The Rich History of Beloit
From the meaning of Beloit’s name to its fabulous downtown shops, restaurants, and hotels brimming with activity, this is a city on the move. It’s fascinating to see where we have come from and where we’re headed.
Beloit’s history begins when the city was founded in 1836. Caleb Blodgett purchased the land from a French trapper named Joseph Thiebault for three “looks,” a standard Native American unit of measure. Essentially, Blodgett had to hike as far as he could see three times and stake claim at the borders of his new territory. When the New England Immigrating Company arrived from New Hampshire later that year, they bought the land from Blodgett and invited family and friends to move to the area.
Only eleven years later, the cornerstone was laid for what would become Beloit College – a college with history. You can still find Native American Indian mounds preserved on the college campus. Plans were drawn for churches and schools, mills ran along the river, and businesses thrived in the village. It’s been said that the name Beloit was coined from a French word meaning “handsome ground”. Today, our beautiful town still sits along the banks of the Rock River, just north of the Wisconsin/Illinois border.
The Great Migration
From 1910 to the early 1970s, millions of African-American workers migrated from the South to northern cities for jobs and a better future. Many came to Beloit.
A history class at Beloit College invited members of the African American community to attend a “History Harvest” on March 22, 2019, to tell their stories and bring photos and artifacts that document their experiences. The student-curated exhibits on History Harvest website attempt to capture and present these stories thematically and to preserve the words and memories of the Black community in Beloit. Read an article about the project here.
Down the Road
Since its inception, Beloit has seen nearly 180 years of American history unfold. The town played a role as a way station on the Underground Railroad and participated wholeheartedly during the Industrial Revolution, thanks to the ingenuity of its citizens. Fast-forward a century to find Beloit’s workforce helping to meet production demands during WWII. During this time, the invention of Korn Kurls made big waves in the food industry.
Innovation is still thriving in Beloit; only now, there’s a little more fun involved. Tech-savvy, forward-thinking businesses are building their enterprises in the little town that could. Beloit College is now the oldest college in Wisconsin, boasting more than fifty majors and a 12:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Take a look at the historical timeline below to view some of Beloit’s rich history.
French trapper Joseph Thiebault came to the Beloit area. He used to trade with the Ho-Chunk Native Americans in the 1820s
Hundreds of Ho-Chunk Native Americans lived in the Beloit area in the early 19th century. They abandoned the settlement after the Black Hawk War, in 1832.
Beloit was born. The first permanent settler, Caleb Blodgett, arrived and bought land from Thiebault. Dr. Horace White of The New England Immigrating Company purchased land from Blodgett in the same year. White’s friends and family then started settling in Beloit.
Beloit College, the oldest continuously operated college in Wisconsin, was established. This private liberal arts college is famous for its curricular innovation, international programs, and cultural events.
Orson E. Merrill, from Vermont, established The Merrill and Houston Iron Works with partner, George Houston. The Iron Works supplied iron products such as water wheels, horseshoe nails, saws, and spokes.
The Beckman Mill, a historic grist mill, was built on the east bank of Coon Creek, approximately six miles west of Beloit. It has since been restored as a county park, visitor center, and picnic spot!
“William Key, the first cigar maker in Beloit, came to town and opened a factory in the Zilley block on State street in 1870.” By the 1880s, Beloit was well-known as the center for cigars in Wisconsin as it had more than one hundred cigar makers. (Wisconsin Historical Society. Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles; Beloit Daily News; Beloit, Wisconsin; August 14, 1934; viewed online at https://www.wisconsinhistory.org on June 26, 2023)
The Stateline Family YMCA was established. A new 80,000-square-foot complex was constructed in 2017. It now offers youth and adult sports, swimming pools, gymnasiums, childcare, and many other programs.
Four former employees of Merrill & Houston Iron Works purchased the company and renamed it Beloit Iron Works. In four years, the company grew from ten to one hundred employees and began selling paper-making machines in Japan and China. Beloit Ironworks employed 7,000 people at its peak.
The Warner Instrument Company began producing devices for automobiles. Later, the company also made devices to be used in World War I.
Hotel Hilton opened in 1904 and became a major force in Beloit commerce throughout history, playing host to many famous visitors. For instance, three times Presidential hopefuls William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow, John Phillips Sousa, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rookie Brown (actor turned basketball player/coach, Harlem Globetrotters), Booker T. Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Satchel Page were guests of the hotel. In addition, Barney Oldfield (John F. & Jacqueline Kennedy, Richard Nixon, golfer Jack Nicklaus, and poets Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost stayed at the Beloit Hilton as well.
