April 16, 2010

Celebrating 175 years: West Racine

This view is looking west on Washington Avenue from West Boulevard. The first block shown in this view was razed in recent years for redevelopment. A gas station is planned for the site. 
Photo courtesy  racinehistory.com

By Gerald Karwowski, racinehistory.com

West Racine as we know it today dates back to the 1890s, when pioneer farms in the area were being sub-divided for businesses and residences.

The early history of area dates back to the mid-1800s when there were plank roads and pioneer homesteads. One of the earliest settlers was a man named William Bull. In the 1840s, Bull built a fine home on the Southside of the Territorial Road (Washington Avenue). The main floor of the home was spacious, and laid out with a fireplace in each of its east and west rooms. The staircase banister, spindles, and newell post were produced from a walnut log found near the Rapids (Horlick’s Dam) and were made by the Lucas Bradley Planning Mill. During the Gold Rush of 1849, Bull and another pioneer took off to California to seek their fortunes.

This rare photo c.1910, of a young boy and his dog on the front porch of the Nicholas D. Fratt mansion was taken by Racine photographer Wilfred G. Marshall. The south end of the electric railroad depot passenger platform roof and Mound Cemetery are in the background. Photo courtesy racinehistory.com

Before Bull left, he leased his farm to a Mr. Rose who converted the first floor of the home into a tavern. The upper floor of the house was unfinished so Rose proceeded to construct 11-rooms, two central rooms that were surrounded by nine sleeping rooms. On a post at the side of the road was a sign picturing a large bull’s head. This tavern would be an oddity today because West Racine has been a dry area for decades. The law at the top of the list in West Racine is, "There shall be no taverns in West Racine."
William Bull’s daughter Frances Gibson, poses with the old William Bull  homestead (Bull’s Head Tavern) in the back ground. ca. 1923. The historic  building was located at the south west corner of Washington and Grove Avenues. 
Photo courtesy  racinehistory.com 

In the early 1850s plank roads were becoming popular. According to Racine’s first city directory published in 1850 by Mark Miller "The first Plank Road within the limits of our young and flourishing state, is through their energy completed as far as Rochester and Burlington - 30 miles out. Pay as you go, is their adopted motto, both in their individual and corporate capacity."

Oak planks were used because they withstood wear better than pine, but the roads still needed repair often. If a person wanted to drive a vehicle on the road he would have to pay a toll of 25 to 40 cents. Other charges were 4 cents a mile for twenty cows or 3 cents a mile for twenty sheep or swine.

There was also a ten dollar fine for evading the toll.

In 1851, the Rock River Plank Road Company purchased 1/4 acre next to the school property ( Blaine and Washington Avenue) and built a toll gate house. According to records at the Register of Deeds’ office the property was sold back to Nicholas D. Fratt in 1861. Later the Toll house was bought by Charles Reed, who moved it to his farm located on the northwest corner of Washington and Lathrop Avenue. The building was converted into a home and still stands at 1128 Lathrop Ave.

This rare photo shows the old Racine & Rock River Plank Road Co.  toll gate house  after it was moved to the Charles Reed farm in the 1860s  and converted into a home (now) 1128 Lathrop Avenue. The building originally  stood on the north side of the Plank Road (Washington Avenue) where Blaine Avenue intersects. Later the home was totally remodeled  and the farm land was sub- divided creating what is known as  Man-Ree Park. 
Photo courtesy  Hattie Reed La Mack/racinehistory.com   

Toll roads were short lived. Even while the roads were constructed, Racine along with other communities began to get railroad fever.

Nicholas D. Fratt, President of the First National Bank of Racine, purchased the Weed farm of approximately 200 acres in 1855. Fratt named the farm Sylvan Dell, after the Sylvan Creek which flowed through the property. All that remains of the creek today is a small lagoon at Mound Cemetery.

The large cream brick Fratt mansion was located about were the old Piggly Wiggly parking area was. Fratt sold the mansion and property in 1892. The home was later used to house the West branch of the Racine YMCA.

Today the business section houses furniture sales, bakeries, restaurants and other numerous small businesses.

This view looks east on Washington Avenue from the intersection of Hayes Avenue about 1940. The West Racine business district had all the things needed to sustain the area residents. There were barber shops, meat markets, grocery stores and three drugstores operating all at the same time. It was also the home of a number of quality bakeries that made the famous Danish pastry "Kringle." For decades West Racine businessmen hosted "Western Days." The event featured a parade and contests all done in a western style. Store owners and clerks would wear western clothing while assisting customers during the annual sidewalk sales 
Photo courtesy racinehistory.com 

During the 1930s Christensen operated this Standard Oil Company station at the NE corner of Washington and Lathrop Avenues for many years. A time in history the filling station attendant would fill your gas, check your oil, wash your windows and air up your tires. It was truly an era when every customer was a valued asset.  
Photo courtesy  racinehistory.com 


  1. Celebrate with West Racine on Saturday, April 17th at the Artwalk. Various artists in stores. 11 am - 3 pm.

  2. A wonder retelling of the neighborhood. Thank you.

  3. OMG, a gas station and a tavern in West Racine. Next crazy thing you are goinf to tell us was that some of the old buildings housed brothels. But we all know that residents of West Racine don't smoke, drink or have sex.

  4. Thank god for Alderman Spangenberg! Look how bad West Racine lokked before he came to save it. All of those people, cars, businesses and CUSTOMERS, must have really caused a lot of traffic.

  5. It is sad to see what our liberal local politicians have done to our beautiful city. Liberalism will destroy our once thriving industry and its family sustaining jobs.

  6. Great feature. I really like these looks back.

  7. When is the Western Days parade??

  8. Lived in est Racine from 1941 to 1992.