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Prior to European and Yankee settlement, Native American peoples, including the Chippewa, Fox, Kickapoo, Sauk, Sioux and Winnebago, lived in this rolling prairie and marsh area in the warmer seasons of the year. Native Americans hunted and fished the area, and paid a special reverence to a source of natural spring water that they called the Sacred Springs found in what is now Swan Park. A number of archaeological sites have been discovered and are being preserved in the area.
In the spring of 1841, Thomas Mackie and his family became the first permanent Yankee settlers to the area. The Mackies built a log cabin, and were soon joined by other settlers. Beaver were abundant along the streams and river, constructing dams to provide their own habitat and food source. The Mackies and other Yankee settlers decided that Beaver Dam would be a fitting name for the new settlement and the river.
These early settlers recognized the value of damming the Beaver Dam River to use waterpower to run a gristmill and a saw mill, so in 1842 the first in a series of dams was constructed along the river. That year the shallow valley upriver began filling in to create Beaver Dam Lake.
By the mid 1850s the community had grown enough that local leaders initiated incorporation as the City of Beaver Dam, and in 1856 a city charter was granted. During this period of growth European immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Poland and other nations began to arrive to the area. These immigrants provided much of the workforce for many new industries including breweries, a woolen mill, brick makers, wagon makers, carriage makers and cotton mills, as well as the existing flour mill and saw mill.
By the 1870s the opening of the American prairie to settlement brought about a surplus of grain and a sharp decline in the profitability of wheat farming. Wisconsin and neighboring states began a significant agricultural shift from wheat farming to dairying. During this period dairies and cheese factories began to be established throughout the area. In 1879 Dr. G.E. Swan rediscovered the natural spring once revered by local Indians. Dr. Swan was so sure of the healthful benefits of the alkaline mineral water that he purchased 12 acres around what was known as Ackermans Spring and constructed cottages and a large resort hotel for a health spa. Although Dr. Swans Vita Park resort only lasted for several years, outsiders became aware that the city was a nice place to visit in the summer time for fishing, boating and other recreation. Heavy industry arrived in Beaver Dam in the 1890s, including several malleable iron works, such as the Malleable Iron Range Company (Monarch Ranges) and Rassman Manufacturing, now the Kirsh Foundry. A diversified economy of dairy farming outside of the city limits, tourism, and a broad range of service and industrial businesses located within the community continued from last decade of the 19th Century to the present.
Beaver Dam is proud of its history and is fortunate to have private citizens and civic leaders who have recognized the value of preserving the architectural heritage of the community. A number of outstanding buildings have been preserved and restored throughout the community for use as homes, businesses and public facilities. The 1880 pavilion built for the Vita Park resort has been lovingly restored, and the former resort property is preserved as Swan Park, part of the municipal park system. The 1901 Downtown Train Depot, owned by the City of Beaver Dam, currently houses the Beaver Dam Chamber of Commerce. The citys first independent library building, the Williams Free Library, was built in 1890 and today is maintained as the Dodge County Historical Society Museum. Many private homes, particularly along Park Avenue and surrounding downtown, have been maintained, restored and preserved as residences for over 100 years. Several downtown Beaver Dam landmarks have also been continuously maintained as businesses since the late 19th Century.