'White Rock' spring water at 1897 inauguration put Waukesha on the map

As President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in Wednesday, Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C., some in Waukesha recalled an inauguration more than 100 years ago, and a specific inaugural event that made Waukesha the toast of the town.

Waukesha celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2021, and a special exhibit celebrates the city's history.

"We have partnered to create an exhibit – 100 objects that tell the history of the City of Waukesha," said Bonnie Byrd, executive director of the Waukesha County Historical Society and Museum.

Those objects include historical maps, clothes and even dental equipment. Just a few months after Waukesha became a city, it played a unique role in presidential history.  

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"McKinley was a Methodist, and so he wouldn’t have served alcohol at that event," said Byrd.

The inauguration of President William McKinley took place in 1897.  Photos from the event show crowds of people gathered outside the Capitol, and later that night, an equally grand affair for the inaugural ball.  Newspapers around the country printed the dinner menu, and everyone in attendance was sipping Waukesha water.

"He chose Waukesha's White Rock spring water to serve at his inauguration banquet," said Byrd.

Byrd said at the time, White Rock was known for putting the city on the map.  Its advertising made that clear.  

"They were bottling and shipping nationally by the 1870s," said Byrd. "Nevermind then, 100 years later in the 1970s, they were still bottling and producing."

Of course, the city was famous for its springs, featuring "naturally occurring shallow aquifer spring water," Byrd said, but what may be forgotten is its presidential fan in McKinley. 

"Even an event like an inauguration that feels so national in scope, at the end of the day, is about those individual stories that help build that larger event," said Byrd.

The "100 Objects" exhibit opens in March. 

In case you're wondering, on the dinner menu for McKinley's inaugural ball was chicken cutlets, boned turkey and oysters, with coffee and punch also served.