Whitewater is the type of town where families volunteer to clean the streets before the Fourth of July parade. Where the downtown is decked out with “Welcome Warhawks” flags for the start of the fall semester, where women watch each other’s children so that each mom can be involved in the community, and where the Senior Center has thrived for 40 years.
Brienne Brown, who is starting her third year as a member of Whitewater’s Common Council, has lived in places as diverse as Austin, Alaska, Germany and Iran. She moved to Whitewater nine years ago with her husband Karl, a tenured professor in the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s history department.
“Whitewater is one of the only places where I’ve had multi-generational groups of friends,” Brown says.
Kellie Carper, Executive Director of the Whitewater Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Council, can attest to the town’s character, stating that the 15,000 residents “are connected to one another and very generous.”
The year-round residents give Whitewater its character, although sparkling Whitewater Lake draws vacationers as well. “It’s lake life at an affordable price,” Carper attests.
Older farmhouses, ranches and Cape Cods close to downtown start at $100,000. Newer construction farther from the center of town fetches prices in the $300,000s to $400,000s. A condo on Whitewater Lake can be purchased for $200,000, but large homes on the lake, or on wooded acreage, range between $500,000 and $1 million.
AN EVOLVING HISTORY
Before the Potawatomi tribe was pushed west of the Mississippi River, the natives named the area ‘Wau-be-gan-naw-po-cat’, or ‘white water’ for the white sand at the bottom of Whitewater Creek, a tributary of the Bark River north of town.
In 1836, settler Alvin Foster carved his name on a tree, thereby staking his claim. The following year, Samuel Prince built the first log cabin. By 1844, Whitewater boasted 29 homes, along with a handful of businesses that served the residents.
Growth accelerated in 1852 with the laying of train tracks through town that connected Milwaukee to the east with Prairie Du Chien in the west. With rail transportation came the first factories that produced plows, wagons and reapers.
Through the early 20th Century, agriculture and light industry were the primary economic activities in Whitewater. Since World War II, the town’s fortunes have been tied to its University of Wisconsin outpost.
Founded in 1868, the Whitewater Normal School trained teachers. That remained its primary mission through a series of name changes until the school became part of the University of Wisconsin system as UW-Whitewater in 1971. Today, the university’s 12,000 students choose from more than 50 major and 119 minor areas of study.
Appropriately, the university nestled in the center of town between the older east side with its traditional Main Street and gracious homes and the newer west side, where chain businesses and restaurants are primarily located.
Residents can use the university’s athletic facilities and may purchase a Community Borrower card to gain access to the university’s library system. They often take advantage of the concerts, Broadway touring shows and dance troupes that appear at the 1,300-seat, state-of-the-art Young Auditorium on campus. And with the fabulous success of the school’s NCAA Division III athletic programs— most notably the football team, which has won six national titles— everyone in town is a Warhawks fan.
In addition, the university maintains nature preserve trails that draw eager walkers.
“They’ve done such a great job to make it a beautiful campus,” Carper says.
Lisa Dawsey Smith has been on Whitewater’s Common Council since April. Like Brown, she moved to Whitewater with her husband Garrett, an Associate Professor in the Finance Department in the College of Business. When her in-laws visit from New Jersey, Smith wows them with hikes through the many natural features surrounding Whitewater.
Twelve thousand years ago, retreating glaciers left behind an incredible natural landscape. Today, Whitewater is part of the Ice Age Trail, a 1,000-mile footpath that winds down from Door County to Whitewater and Janesville, then north nearly to Rhinelander, and west to the St. Croix River. Hikers make their way through unspoiled forests and prairies near lakes and rivers along the trail.
Whitewater is also the gateway to the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, which covers 22,000 acres of glacial hills, kettle lakes and prairies. Visitors can hit the trails for mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking. Boating, fishing, swimming, hunting and winter sports are also available.
Boasting four area lakes, the adjoining Whitewater and Rice Lakes feature calm water, perfect for water skiing and fishing for bluegill, largemouth bass, northern pike and walleye.
