The city of Elkhorn, Wisconsin rightly trumpets its #14 ranking in Norm Crampton’s 1995 book, The 100 Best Small Towns in America.
Mr. Crampton based his rating on statistical data, so now it’s time to look at Elkhorn from a different perspective. How does Elkhorn measure up to the image of the classic American small town that rests in our collective imagination?
But first, let’s address a contradiction. While we cherish our small towns, Americans also want access to big cities, with all their cultural offerings. Elkhorn’s 10,000 residents have not just one, but three options in this regard, with Madison 62 miles northwest, Milwaukee 46 miles northeast and Chicago 92 miles southeast.
“You can have the hometown feel,” says Chris Clapper, the executive director of Elkhorn’s chamber of commerce, “and within 90 minutes, you can be sitting at the Lyric Opera.”
Elkhorn not only provides proximity to big city opportunities, it also nestles between two vacation areas. Wisconsin’s crown jewel of Lake Geneva lies fewer than 10 miles to the south, and the three Lauderdale Lakes— Green, Middle and Mill— are just north of town. There, housing options range from modest condos in the Lauderdale Shores community, to million-dollar stone estates and multi-level contemporary homes on the lakeshore.
A History Set to Music
The city of Elkhorn owes its existence to a shrewd real estate transaction.
In 1836, John Starr Rockwell, a clerk in a Milwaukee Land Office, observed the perfect square shape of the newly formed Walworth County. Rockwell suggested to his brother LeGrand that property in the center of the square would likely become valuable. LeGrand Rockwell partnered with several investors to buy up large tracts of land in the county’s middle, thus owning the valuable acreage on which the city would be located ten years later.
For the town name, Elkhorn is indebted to early settler Samuel Phoenix. On an exploratory visit to what is now Elkhorn, Phoenix paused to rest under a tree. Looking up, he saw a rack of elk horns caught in the branches. He assumed that the Potawatomi Indians had placed them there to mark a turn in the trail, and proposed the name “Elk Horn Prairie” for the new settlement.
Those very horns are on display in the Webster House Museum, now the headquarters for the county’s historical society. The home’s late owner, John Philbrick Webster, represents Elkhorn’s first connection to music. Webster’s waltz “Lorena,” written in 1856, was included in the Gone with the Wind soundtrack. He also wrote the gospel standard “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.”
In the early 20th century, Elkhorn became home to two band instrument factories: Holton’s Band Instruments (now LeBlanc in Kenosha) and Getzen Musical Instruments, which is still in town. Elkhorn’s city logo nods to its musical history with a French horn in place of the ‘o’ in the town name, along with its motto “Living in Harmony.”But music isn’t the only art connected to the town.
Elkhorn achieved a measure of fame in 1952 when the television show The March of Time featured it as a classic small town at Christmas. Six years later, the Ford Motor Company commissioned watercolor artist Cecile Johnson to paint six works depicting an Elkhorn Christmas. When a major greeting card company turned five of the six paintings into Christmas cards, Elkhorn’s image as the quintessential American small town was preserved.
Every small town needs a good mystery, and Elkhorn’s centers on Johnson’s paintings. Five of her six Christmas watercolors are displayed in the Matheson Memorial Library; the sixth painting has never been found.
Checking the Boxes for Small Towns
America’s favorite small towns all share certain characteristics.
Topping the list of necessities is an iconic building that might once have graced the town’s picture postcard. It must not only be standing, but still in use. Sitting smack dab in the center of Elkhorn, at the intersection of Wisconsin and Walworth streets, is just such a structure: the three-story, red-brick, former Elkhorn House Hotel. It was later renamed as the Lorraine Hotel, and now houses the popular Moy’s Restaurant.
Next, the county courthouse, the post office and the library should all lie within easy walking distance from the center of town. Check, check, check.
Any small town worth its salt has a local newspaper. The Elkhorn Independent, founded in 1853, comes out every Thursday.
