, and a shoe store opened up on the main street. Richard
Ela built a small house in Rochester. He had developed a fanning mill,
which he constructed in his small basement. He would build machines
during the winter and then peddle them in the Rock River farming areas
during the next growing season. Ela’s business grew and he built a
larger factory where he employed many men. In later years he
manufactured wagons, carriages, safes, and plows. The plow factory stood
on the west bank of the river, just north of the bridge. Today, the Ela
family owns an apple orchard just outside the village limits of
Jerome I. Case was another early businessman who made his home in
Rochester. Case was an itinerant salesman who bought threshing machines
and sold them throughout Illinois and Wisconsin. He had sold all but one
machine by the time he reached Racine. He then headed west back to the
Rochester area with that machine, doing threshing for the local farmers.
The machines that Case sold and used could only cut the grain down. It
took another operation to separate the grain from the chaff. During the
winter of 1843, in Rochester, Case succeeded in developing a combination
thresher and separator. This development was a major improvement and
Case went on to make his fortune building his machines in Racine, WI.
Roads played another important part in the development of Rochester.
In 1839 Congress appropriated $10,000 for opening of a road from Racine
to Janesville. This road was known as the “United States Road.” The road
gave an outlet to the Rock River wheat country, allowing that grain to
be shipped by boat from Racine. It not only provided an outlet for Rock
River wheat, but it also became a line of transportation for the lead
regions of southwestern Wisconsin. Much smelted lead was shipped from
Racine, all of it passing through Rochester. The loads were small, but
very heavy. Three yoke of oxen were needed to pull one load. Because of
the plentiful supply of lead passing through the village a lead pipe
factory was located in Rochester.
Traffic on the United States Road became so heavy that in 1848 the
idea of building a plank road was conceived. The one passing through
Rochester was to be known as “The Racine and Rock River Plank Road.” A
company was formed to build this road. Toll gates would be placed three
miles apart. Rates were 1-1/2 cents per mile for vehicles drawn by two
animals. Toll for vehicles drawn by one animal, was one cent per mile. A
horse and rider would have to pay ¾ cents per mile, and 20 head of
cattle would cost one cent per mile. The total cost of the finished road
was $50,000. It was said that as many as one hundred teams passed
through town in the early morning hours and it was not uncommon to see
forty or fifty wagon loads pass through town in one group.
Traffic on the plank road brought the need of lodging in Rochester.
Two hotels were built, the Union House, and Meyer’s Hotel. The Union
House had a spring supported dance floor on the second floor. It was
reported to be the only one of its kind in Wisconsin. Both hotels were
frequently overflowing and travelers had to move further on to find
lodging. With the plank road, mail service went from weekly mail
delivered by a lone horseman, to daily mail from each direction
delivered along with passengers, by “coach and four.”
With traffic on the plank road as heavy as it was, the old wooden
bridge, built in 1836, was replaced with an iron bridge in 1851. There
was a sign on the top of the bridge that read, “$5 fine for driving or
riding over bridge faster than a walk.” This iron bridge was washed out
during the flood of 1881, when it was replaced by another similar iron
The 1850’s brought a new group of settlers to the Rochester area.
Immigrants from Bohemia came first, followed by Germans, Danes, and
Hollanders. Soon after Norwegians, Swiss and Irish arrived in the area.
A large group of English settlers settled east of Rochester near the
intersection of present day Racine County highway A and J. The area is
still known as “English Settlement” today.
In 1844 a large hotel was built in Rochester in anticipating of the
railroad’s coming. The railroad never did come, and the building was
sold to The Freewill Baptist Church, who operated it as a secondary
school known as The Rochester Seminary. In 1894, The Congregationalists
bought the building and operated a preparatory school known as The
Rochester Academy from 1894 to 1910.
In 1912 the Racine County School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy was
built. The school took in students from all over Racine County whose
interest was in farming and domestic arts. In addition to the school
building, there was also a dormitory, which housed students who came
from far away places such as Union Grove, Ives Groves, Dover,
Burlington, and other places too distant to travel to and from on a
daily basis. The school closed in 1959. Many children of the area’s best
known farming families attended there.
As in many small towns and villages, the coming of railroads had a major
effect on Rochester. In 1850, a railroad was planned to run from Racine
to the Mississippi River. This railroad was to pass through Rochester
and on to Janesville. Confident that the railroad would run through
their city, Janesville was negligent in subscribing the required amount
of stock. Beloit, located 15 miles south, saw its opportunity and
secured the road which then would run through Burlington, six miles
south of Rochester. At the time, Rochester was not too concerned with
this turn of events because there was another railroad in the making.
That would be the “Fox River Valley Road” which had been on the drawing
boards for several years. It was to run from the coalfields of Illinois,
through Richmond, Illinois, to Milwaukee. It was planned to connect with
Chicago later on. The roadbed had been completed almost all of the way
but was abandoned when funds ran out. Rochester’s growth came to a halt.
In 1909 a railroad did come through Rochester. It was The Milwaukee
Electric Railway Line, known as the TMERL. This electrified railroad ran
light rail cars from Milwaukee to Burlington, with stops along the way.
This railroad made it possible for the residents to travel between
Burlington and Milwaukee. In 1923, the TMERL ran 11 trains a day between
Milwaukee and Burlington starting at 5:30 AM, with the last train
leaving Milwaukee at 10:30 PM. During that time the TMERL ran excursions
on Sundays. You could board a train in downtown Milwaukee, ride it to
Burlington, where you boarded a bus for Lake Geneva. You could spend
some time in Lake Geneva, board a connecting bus to East Troy, where you
boarded the train back to Milwaukee.
Today, Rochester is a sleepy community of some 1148 people. It has
experienced little growth in its 163 years. The TMERL was discontinued
in 1938. The tracks were removed, and the roadbed is now a county owned
walking/bicycling path. Highway 36, the major highway running through
Rochester from Lake Geneva to Milwaukee was relocated just to the east
of town some 30 years ago.
The village center of Rochester has developed into an
antique/craft/restaurant business area. There are no grocery stores, and
no gas stations in Rochester. People from around the area like to come
to Rochester, since it still retains the flavor of years gone by.
Rochester is known as the home of Chances Restaurant, which occupies the
historic Union House hotel.
Many of the houses still occupied in Rochester date back to the
mid-1800’s. Most of them are small brick or frame homes of a unique
architecture style, which can be easily recognized. There are many fine
substantial homes in and around Rochester some of which go as far back
as 1837. Some of these homes were built by the prosperous businessmen or
farmers of the day. Most of them are still occupied, and some have
become showplaces of the area.