Mystery Place: 19th century Whitewater was a hub for farm implements

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Ginny Hall | April 22, 2016

The former site of what was known as “Reaperville” is located on the east side of Whitewater,  between Milwaukee Street and the railroad tracks, west of Newcomb Street (Wisconsin Highway 59).

This is where George Esterly manufactured his reapers.  Esterly came to the area in 1838 and began as a grain farmer. He invented the hand raker, draper, self-raker and twine binder — all to make the job of harvesting grain easier. 

In 1839 he raised 350 acres of wheat in the Heart Prairie area. This large crop and the difficulty of harvesting it is what caused him to develop the Esterly Harvester. He also improved on the existing McCormick reaper. 

At a competition in Chicago in 1848, his reaper was judged better than Cyrus McCormick's. In 1852 he began his manufacturing business and in 1864 he put a saw mill in his reaper works. Sadly, on the last day of May 1867, Esterly Reaper Works burned. 

But by 1890 he had 500 employees in 12 buildings in this five-acre area. In one year Esterly sold 5,000 self-binding reapers.  In 1892 he moved the business to Minneapolis under the management of his son, George Jr.  (Another source indicates he moved his business to Milwaukee.) George Sr. died in 1893 and is buried in Whitewater. 

If you would like to see a picture of one of Esterly's first reapers, see the photograph next to page 92 in “A History of Agriculture in Wisconsin” by Joseph Schafer, published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1922. A copy is in the reference section at the Lake Geneva Public Library. That book also will show you a picture of the Appleby knotter, which also was invented in our county.

Just west of Esterly Works on this street, A.Y. Camberlin & Co. built a structure where they started to make furniture. Soon coffins became their main item. This operation continued until 1880 when Esterly took over and production switched to furniture. In 1881 the building became the wood shop of Harvester Works.

In 1843, Oscar A. Weed opened a wagon factory in this area. A few years later, along with partner, J.L. Pratt, he opened a foundry and began making plows. This eventually became Winchester, Partridge & Company. At one time the Winchester and DeWolf's Foundry employed 23 people and made 2,000 plows plus many castings per year. 

By March 1855 the community had four blacksmith shops, two tine shops, four shoe factories, two harness manufacturers, three tailoring shops, four hotels, 11 dry goods and grocery stores, two grocery stores, two hardware stores, two clothing stores, two jewelry stores, two drugstores, one bookstore and two meat markets. A large brewery and a distillery were within a mile of the village.

There were five large churches: Catholic, Congregational, Episcopalian, Methodist and Baptist. A large brick schoolhouse was in the process of being built.

A later industry was the Century Pen Company, begun by J.N. Humphrey in 1897. It started out in a room of his home. Next he rented space on Main Street in 1909. Ten years later more space was needed and he bought a building on Center Street.

He was an instructor at Whitewater State Teachers College from 1881 to 1897. His son was school principal in Oconto; he resigned to join his father in business in 1909.


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