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History of Racine County

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Racine County is located on the shores of Lake Michigan in southeastern Wisconsin, approximately 30 miles south of Milwaukee and 60 miles north of Chicago.  The County is basically shaped like a rectangle that is 12 miles high and 30 miles wide, with the addition of a southern extension of almost 3 miles along the westernmost 6 miles of land.  The County contains two cities, seven villages and nine towns.  Interstate Highway 94 links Racine County with Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis to the West and Chicago and Detroit to the East.   


Racine County is the 6th smallest County in Wisconsin by size, at 333.1 square miles.  With a population determined by the 2000 Census to be 188,831 people, Racine County is the 5th most populous county in Wisconsin, and has the state's third highest population density, 566.9 people per square mile. 


Woodland Indians were the earliest known inhabitants of Racine County.  In the latter half of the 17th Century, French fur traders and missionaries, including Nicholas Perrot and Fathers Claude Allouez and Jacques Marquette, found predominately Miami Indians inhabiting the lands along Racine's Root River. 

By 1720, the Miami tribe had moved on and the area had become the home of the Potawatomi Indians.   In the late 1820's, at a place then called Skunk Grove, Jacques and Louis Vieaux set up a fur trading post with the Potawatomi.  A historic marker has been placed at the site, which is now in the Town of Mount Pleasant. 

Following the Black Hawk War in 1832, "Wisconsin Fever" brought many pioneers from Western New York State, rural New England and Britain to this area.  One of these was Captain Gilbert Knapp, who, in 1834, founded the settlement of Port Gilbert at the place where the Root River empties into Lake Michigan.  However, the name Port Gilbert never gained acceptance over the earlier Indian designation of Chippecotton (Root River) or its French version, Racine, and in 1841 the community was incorporated as the Village of Racine.  Shortly after statehood was granted in 1848, the brand new Wisconsin legislature voted to incorporate the Village of 3,000 as the City of Racine.  

Soon after Captain Knapp founded his settlement on Lake Michigan, other pioneers were settling areas to the west. Lemuel Smith, who arrived in 1835, was said to have been the first settler in Burlington.  David Bushnell and Herman and Elizabeth Loomis arrived the following year.  In 1836, Levi Godfrey and John Wade built a log house in what is now Rochester.  S.E. Chapman and Levi Barnes came to Waterford the same year.  

In 1805, Congress created the Michigan Territory, which included all the land that is now in the State of Wisconsin.  In 1818, the land west of Lake Michigan was divided into three counties.  As settlers moved in, new Counties were split off from those original three.  Milwaukee County was founded in 1834, the year Captain Knapp arrived, and included all the land along the lake south to Illinois.  In 1836, the Wisconsin Territory was organized.  That same year, this area was sufficiently inhabited to warrant separation from Milwaukee County, and Racine County was formed.  It did not take on its present-day borders, however, until 1850, when Kenosha County was created out of its southernmost portion. 

In the years preceding the Civil War, Racine was known for its strong opposition to slavery.  Many slaves escaping to freedom via the "underground railroad" passed through Racine County.   When Joshua Glover, an escaped slave who had made a home in Racine, was arrested as a fugitive and taken to jail in Milwaukee, a band of citizens from Racine broke into the jail and freed him. 

When the Civil War began, the men of Racine County responded by forming the "Belle City Rifles."  Over the course of that conflict, more than 2,000 of Racine County's sons fought in the Union Army.  Almost 275 were killed, including Colonel Hans Christian Heg, one of the founders of the Town of Norway and the highest-ranking officer from the State of Wisconsin to perish in the War.  A statue honoring him is located in the County's Heg Park. 

Racine County holds the distinction of having erected, in 1853, the first High School building in the State of Wisconsin.  The present County Courthouse grounds include the former sites of both Racine High School and the County's first public school. 

Racine County land has been farmed for 2,000 years.  The first Racine County farmers, members of the Hopewell Culture that inhabited the area some 1,300 to 1,900 years ago, grew corn, beans, squash and tobacco.  Later, the Potawatomi added melons and pumpkins, and introduced the harvesting of maple sap and sugar. 

The primary crop for the first European settlers was wheat.  The Perkins flouring mill of Burlington sent the first Wisconsin wheat back east in the 1840's.  After the Civil War, however, dairy farming became more important, and remains so today.  In 1998, there were 650 farms, covering 136,000 acres, in Racine County. 