Over the century, the building has seen numerous renovations. Today it houses Turtle Creek Bookstore, Beloit College’s official bookstore.
Stanton Shoes, located in historic and beautifully renovated Downtown Beloit, opened its doors in 1907. Since then, the store has been specializing in quality shoes for all ages. Furthermore, it has remained in the same location. Also, it continues to be run by the founding family!
Arthur P. Warner invented the Speedometer. Warner Instrument Co. in Beloit, Wisconsin, started producing it.
The Great Migration, the relocation of more than 6 million African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West, lasted from about 1916 to 1970. Beloit was one of the destination cities. This lively manufacturing center welcomed African Americans to relocate and take up factory work. During the First World War, Fairbanks-Morse, a manufacturer of machinery and industrial supplies, was experiencing a manpower shortage. By offering jobs and housing, Fairbanks recruited Southern African American men to become a part of the company. To meet the rising housing demand brought about by new workers, the company built the Fairbanks Flats in 1917. These apartments were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
Old Fashion Bakery, the oldest bakery in Beloit, began its journey. Still in operation, the bakery offers traditional and fresh baked delicacies – doughnuts, brownies, cookies, eclairs, cakes, and more.
Riverside Park and the adjacent lagoon were created between 1932 and 1939. The riverside has since been popular for fishing, picnics, events, paddle boating, and festival grounds.
Lewis Dalvit founded the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra (BJSO) – Rock County’s professional symphony orchestra. The BJSO hosts numerous concerts and events featuring live orchestra music.
Henry Odell, John Oliver, and Ken Taylor founded a company called Beloit Tool and set it up in a roller rink in Beloit. Today, Regal Beloit Corporation, or simply “Regal,” is a leading manufacturer of electric motors, electrical motion controls, and power generation products serving markets all around the globe. In 2017, Regal employed nearly 24,000 people, reaching revenues of over $3 billion. The company has a presence in the United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe, and Asia and is headquartered in Beloit.
Beloit held its first farmers’ market. Since then, it has become an annual tradition. Every year, from May through October, on Saturday mornings, Beloit Farmers’ Market welcomes nearly one hundred vendors. It is currently the second-largest market in the state and offers fresh seafood, organics, produce, artisan crafts, gourmet popcorn, fresh flowers, and more!
Beckman Mill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Diane and Ken Hendricks founded ABC Supply, the largest roofing and vinyl siding wholesale distributor in the United States. They are also the founders of Hendricks Holding Company – an investment and business development group headquartered in Beloit. Diane was named America’s richest self-made woman by Forbes magazine in 2018.
The Beloit Brewers franchise was founded in Beloit and later would undergo a name change and become the Beloit Snappers in 1994. The Snappers were affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers between 1982 and 2004 and then with the Minnesota Twins between 2005 and 2012. They are now the Class A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics. The Beloit Snappers are 1 of only 160 affiliated Minor League Baseball (MiLB) teams in North America and one of only two in the state of Wisconsin (the other being in Appleton).
Civic and business leaders focused on community development formed Beloit 2000. The main project focused on revitalizing the riverfront. As a result, Riverside Park, complete with a children’s playground, a 3.5-mile paved trail, two new bridges, and an indoor community center, became a popular spot in town. In 2004, the organization was renamed Beloit 2020. The City Center Plan – Beloit 2020’s development strategy – aims to renew and further develop the historic core of Beloit. As part of the plan, the former Wisconsin Power & Light Building at 500 Public Avenue has been renovated to house the 34-room Hotel Goodwin and the European-themed Velvet Buffalo Café.
Beloit Corporation closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy. It was previously known as Merrill and Houston Iron Works and later — Beloit Iron Works.
Ken Hendricks passed away on December 21 in a tragic accident in his home. In 2008, the Downtown Beloit Association awarded him the “20 Year Award of Excellence” in recognition of his contribution to developing Beloit’s business district.
The inaugural U.S. Kubb Open was held in Riverside Park, Beloit. The U.S. Kubb Open has been organized annually through a collaboration of Kubb United, Visit Beloit, and the City of Beloit Parks & Recreation Department. Two-player teams from around the world compete in this Swedish lawn game for cash prizes and the title of the U.S. Kubb Open Champion. A Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament is held in conjunction with the event every year to add to the excitement. The first kubb event in Beloit (Rock, Paper, Kubb) was held in 2014.
Nature At The Confluence, a new urban environmental center, was opened at the confluence of the Rock River and Turtle Creek. The beautiful campus offers a 10-acre prairie restoration, learning gardens, pollinator gardens, environmental education classes for both children and adults, and nature-themed community events.