About Delavan, WI
History of Delavan, Wisconsin
Formation of Delavan: When the land that would become Walworth County was divided by the act of the Territorial Legislature on January 2, 1838, the town of Delavan was formed in the southwestern quarter of the county. This region steadily grew around the settlements that are now the towns of Darien, Sharon, Walworth and the present town of Delavan. On February 2, 1846, the town’s borders were permanently established. Henry Phoenix and Col. Samuel F. Phoenix were the town’s first settlers. They were men of strong principles seeking to start a community pledged to temperance, sobriety, and faith. They believed they could build such a town here in the new Wisconsin Territory, which was mostly undeveloped in the early 19th century. In May 1836, the brothers began to explore sites in northern Illinois and then southeastern Wisconsin. They found that the lush green hillsides, the ample water supply from Delavan Lake, and the rich surrounding soil were perfect for their needs and the town was born.
Circus History: Delavan has a storied history steeped in circus myths and legends. By the middle of the 19th century, the nation was continuing its westward expansion, bringing circuses from the east to the young territories in the upper Mississippi Valley. 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 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 250 members of the old Circus colony are buried in Spring Grove and St. Andrew’s cemeteries.
Early Architecture: Delavan, one of Wisconsin’s early cities, has a rich nineteenth-century architectural heritage. From Greek Revival to turreted Queen Anne structures located throughout, Delavan is a showcase of Victorian architectural styles. The former Israil Stowell Temperance House, built in 1840 at 67 E. Walworth Ave., housed the Old Delavan Book Co. and is among the earliest homes from this period. It is listed on the National register of Historic Places. A set of Greek Revival row houses built between 1841 and 1845 stand next to the former Israil Stowell Temperance House. Phoenix Hall, an Italianate-style structure, rests amidst the more modern buildings of the Wisconsin School for the Deaf on Hwy.11, designed by E. Townsend Mix and built in the early 1850’s. Another prominent building designed by Mix is the Allyn Mansion at 511 E. Walworth Ave., built in 1885. Both are on the National Historic Register as well. The Queen Anne Latimer House, built in 1904 by another of Delavan’s prominent citizens, is a fine another fine example of Victorian architecture.
State School for the Deaf: 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 its 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.
Delavan, the Art Center: 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 Co. & George W. Borg: 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.
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.
Swiss Tech & Andes Candies: The 1970’s through the 1990’s brought more growth both in industry and residential aspects. Joining the businesses in Delavan were Swiss Tech and Andes Candies.
Development of Delavan Lake: 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.
Recreation in Delavan, Wisconsin Today
Recreation Opportunities: Including Delavan Lake: The Delavan and Delavan Lake area is one of the most popular resort locations in Wisconsin with exciting water sports, golf, horseback riding, and winter activities. The city’s park system contains more than 100 acres of natural preserves, parks, picnic areas, and playgrounds. Included in Delavan’s beautiful park system can be found a swimming pond, ice-skating and hockey rinks, sledding hills, Skateboard Park, and a Memorial Arboretum. Over two miles of winding waterways are within the city; Lake Comus is a favorite spot for children. Along the north shore of Lake Comus, beyond the arboretum, is the Dibble Nature Trail where many varieties of trees, shrubs, marsh grass, birds and small animal wildlife can be observed in their natural habitat. The new Rotary Gardens on the east end of the city highlights a seven-rock fountain representing the seven continents. The city owns and operates the 27-hole Delbrook Golf Course rated as one of the finest public courses in the area. It includes a man-made lake, a modern irrigation system, and modern clubhouse. A golf pro is available to help with all your golfing needs.