The first industry in Racine County was agriculture-related, and included the manufacture of fanning mills, machines that separated grain from chaff.  In 1842, 24-year old Jerome Increase Case came from New York State with a combined thresher-separator that he had invented.  He started production of his machine in Rochester, in competition with a local company, Fanning Mills.  Case moved his factory to the City of Racine a few years later.  The company he founded, originally J.I. Case but now CNH, is still headquartered in Racine and continues to be a world leader in the manufacture and sale of agricultural and construction equipment. 

As dairy farming became more prevalent, it brought other industries.  Wagner Specialty Company of Burlington produced bull rings and calf weaners for use by farmers.  In the years following the Civil War, the Horlick Malted Milk Company of Racine sold the powdered milk and malted milk that British immigrant William Horlick developed.  The Wisconsin Condensed Milk Company was active in Burlington.

Racine County has long been known for the inventiveness of its citizens.  In 1873, Reverend J.W. Carhart put together one of the first steam-powered automobiles.  J.I. Case and Mitchell & Lewis were among a group of Racine-based car manufacturers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  

The car companies spurred the establishment of other businesses that provided vehicle parts, including Walker Manufacturing Company (jacks and mufflers), Twin Disc (clutches) and Modine Manufacturing Company (heat transfer products and torque converters).  These firms endure even though no cars have been manufactured in Racine County for years. 

During this same time period, S.C. Johnson founded a company to manufacture and distribute floor wax products.  That enterprise has grown into one of the largest manufacturers of personal, household and professional cleaning products and insect control products in the world, now known as S.C. Johnson, A Family Company. 

These years also saw the growth of Western Publishing Company.  When a small printing business came under the control of the Wadewitz family of Racine, it blossomed into a large firm well known throughout the world for publishing "Little Golden Books." 

In the early years of the 20th Century, Fred Osius established the United States Standard Electrical Works Company, and made Racine the world leader in fractional horsepower electrical motors.  His motor powered a number of products, including the "cyclone drink mixer," more commonly known today as a blender.  Osius then started a company called Hamilton Beach after two of his colleagues.  Hamilton and Beach later left the firm to start another company, Dumore Manufacturing Company, which manufactured products in Racine for many years. 

Another Racine inventor, John W. Hammes, used a fractional horsepower electrical motor in a machine that chewed up food waste into particles small enough to be washed away down the drain.  In-Sink-Erator remains the world leader in garbage disposers, making machines under its own name as well as for other companies. 

Here is a list of some - but certainly not all - of the manufacturing firms that were founded in Racine County:

  • Andis Hair Clippers
  • Jacobsen Textron (lawn care products)
  • Rainfair (protective clothing)
  • Young Radiator
  • Dremel Tools (small power tools)
  • Gold Medal Furniture
  • Gorton Machine Co.
  • Badger Basket and Veneer Company
  • Ruud Lighting 

Western Racine County, although traditionally the less urban, more agricultural part of the County, has still had its share of industrial firms.  In 1843, the Perkins Woolen Mill produced the first machine-made roll of cloth made in Wisconsin.  The Burlington Blanket Company invented and manufactured the first stay-on horse blanket.  In later years, the firm produced felt linings for many of the first automobiles as well as gun belts and ammunition used in World Wars I and II.  The Multiscope and Film Company manufactured the world's first panoramic camera, known as the Al-vista camera. 

Burlington Brass Works produced the "kant-leak" valve for sink faucets, and made gun shell casings for the armed forces in World War II and the Korean War.  Anton Zweibel of Burlington invented the first folding ironing board.  Burlington was also home to the Klein Beverage Company, which shipped its ginger beer and other soft drinks around the world. 

Today, a large plant producing Nestle chocolate products gives Burlington the nickname "Chocolate City."  Hi-Liter Graphics, Runzheimer International, Hypro, LDV, Inc., Echo Lake Produce and Packaging Corporation of American are also located in the western part of the County. 

Many Racine County businesses started here and expanded all over the globe.  That is now a two-way street, as foreign-based companies have established plants and offices here.  In addition to Nestle, these include Putzmeister, Alloc Flooring, Lavelle Industries, Saint Gobain Containers and Bombardier.  Racine County may sit firmly in America's heartland, but it touches every part of the globe.