Delavan sits in the middle of what was at one time an inland sea. During the Ice Age, many glaciers, the last of which was known as the Michigan tongue, covered this area. The Michigan tongue descended down what is now known as Lake Michigan. A large section of this glacier broke off, pushing southwest into the area now known as Walworth County. Geologists have called this section of the glacier “the Delavan lobe”.
The first humans known to inhabit the Delavan area were Native Americans around the era of 1000BC. Later, between 500-1000 AD, Mound Builders lived in what is now the Delavan Lake area. Mound Builders were of the Woodland culture. The effigy mounds they erected along the shores of Delavan Lake numbered well over 200, according to an archeological survey done in the late 1800’s by Beloit College. Many were along the north shore of the lake where Lake Lawn Resort now stands. The Potawotomi Indians also settled around the lake in the late 18th century, although there were only an estimated 240 in the county. Some of their burial mounds are preserved in what is now Assembly Park.
From the mid 17th century through the mid 18th century, this area was known as “New France” and was under the French flag. It came under British rule and a part of the Province of Quebec following the French-Indian War. In accordance with the Treaty of 1783 it was turned over to the United States and a part of the newly established Northwest Territory.
Between the years of 1800 and 1836 the Delavan area was part of the Indiana Territory, followed by the Illinois Territory, finally becoming part of the Wisconsin Territory in 1836. Statehood was granted in 1848.
Delavan’s first white settlers arrived in 1836, finding the area to be dense forests with prairies on both the east and west sides with plenty of game available for hunting.
Lakes and streams surrounded the area. The first known settler in the Delavan area was a man from the Rockford, Illinois area named Allen Perkins. Arriving in the spring of that year, he built a log cabin for his family at the base of the hill along what is now Walworth Ave.
That same summer, two brothers from New York arrived in Chicago with the intention of starting a temperance colony. Samuel and Henry Phoenix were hoping to form a settlement “pledged to temperance, sobriety and religion; and where should a poor, despised colored man chance to set his foot, he might do it in safety” according to the writings in Samuel’s journal. They traveled north of Chicago in search of the most desirable spot to settle. After traveling around this area and finding nothing to their liking, Henry returned to New York and Samuel continued the search. Samuel discovered what is now the Delavan area after spending a night in an abandoned Potawotomi wigwam. He later met Perkins and Perkins two brothers-in-law as they were traveling the same route to Spring Prairie to get provisions. They all returned to Delavan the next day. Samuel Phoenix stayed with the Perkins family until his provisions arrived from Racine.
Phoenix was a successful businessman in New York and staked many claims in the Delavan settlement. It wasn’t long before he and the Perkins family were at odds over the naming of the colony. The Perkins had filed for the settlement to be named “Wilksbarre”, but the postmaster who received the request and was to have forwarded it to Washington for approval was a friend of Phoenix and returned it instead.
Phoenix was joined in Delavan by relatives and they soon outnumbered the Perkins clan. Phoenix then filed the name of Delavan with the Belmont Legislature. Born in 1793, E. C. Delavan, whose surname the city now bears, was a temperance leader in New York State. He never saw the town that carries his name. He died in 1871. Phoenix also filed the name of Walworth County, taking the name from Chancellor Rueben Walworth, past president of the New York Temperance League.
Perkins eventually moved from Delavan and Phoenix then took over his claims. Before long, Phoenix held claims on most of the area. The settlement was touted as a great temperance colony to those in New England and many came west to settle here. Most new settlers were successful farmers, good businessmen and financially secure. The majority of them traveled here via steamers on the Great Lakes and came west from their landing in Racine by wagon. Most stayed with Phoenix until their own cabins were built. He had also established the first general store in town. Land sold for $1.35 an acre and was primarily used for agriculture. Wheat crops were the most predominate and brought a good cash flow to the farmers.
The Baptist church, organized in 1839 was the first church in the newly formed town. From this church grew the first anti-slavery and temperance societies in Wisconsin. The belief in temperance was so strong that it was included in all deeds that no alcohol could be bought or consumed on the premises. This unconstitutional inclusion was outlawed in 1845.
Samuel and Henry Phoenix completed construction of the town’s first gristmill in 1839, at the current Mill Pond site. It could grind 100 barrels of wheat per day and was the main business in Delavan for the remainder of that century. The owners had rights to build a dam and control the water levels and the power used at the mill.
Most of the settlers were from New England and were not tolerant of the Europeans that tried to settle in the area. Many travelers were turned away from the inn, operated by Israel Stowell. Now the oldest building in Delavan, it still stands at the SW corner of Walworth Ave. and Main St.
