The first known visit by white men to the Root River area, the site of present-day Racine, occurred in 1679 when explorers LaSalle and Tonti stopped there on their search for a route to the Mississippi River. Prior to the 1830s, the area of southeastern Wisconsin was inhabited by the Potawatomi tribe, whose rights to the lands were recognized by the federal government. By 1833 the U.S. government made an agreement with the Potawatomi to purchase five million acres of land, including the area where Racine is located. Soon after, the Potawatomi were moved by the government to areas in the western United States. The first settlers arrived in what came to be Racine County about 1820 and established trading posts along the Root River in the present day cities of Racine and Caledonia.
In 1834 Gilbert Knapp settled at the mouth of the Root River and blazed out a 160-acre claim. From 1834 to 1836 the community was named Root for the river on which the city was settled (Root being the English translation for the name the Potawatomi called the river). After 1836 the name was changed to Racine, the French word for root, but the English word was retained for the name of the river. From the spot at the mouth of the river and spreading westward across the entire county, commercial and industrial enterprises sprang up. In 1834 and 1835 hundreds of settlers migrated west to the newly open lands. Northern Europeans settled along waterways throughout Racine County, utilizing them for transportation and power.
Shortly after Racine's founding, a saw mill was constructed, which proved to be a real convenience to the settlers. By 1840, 337 settlers lived in the area and by 1844 the city had 1,100 people. The government built a lighthouse in 1839, a $10,000 courthouse in 1840, and several bridges and a major hotel. Between 1844 and 1860 the government assisted in the completion of the harbor. A large elevator was built in 1867 to load the ships with wheat that was brought to Racine and stored in dozens of grain warehouses. The elevator was destroyed by a fire in 1882.
The young city was supported by a large farming community that came to town for manufactured goods. The city's growth coincided with the invention and development of agriculture machinery and other labor-saving devices. A flour and feed business was Racine's first. Other early industries were boots and shoes, tanneries, clothing, wagons and carriages, soap and candles, saddles, trucks, harnesses, and blacksmithing. By 1860 boat building and brick making were added.
Racine's first school was built in 1836. During the Civil War, the Camp Utley federal war camp was built in Racine. In 1884 the first ship entered the newly built harbor. That same year, upon the city's fiftieth birthday, a monument that still stands in Monument Square was erected to honor the city's Civil War soldiers.
Over the years, as waterways declined in importance, railroads became the major transport for freight. The first railroad to reach Racine arrived in 1853 and the first steam engine came into use in 1867.
A number of local industries have had a vital relation to the growth and prosperity of the city itself. The J. I. Case Plow Threshing Machine Works was established in 1844. In 1886 S.C. Johnson began a parquet flooring manufacturing operation, which diversified over the years and is now one of the city's largest employers. Gold Metal Camp Furniture was started in 1892, the Racine Rubber Company in 1910, Mitchell Motor Car Company in 1903, and Western Publishing in 1908.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was especially severe in the agricultural sector and the sale of farm machinery drastically declined. By 1937 recovery had begun, and World War II accelerated that recovery. However, from 1945 through 1960 the business community, always sensitive to national business cycles, experienced slow post-war growth. In the 1960s, the voluntary desegregation of the schools became a national model. During the 1960s and 1970s Racine manufacturing entered a growth cycle, and printing, publishing, and chemical production became more predominant.
During the 1970s there was an increased movement of industry from central Racine to the outlying areas. In 1971 the University of Wisconsin-Parkside was founded in a rural setting between Racine and the nearby city of Kenosha.
The construction of the multimillion-dollar Racine On The Lake Festival Park marina complex in the 1980s spurred the growth of tourist visits to the city, particularly from the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. Today, Racine's waterfront community thrives with cultural attractions, sporting activities, festivals, and other tourist attractions. This influx of tourism has boosted many areas of Racine's economy.
Historical Information: Racine County Historical Society and Museum, 701 S. Main St., PO Box 1527, Racine, WI 53401; telephone (414)637-8585