It’s always helpful understanding the early days of a city you are visiting. We dropped by the Kenosha History Center for a trip back in time, to the start of this Lake Michigan city. The museum is located on Simmons Island, which offers great views of the lake. While this upper Midwest area was originally inhabited by American Indians, this museum picks up the city’s story with the earliest immigrants. Let’s jump back to the 1830’s and see how the city grew.

We want to thank Visit Kenosha and the Kenosha History Center for their hospitality. Rest assured all opinions are our own. 

Chris Allen, executive director of Kenosha History Center, explains the earliest days of the city of Kenosha.

Our Time Traveling Tour Guide

Our arrival was expected, and we were greeted by Chris Allen, Executive Director. His passion for Kenosha history is obvious, as he seemed to know some of the most obscure facts. We started our tour with the earliest visitors being with the Western Emigration Company. At this time, the town was named Pike Creek for a tributary of the same name. By 1836, the land for the town had been platted and more settlers were arriving.

Early life in Kenosha is shown with exhibits at the Kenosha History Center.

Growing a City

In the following years, the town grew and moved from log cabins to frame homes. The standard businesses, needed to support a growing population, opened up in what is now the downtown area. Growing as an important shipping port, the name was changed to Southport in 1837. These days, that name survives as a south-side neighborhood. As we made our way through the exhibits, we could imagine the lakeside town bustling with activity. Children rushing off to school, as the adult residents performed their daily tasks.

It's not hard to learn new things when visiting educational places like the Kenosha History Center.

Learning Experience at Kenosha History Center

We always try to find some take-away from each museum we visit. This is fairly easy to do, since each destination has its own unique story to tell, and the Kenosha History Center does as well. When I saw this small informational card in a drugstore exhibit, I was surprised that I had not learned this already. I always wondered what significance the red and white pole had, and here I finally found the answer. Had you ever heard this explanation? The city continued to thrive and by 1850, it was time for the city to change it’s name one last time.

A display of toys from various eras is interesting to guests of the Kenosha History Center.

Recognizable Artifacts

We left the long ago history section to start working ourselves forward in time. As we made our way to another gallery, we paused beside a toy exhibit from days gone by. While kids these days would see all of these as antiques, some of us may recognize them from our childhood. It was interesting to see so many memories all contained in one exhibit. See any that you recognize?

The Kenosha History Center helps visitors understand the close link that the city has with the automobile industry.

Growing Commerce

By the turn of the century, the economic landscape was also changing. Kenosha would become home to an assortment of manufacturers straining to produce this new-fangled contraption called the automobile. Some of the names may be familiar. Lafayette, Rambler, Hudson, AMC, and Jeffery (Which would become Nash) all joined in the rush to fill the rapidly growing demand to fuel America’s car craze. Did you know that Jeffery first used a steering wheel, but public concern had them switch to the tiller style steering? The automotive industry thrived for decades in this harbor city, but faded away toward the end of the 1980s.

The use of QR codes makes it easy for visitors to get more details on the exhibits at Kenosha History Center.

Accessible Information

A handy feature at the Kenosha History Center is the use of QR codes on informational placards. If you have a reader installed on your phone, you can scan the code to learn more about the exhibits. Of course, if you don’t have the technology available, you can still enjoy the artifacts on display. I was certainly thrilled to see the Red, White, and Blue AMC muscle cars on display. These were made in limited numbers, so to find a variety in one place is almost unheard of these days.

The historic streetcars offer riders a fun way to travel around the downtown.

Bringing The Past Back

The old AMC lakeside plant was demolished in 1990, and the space was turned into Harbor Park. Today this area is filled with modern housing, marina, and an outdoor park. After our tour of the Kenosha History Museum, we took a stroll along the boardwalk in Harbor Park. This scenic walkway has great views of lake Michigan on one side and some unique sculptures on the other. As we walked, we caught sight of one of the city’s historic electric streetcars. You will certainly want to hop a ride on this fun mode of transportation.

The authors pose for a selfie, before heading off for more Kenosha fun.

Prepared for More

Now that we understood how the city formed, we were ready to begin exploring more of the downtown area. While light showers were passing through the region, we weren’t about to let that dampen our enthusiasm. After all, we had only learned a sliver of what makes Kenosha, Wisconsin the city it is today. Time to lace up our walking shoes and hoof it on over to our next stop. How often do you check out the local history centers in the places you vacation?

the authors signatures.

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