The Phoenix brothers died within two years of each other. Samuel in 1840 from tuberculosis and Henry in 1842. Both are buried in Old Settler’s Cemetery, located in the 300 block of McDowell Street. About 6 months after Henry’s death, the first town meeting was held at Israel Stowell’s. William Bartlett, a half brother of Samuel and Henry was elected chairman. It is said that he did not possess their leadership qualities.
1845 brought the end of temperance in Delavan. In 1847, Edmund and Jeremiah Mabie, proprietors of the U.S. Olympic Circus – then the largest traveling show in America – chose Delavan for their winter quarters, a year before Wisconsin attained statehood and 24 years before the Ringling Brothers raised their first tents in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin School for the Deaf was founded on April 19, 1852. It is situated high on a hill, overlooking Delavan, on land donated to the state for it’s sole use by Franklin Phoenix. Phoenix was a friend and neighbor to the Ebenezer Chesebro family whose daughter Ariadna was deaf. Chesebro had employed Wealthy Hawes to teach his daughter in 1850. Hawes himself was hard of hearing and had attended the New York Institute for the Deaf and Dumb. As Delavan’s population grew, so did the increase in the deaf population. By 1852 Hawes successor, John A. Mills was teaching eight area children and the need for state assistance became apparent. The Chesebros, along with some help from friends and neighbors petitioned the state for a school, the land was donated and the school was opened. The Mabie brothers chose Delavan due to its ability to support the circus horses and other animals. These animals were the most important assets to the 19th century circus, both for transportation and performance. Delavan’s abundant pastures and pure water provided everything the Mabies required. The Mabie Circus stayed at the present site of Lake Lawn Resort on Delavan Lake, where it created a circus dynasty that survived in Wisconsin for the next 100 years.
As time passed, the circuses grew in strength and numbers; hundreds of clowns and circus performers from over 26 circuses set up their winter quarters in Delavan from 1847 to 1894. The P.T. Barnum Circus, “The Greatest Show On Earth,” was founded in Delavan in 1871.
But, as times changed so too did the circus era in Delavan. It came to an end in 1894 when the E.G. Holland Railroad Circus folded its tents. Except for a handful of local performers, who continued the tradition, the circus vanished from the community. Within a generation, the familiar ring barns and circus landmarks were gone. On May 2, 1966, the U.S. Postal Service selected Delavan to issue the five-cent American Circus Commemorative Postage Stamp. Today, more than 150 members of the old Circus Colony are buried in Spring Grove and St. Andrew’s cemeteries.
The Mabie brothers took over where the Phoenix brothers had left off. They were financially well off and soon owned over 1,000 acres in the township. The purchased the Phoenix brothers gristmill, orchestrated the original plank road that was laid from Racine to Delavan and saw to the completion of the Racine-Mississippi railroad to this point in 1856. Edmund served a term as village president and they were both extremely fundamental in the development of Delavan during the pre-Civil War era.
In the late 1840s, many new immigrants came to Delavan, but were not welcomed by the Baptist element already established here. Many of the new arrivals were Irish and Catholic and settled in the Darien area. In 1856, many more Irish laborers arrived with the construction of the railroad and settled here.
In 1861 the first manufacturing plant was built in Delavan. Founded by Trumball D. Thomas, it manufactured windmills and wooden pumps. It employed 35 men. Over the years it grew and evolved and included a foundry and machine shop.
64 Delavanites perished in the Civil War, more than all other wars combined. Following the Civil War, many manufacturers built in Delavan, including the Logan cheese factory, the VanVelzer cigar factory, the Jackson tack factory and the N. W. Hoag grain elevator.
Development at Delavan Lake didn’t begin until the first permanent residence was built by Dr. Fredrick L. VonSuessmilch in 1875 along the north shore. Mamie Mabie opened a small hotel at Lake Lawn three years later. A steamboat launch was built at that location also. The next 20 years saw a building boom of private houses, hotels and resorts. Most of the residents were summer retreats for Chicagoans who came up on the train, which at that time stopped here 6 times a day during the summer months. Livery buses took people from the train station in town to the resorts around the lake.
Many changes came to Delavan in the last decade of the 19th century. Fires devastated the business district in both 1892 and 1893. A new school was built in 1894. Electricity was first brought to town in 1896. Delavan became a city in 1897.