Classic small towns also have their beloved parks. In Elkhorn, Veteran’s Park fronts the courthouse and houses an M60 Patton tank. One mile west of downtown is Sunset Park, boasting the five-year-old community swimming pool, athletic fields and courts, a picnic area, sledding hills and a handicapped-accessible playground. On Friday nights in the
summer, residents spread out blankets and unfold their lawn chairs in front of the 1926 band shell for concerts by the Holton-Elkhorn Band. Naturally, a fireworks show takes place in Sunset Park every year around the Fourth of July.
From each lamppost in downtown Elkhorn, an American flag flutters, lending a patriotic and festive air to the streets. The many little shops include both Kullberg Jewelers, celebrating its 75th anniversary, and Ketchpaw’s Barber Shop, that sports a traditional barber pole. And, unlike in many small towns, Elkhorn’s residents can still shop for clothing without driving to a big box store. The Boutique Closet and Scarlett Louise Boutique both carry women’s clothing, while J. Roberts Fine Men’s Apparel has been in business since the late 1800’s.
What would a small town be without its favorite restaurants? Elkhorn’s coffee shops are not part of a national chain. Instead you find shops where politics are debated, good news is toasted, sad tidings are comforted with hot coffee from a glass pot, and everyone knows everyone else by name. The granddaddy of these cafes is the Elk Restaurant on Walworth Street, with its old-timey soda fountain, owned by the Wales family since 1971.
Diners get their fix of Mexican food at Los Tres Hermanos, order carryout pizza from Larducci’s, and line up for the maple long johns and apple fritters at the Elkhorn Pastry Shop, where the bread slicer is tried-and-true and the old-fashioned cash register takes cash or check only.
Elkhorn also boasts its fair share of historic homes that lie near the town center. Elkhorn’s grand old homes date from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and represent architectural styles from Victorian to Four Square to Craftsman.
Events and Activities
Another condition of Americans’ love affair with small towns is the variety of exciting activities. We like having regular events to look forward to each year, where we spend time with our neighbors and welcome in visitors.
The Walworth County Fairgrounds lie right in Elkhorn, the site of the regionally-famous Elkhorn Antique Flea Market, held four times each summer; midsummer’s Ribfest; the Walworth County Fair in September; and the Holiday Affair Craft Show in November.
During the second half of the year, action shifts to Elkhorn’s town square for Corn & Brat Days at the end of July, and Octoberfest three months later. And in early December, Elkhorn becomes magical with the lighting of the town Christmas tree, visits to Santa in his house on the square, and the Christmas Card Town parade.
A host of outdoor activities is also available to residents. The Lauderdale Lakes are home to a Sailing Club, Yacht Club and Snowmobile Club. The Southern Wakes United Water Ski Show Team puts on a free weekly show at Lauderdale Landing on alternate summer weekends.
“There’s a great diversity of businesses
and people in a very supportive community.”
A Golf Digest four-star golf course draws duffers to the Evergreen Country Club. Hikers and bikers can explore the 12-mile segment of the White River State Trail that runs between Elkhorn and Burlington. The Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine Forest features trails for mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking through 22,000 acres of glacial hills, kettle lakes and prairies. The 1,000-mile Ice Age Trail can be broken up into segments to witness the effect of glaciers on the local landforms.
Whether they are newcomers or natives who return home in retirement, Elkhorn draws residents who are looking for the “small-town atmosphere and tightly-knit community,” says
Elkhorn Mayor Bruce Lechner.
In a town where one-room schoolhouses persisted through the mid-1950’s, Elkhorn’s highly-regarded school district is “on the cutting edge of education,” says Clapper. Close by is the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where students can continue their education and residents can take advantage of college-sponsored programs.
For seniors, Elkhorn provides access to quality healthcare and hospitals. New home construction provides both a traditional walking neighborhood and desirable one-floor layouts.
“There’s a great diversity of businesses and people,” Clapper says, “in a very supportive community.”
By Susan W. Murray
Photography by Jen Schildgen