The Winnebago tribe inhabited Waukesha County prior to the Potawatomi tribe arriving in the early 1700s to establish the Potawatomi Indian Village along the Fox River, where the Village of Mukwonago is now located. In 1832 the Potawatomi ceded their lands, predisposing an influx of white settlers.
The Indian Village site was considered desirable by the white settlers. In the spring of 1836, Sewall Andrews and Henry Camp attempted to erect a house at that site. The remaining Native Americans objected, so Andrews and Camp built the house about 1 ½ miles northwest of the Indian Village, near the Andrew’s house, now the Mukwonago Museum.
During that year, Charles Cox and Joseph Smart set up homesteads in Section 19 of the Town, and Tom Sugden did the same in Section 26.
Additional families arrived following the 1836 settlers. In 1843 a colony of twenty socialistic families from England, led by a man named Hunt, purchased 160 acres around Spring Lake. They built one large log cabin for the group to live in, supplemented by smaller cabins. Following theories developed by Robert Owen, a Welsh-born factory owner, everything was owned by the community, and everyone was to receive an equal share of their necessities. The land did not yield sufficient crops to support them, and in 1850 the colony broke up. Several Owenites, including the Steele, Johnson, Skidmore, Whitnall, Blackworth and Hunt families did not return to England, but remained in the Mukwonago area.
Other settlers who moved to the Town or the Village before 1840 included the Jones, Hill, Raynon, Chafin, Prescott, Winch, Ray, Bond, Blood, Elmore, and Basselt families.
In 1838 Henry Hinkley was elected the first Chairman of the Town of Mukwonago, which then included the present Towns of Genesee, Ottawa, and Eagle.
By the end of the decade, Mukwonago included a hotel built in 1837, two stores, a shoemaker, a blacksmith, and a post office. The first permanent bridge over the Fox River was built in 1843. A flour mill and sawmill each began operating in 1847, and in 1849 the Mukwonago Chief began printing.
For the remainder of the 19th century, Mukwonago grew as a farming community. Construction of the Milwaukee and Beloit railroad track through the Village provided farmers with transportation for their crops. Schools and churches were established to fulfill the needs of the residents.
Social clubs and activities were also important. In 1878 nineteen young women, who swore never to marry, formed an “old maids club”. When they met for the last time in 1905, only Martha MacArthur, Josephine, Rose Chapin, Fanny Chapin, Dr. Evelyn Hoehne, and Betty Andrews had remained single.
The Mukwonago Territorial Badgers, survivors of the pioneers who lived in Wisconsin when it was still a territory, held meetings from 1899 to 1928.
The character of Waukesha County changed in the late 1800s from being exclusively agricultural to including recreational activities. Travelers from Milwaukee, Chicago, and all over the country visited the fresh-water springs at Spring Lake and Kellogg Springs as well as other springs throughout the county. Several large hotels were built in Mukwonago to house those seeking the curative waters.
Another popular recreational activity for both visitors and residents was clam digging from canoes, along the shores of the Fox River.
The area now known as the Vernon Marsh was used for activities other than hunting and fishing; farmers harvested wild hay and other crops, and the marsh hid several moonshine stills. during the prohibition era.
Mukwonago was never isolated from the political events of state and national importance. In 1919 a “women’s liberation” parade marched through the village square, drawing women from many prominent families of the area. Mukwonago dairy farmers showed their clout when they broke with the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Producers in 1934 through their vote to keep the United Dairy plant open. The Mukwonago delegation was among those who met with the Governor of Wisconsin and later with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture about the milk pricing controversy.
In 1905 the Village of Mukwonago was incorporated from the Town of Mukwonago. The population of the Town remained at about 800 from 1890 to 1950, when an influx of suburbanites began. In 1954 a lot and single family home in the Town sold for $9,000 – $13,500. By 1960 the population had increased to 1,579 residents.
The beauty of the Town did not go without notice by developer Francis Schroedel. In the 1960s he bought 900 acres adjacent to a lake south of the Mukwonago River and planned a 756 room convention and resort center to be called Rainbow Springs. He considered this project to be the capstone of his career, but he never saw it to completion. Before the furnishings were installed in the hotel for a targeted completion date of May 1967, Schroedel ran into financial difficulties. The Marshall and Isley Bank foreclosed and bought the complex in 1973.
Since then, there have been several efforts to open Rainbow Springs, the most recent occurring in the summer of 1981. The hotel was partially destroyed by fire in the early 2000s, and subsequent to that, the Town Board and the Waukesha County Park & Planning Commission terminated the Conditional Use Permit for the hotel and convention center on the property, allowing the golf course and clubhouse to remain in operation.
Through the 1960s and 1970s more homes sprang up in the Town. Construction of the Rock Freeway (I-43) from Milwaukee to Mukwonago in 1972 contributed to the influx of new residents. By 1980 the growing needs of the Town residents resulted in the construction of a new Town Hall next to the existing one on Beulah Road.
Over the years, many of the Town’s first families have moved away or died off, but agricultural activities, operated by descendants of the settlers, still exist. The Town is now a mix of agricultural and residential areas. With preservation of this rural flavor and natural beauty in mind, the citizens of the Town of Mukwonago embarked upon the original long-range land use plan in order to preserve the quality of life for future generations.
(photos courtesy of Barb Holtz)