During the early 1900s, Delavan became a recognized art center. The Chicago Art Institute held summer classes here for 15 years. Famous artists that had studios here include William T. Thorne, Adolph and Ada Schulz, Frank Dudley and Frank Phoenix.
The Bradley Knitting Company was established in 1904. The first major manufacturer in town, it employed up to 1,200 people over the next 30 years. Delavan saw a rapid growth in building after Bradley opened. The average new home during that period cost $1,800.
The first paved street in Delavan was Walworth Avenue between Terrace and Fourth streets in 1913. Bricks were laid at a cost of $1.79 per square yard. Sidewalks soon replaced the boards that had previously been used to walk on. In 1915, a 3 block boulevard was built between Fourth and Seventh streets on Walworth Ave. The brick streets still remain, although they were redone in the late 1990s. The boulevards still remain an attractive sight on the main street through town.
During this same time period, Aram Public Library, the Delavan Post Office and streetlights were added to the downtown area. Horse and buggies gave way to automobiles and plumbing went from outdoors to indoors. Dairy farming took over as the leading agricultural income and milk was transported to Chicago by train.
Delavan lost 16 servicemen during World War I. Influenza during that same time claimed the lives of many at home.
Delavan’s strong economy helped to see it through the Great Depression, keeping it a bit less devastating than it was for many areas of the country. The resorts and ballrooms around the lake were instrumental in keeping the economy alive. Slot machines were abundant in the ballrooms and were known to have caused a few gang warfare incidents.
As the Depression wore on, Bradley Knitting Company fell into hard times. A Chicagoan by the name of George W. Borg came in and loaned the business some capital. He also opened a small manufacturing plant that made clocks for automobiles. Borg was also largely responsible for the development of the automobile clutch. Around this same time, William C. Heath developed Sta-Rite Products that manufactured water systems. Heath later designed landing gears for B-17 and B-29 bombers and also developed a high-speed submersible pump that was used in the capture of a German submarine. In 1940, Thomas B. Gibbs started a factory that manufactured timing and electrical devices. During World War II, Borg and Gibbs completed over 30 contracts for the U.S. government. Because of the number of government contracts, Delavan was listed as one of the top ten prime targets for enemy sabotage.
Delavan was immediately affected by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Walter Boviall, a DHS graduate went down with the Arizona. 23 Delavan servicemen lost their lives in this war. Government contracts kept Delavan’s economy healthy during this time.
The late 1940’s and early 1950’s brought a building and baby boom to Delavan once again. The Korean War took the lives of three Delavanites. Progress brought a new water tower, which is still in use in Tower Park. Borg Industries and Ajay Industries joined the industrial firms of Delavan. The Mill Pond was dredged during this time and began to be used for swimming in the summer and ice-skating in the winter. It still serves the purpose today. The new Delavan-Darien High School was built and the first senior class to graduate from it was the class of 1958.
The 1960s brought the assassination of President Kennedy, who had stopped in Delavan during his presidential campaign. George Borg, son of George W. Borg was elected to the State Senate. A D-DHS graduate, Gary Burghoff launched his acting career in the role of Radar O’Reilly in the movie “M*A*S*H” followed by the TV Series. The Viet Nam War took the lives of six area servicemen. Local attorney, Ernst John Watts became Walworth County Circuit Judge. Delavan was chosen as the First Day Cover city for the issuance of a five-cent commemorative American Circus postage stamp. The Lange Memorial Arboretum was opened and a large section of the north shore of Lake Comus was donated to the city by Ben Dibble for use as a wildlife and botanical refuge.
The seventies through the nineties brought more growth both in industry and residential aspects. Joining the businesses in Delavan were Swiss Tech and Andes Candies. Highway 15 was expanded to a four lane interstate highway and became I-43, running from Beloit to Milwaukee. Delavan’s first female mayor was elected in 1976. Beth Supernaw had previously served on the common council, representing the second ward. Fires devastated the city during this decade. In 1978-79, The Colonial Hotel, the American Legion and the Ajay South Second Street buildings were all destroyed by fires.
Since then, Delavan has become the home of Waukesha Cherry-Burrell, Stock Lumber, Bergamot Brass and other industrial companies. Ajay closed is doors in the 1990s. Geneva Lakes Kennel Club brought Greyhound racing to the lakes area. Two shopping centers built in the late 1980s on the east side of town added many shopping alternatives to area residents. A third is under construction along Hwy. 50.
(Info taken from History of Delavan as published by The Delavan Enterprise and the Website Wisconsin School for the Deaf © State of Wisconsin;The original text was condensed and paraphrased by Carla R. Strating.)