The Lake District—Kenosha, Milwaukee, Racine, Walworth, and Waukesha counties—contains the urban and industrial core of Wisconsin. Three of the state’s largest cities—Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha—are located here on the shores of Lake Michigan, and one out of every three state residents lives in the five-county region. Small towns, a rolling glaciated countryside, and scenic lakes characterize the hinterland to the west. The region has long been Wisconsin’s main point of entry to newcomers. Its population, both urban and rural, swelled as European immigrants arrived throughout the latter half of the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth centuries. Since World War II the region has been the center of gravity for African American, Hispanic, and Asian arrivals. In recent decades, much of the heavy industry that once helped to define this region has disappeared, and the economy has been transformed. Meanwhile, the suburban tentacles of greater Chicago and Milwaukee continue to stretch, threatening the character of many rural places and small towns.
Milwaukee, Racine, and Southport (later named Kenosha) began as Great Lakes shipping ports in the 1830s. By the 1840s the main economic activities centered on processing local materials, and in the early 1870s, Milwaukee was a leading wheat market and tannery center. Culture, climate, and capital made this area the epicenter for brewing in America. Every town had a brewery—in Racine alone, forty operated between 1860 and 1900. Milwaukee’s number was much higher, and several of the city’s German breweries rose to early national prominence. By 1874 Best (renamed Pabst 1889) had become the nation’s largest brewer, and by the early twentieth century it led the world. Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller rounded out the rest of the “big four” in the city.
Great Lakes trade gave southeastern Wisconsin its initial economic pulse, but it was railroad development in the 1870s that integrated the region into the emergent American manufacturing belt. Manufacturing activity evolved from simple processing to heavy industry, including the production of industrial machinery, agricultural implements, and fabricated metals. Racine’s J. I. Case, a manufacturer of agricultural machinery, was the city’s largest employer for over a century, metalworking and automobile production were central to Kenosha’s economy, and Milwaukee’s diversified industrial base turned out everything from mining equipment to motorcycles.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, manufacturing employment declined in southeastern Wisconsin. Companies moved production to places with cheaper or non-union labor, replaced workers with machines, or closed. For example, when Chrysler reorganized its operations and closed its Kenosha plant in 1988, thousands of people lost well-paying jobs. The closure had devastating effects on other sectors of the city’s economy, and even a decade later Kenosha had the highest unemployment rate in the state. Similar events occurred in Racine, Milwaukee, and the latter’s suburbs. Today a new structural transformation of the economy is underway as southeastern Wisconsin turns from its traditional heavy manufacturing base to high technology manufacturing and service-related industries.
Manufacturing has always been a major identifying element for this region, but fertile soils also created a vibrant agricultural economy. Settlers in the 1840s and 1850s produced wheat and helped make Milwaukee one of the world’s leading wheat ports by the mid-nineteenth century. Following wheat’s decline, agriculture became more diversified and today anchors the southern end of Wisconsin’s eastern dairy region.
Tourism is also of historic importance. In the western part of the region, the glaciers left behind a rolling landscape sprinkled with lakes that became popular retreats before the Civil War, especially for the well-to-do from cities throughout the Midwest. Railroad travel magazines from the 1870s and 1880s encouraged travelers to enjoy the scenery and healthy lifestyle found at the Waukesha County resorts of Hartland, Nashotah, Oconomowoc, and Lake Pewaukee. The best-known spot, however, was Waukesha, the “Saratoga of the West,” which had a national reputation for its mineral springs. The lakes and towns of Walworth County to the south have been equally fabled. Some of Chicago’s wealthiest families erected opulent summer mansions on the shores of Geneva Lake beginning in the 1870s. Described in railroad literature as the “Newport of the West,” the city of Lake Geneva boasted a summer social register that included Chicago’s elite industrialists, financiers, and chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. In the city of Delavan the idea for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was developed in 1879. Between 1847 and 1894, twenty-six circuses made Delavan their winter home.
Many of the first settlers in southeastern Wisconsin were Yankees from New York and New England. The names of such towns as Burlington, Rochester, and Genesee reflect their eastern roots. Yet European immigrants came early. The largest numbers of early immigrants were from Ireland and Germany. The Irish were the first European group to settle in Wisconsin in large numbers, starting in the 1830s, establishing themselves in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, where many were employed as grocers, railroad workers, and dock laborers. Germans arrived in the early 1840s as a heterogeneous group that differed in religion, class, and regional dialect. Many cultural institutions such as the outdoor beer garden, the Turnverein, German schools, and the German-language press brought them together. Germans quickly became the largest immigrant group across the state, and their impressive impact upon the civic and cultural landscape of Milwaukee, where they made up one-third of the population in 1870, earned the city the nickname “America’s German Athens.” Norwegians made Muskego, in southeastern Waukesha County, one of the first Norwegian settlements in the state. Welsh immigrants settled that county’s rolling hills, naming a local town for their homeland, Wales. Scottish immigrants settled in northern Racine County, and Danish immigrants made Racine the most Danish city in America in the nineteenth century.
From the 1870s the region also attracted large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, many of whom went to work in the factories. One of the largest groups was the Poles. By 1910 there were 70,000 Poles in Milwaukee, the second-largest immigrant group in the city. Italians came in large numbers to Kenosha and Milwaukee beginning in the 1890s. Racine and Milwaukee were also popular destinations during the early twentieth century for Russian Jews, Bohemians, Armenians, Serbs, and Croats. At the turn of the twentieth century, Milwaukee’s population had a higher proportion of foreign stock than any other major American city.
The largest groups of new arrivals since World War II, bringing additional cultural diversity and vitality to southeastern Wisconsin, have been African Americans and Hispanics; Milwaukee and Racine County lead the state in population for both groups. African Americans have resided in Milwaukee since its inception and by the early twenty-first century made up 40 percent of its population. The core of the community was, and continues to be, northwest of the city’s downtown, an area once heavily occupied by German immigrants. The first significant numbers of Mexicans were recruited to Milwaukee during the 1920s to replace striking European immigrant tannery workers. Mexicans are Milwaukee’s largest Latino group, followed by recent Hispanic arrivals from the Caribbean and Central America. The Hispanic population in Milwaukee is concentrated—along with a growing Asian population—on the South Side, which was once the heart of the city’s Polish community.
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