Walworth County, located in southeastern Wisconsin, is one of the oldest and wealthiest counties in the state. The diversified topography has rolling hills, forests, prairies, marshes, meadows, and winding streams. It is a perfect square in shape, containing 576 square miles (368,640 acres). There are 24 lakes, the largest being Geneva Lake which is nine miles long, from one to three miles wide, with water supplied by fresh springs.
The growth of the county has been steady and permanent. In 1836, 27 families lived in the county in log houses, and by 1990 the population has grown to 57,000. The first residents of Walworth County came principally from New York State. Other states represented were Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Illinois. Of those that came early to the wilderness, the English were predominant. Norwegians purchased land here after 1838, the Irish came after the famine of 1847, and the Germans arrived after the revolution of 1848. It was only after many hardships of the early pioneers that Walworth County became a “place of peace, comfort, and security.”
Preceding the white settlers, southern Wisconsin was the home of the Potawatomi Indians. The Potawatomi, and Algonquian tribe whose home was central New York, migrated to Montreal, then to Green Bay, and in the latter part of the 18th Century to Lake Geneva. They had settlements on the north shore and at the west end of the lake. It was here that Chief Big Foot (Gros Pied) lived when the settlers arrived.
The county was first surveyed by John Brink and John Hodgson in 1835 under the direction of a Mr. Millett of Detroit, a government contractor.
The first claim in the county was in the fall of 1835 by Jesse Meacham and Adolphus Spoor in Troy, but they did not occupy the claim. When Meacham arrived at his claim in May 1836, he found a Mr. Bigelow on his land. Since there was no law or court at that time to settle the dispute, it was settled by a fight, frontier style.
Christopher Payne has been given the credit of being the first actual settler of the county. In February 1836, he came from Pennsylvania to the shore of Lake Geneva and cleared trees and brush near where the Whiting House, a large hotel, later stood. After building his log cabin, he left for Illinois. When he returned in April, he was greeted by a party of surveyors who had claimed his land. They drove him from his claim and burned his cabin. Payne returned with 30 armed men and, after much argument, the surveyors accepted $2,000 for the land and departed. Payne, who later remarked that he had “bought his own pocketbook,” lived until 1871.
With the opening of the west, the county gained an increasing number of settlers. John S. Rockwell, a clerk in the newly established government land office at Milwaukee, formed a partnership to find a site for a new village. The location for the new settlement they chose was the exact center of a proposed new county. They named the village Elkhorn.
Walworth County was first organized in 1838 when Milwaukee county was subdivided. It was named after judge Rueben H. Walworth, chancellor of New York state. The first election of officers was in the fall of 1838 and in December of 1839, Elkhorn was made the county seat. Shortly after, the first county board was formed. The first courthouse was built in 1839 by Rockwell in the north part of Elkhorn.
The Wisconsin School for the Deaf was organized in 1852. The school stood on thirty-four acres of land in Delavan and began with eight pupils. A State Normal School at Whitewater was established in 1868 by Professor Oliver Arey.
The county’s first newspaper, the “Western Star”, was published in 1845 by George Gale and Francis Utter. The oldest newspaper that is still being published is the “Elkhorn Independent” begun by Edgar J. and Alonzo L. Farnum in 1853.