The Legacy of George Esterly
By Carol Cartwright, Whitewater Historical Society
This article was originally published in the Whitewater Press and is used in this web site with permission.
At the grand reopening of the depot building on April 28, the Whitewater Historical Society will be showcasing the newly restored building and a railroad history exhibit, an Art Walk exhibit, and one of the most important artifacts in the historical society collections—the Esterly Seeder. The seeder, a large piece of agricultural equipment made around 1870, has a long and interesting “lost and found” story, but it is most important as an artifact that represents one of the most important periods of Whitewater history, when Whitewater was a “factory town.”
George Esterly, one of the early pioneer settlers in the Town of LaGrange was, like most early farmers in Wisconsin, growing wheat in the 1840s. But wheat harvesting was tedious and time-consuming with hand tools. The mechanical McCormick Reaper, or wheat harvester, had been introduced in the mid-1830s, but by the 1840s, farmers desired improved machines. George Esterly was one of the farmers who began to make improved reapers on the farm in the 1840s and soon other farmers asked him to make harvesters for them. Unlike others, though, Esterly’s reapers were innovative and many considered them better than McCormick’s machines.
Esterly reapers were so successful that in 1856, he established the Esterly Manufacturing Company on Whitewater’s east side and began mass producing his machines. Over the next 35 years, Esterly’s company produced reapers and other mechanical farm equipment, such as binders and seeders. The company also developed a furniture line.
At peak production in the 1880s, the Esterly Company employed up to 500 workers, many of whom were Irish and Norwegian immigrants who lived near the factory. These workers built small houses on the east side of Whitewater (East Main and Newcomb Street area), and the neighborhood was quickly dubbed “Reaperville.”
By 1890, wheat-growing was fading in southern Wisconsin as the soil was depleted and farmers were turning to dairying and other crops. The wheat frontier had moved to Minnesota and the Dakotas and in 1892, George Esterly abruptly shut down his factory in Whitewater in favor of a new plant he built in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, a patent lawsuit and Esterly’s death in 1893, along with the industrial-based economic depression at that same time, resulted in Esterly’s new factory never opening.
The closure of the Esterly factory, along with the closure at the same time of the Winchester and Partridge wagon factory, resulted in a rapid decline in Whitewater’s population, as workers left for factories elsewhere. Industry in Whitewater never recovered and in the 20th century, the community became known as a commercial center and college town.
The Esterly Seeder was given to the Whitewater Historical Society before it established its depot museum in 1974. As a large artifact, it was difficult to store, so it was loaned to the Wisconsin Historical Society for its agricultural collections at Stonefield Village. While the Whitewater Historical Society had the original paperwork for the loan, it was never updated and over the years the Wisconsin Historical Society declared ownership. A few years ago, Ellen Penwell, president of the Whitewater Historical Society and curator of artifacts at Old World Wisconsin, gathered the original paperwork and successfully convinced the Wisconsin Historical Society curators that the seeder was only “loaned” to Stonefield Village, not given to them, and that it should return to Whitewater.
So, for the grand reopening of the depot, a treasured artifact has been returned and after decades it will be on display in Whitewater. This is important because the seeder not only represents the legacy of George Esterly, who helped make Whitewater a factory town in the 19th century, but it also represents the entire period of industrial Whitewater, without which the community would never have seen such success.
To cite this article, please use: Carol Cartwright, “The Legacy of George Esterly,” 2013, originally published in the Whitewater Press, Whitewater, Wisconsin. Whitewater Historical Society web site, www.whitewaterhistoricalsociety.org.