Appearing to join hands just south of downtown, Trippe and Cravath Lakes are nearing the end of a drawdown and dredge project. When refilled in the spring of 2022, they will have improved water quality and depth. A public boat landing at Tripp Lake Park provides access to the lake’s 121 acres, where panfish, largemouth bass and northern pike are plentiful.
Cravath Lakefront Park accentuates the 70-acre Cravath Lake. The park’s new amphitheater hosts concerts in the park, family fun nights and the 4th of July music festival. The 1.5-mile Cravath and Trippe Lakes Loop is one of nine walking trails through and around Whitewater. It features water views, two fountains, and a view of the American Legion building and its 56-ton army tank that saw action in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as Desert Storm.
MUCH TO DO
Throughout the year, Whitewater’s events give residents, and what Carper calls the town’s “ready-made flow of visitors,” opportunities to come together.
The locally-owned Whitewater Cinemas touts “the freshest popcorn in the Midwest.” The farmers’ market pops up on Saturday mornings with fresh produce. On Tuesdays from May through October, the City Market coincides with city concerts or family fun nights. Attendees browse the booths featuring handicrafts, craft brews, fresh produce and coffee.
Whitewater’s Fourth of July celebration lasts for four to five days with a car show, carnival, bands, a parade and two nights of fireworks. On the first Friday of December, Santa comes to town in the Parade of Lights.
In October, the Spirit Tour capitalizes on Whitewater’s reputation as the “Second Salem,” where purportedly witches gathered at the ‘Witchtower,’ otherwise known as the Starin Park water tower. In south-central Wisconsin in the early 1990s, people claimed to see a werewolf-type creature, dubbed the “Beast of Bray Road.” Those stories and others led to the creation of bus and walking tours, with local residents playing historical characters and relating their spooky stories. A new addition this year is a family-friendly storytelling festival.
EAT, SHOP, STAY
The Second Salem Brewing Company, a one-barrel nanobrewery, overlooks Cravath Lake Park and the lake itself. Taking its cue from the strange events that got Whitewater its Second Salem nickname, the brewery features a robust bar menu and beers named after the town’s spooky stories.
For the “go-to morning pick-me-up,” residents flock to the Sweetspot Cafe in the former Whitewater Hotel, Carper says. The cafe serves a hot breakfast and fresh pastries; at lunchtime, deli sandwiches and salads are available. The Sweetspot Bakehouse on the west side of town is a traditional bakery with doughnuts, scones, muffins, cupcakes, cookies and cakes.
Every town needs a favorite pizza, and Gus’ Pizza Palace has been “serving greasy pizza, broasted chicken, traditional gyros and cheese sticks” since 1962.
For those who miss old-fashioned shoe stores, Dale’s Bootery on Main Street has never stopped offering personal services, like measuring customers’ feet and advising them about the proper shoe fit.
Just a block away, Karen McCullough and three friends opened The Book Teller in the Commercial Bank Building “to enhance the downtown retail and promote literacy,” McCullough says. The four have artistically arranged books along the former bank’s Art Deco-style teller windows, complete with spikes atop the steel bars and built-in gun ports to discourage robbers. The store stashes its mysteries, thrillers and sci-fi books in the bank’s vault. Customers can also view and purchase works from local artisans in the shop.
Twenty-two years ago, Dick and Pam Kraus turned their barn just south of town into The Fuzzy Pig. The country mall, with room upon room of housewares, souvenirs, clothing and shoes, is a “delightful day-trip secret,” Carper says.
Whitewater has several bed and breakfasts where guests can be pampered and soak up the town’s history. The eight guest rooms in the Hamilton House, a gorgeous Queen Anne-style Victorian, include a gas fireplace, private bath with a whirlpool tub and a full breakfast served in the formal dining room.
What Carper calls Whitewater’s “comfortable, very relaxed environment” accounts for its appeal across the generations: from the 10-year-old who can safely ride his bike around town, to the college freshman who experiences the flag-waving community welcome, to the newcomers who are invited to join right in, to the senior residents who enjoy access to a downtown with a main street, the natural amenities and all that the university offers.
“People will talk your ear off,” Brown warns. “They want you to be involved.”
By Susan Murray
Photos by Jen Schildgen