Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

December 1999

Park centennial logo

Wisconsin state parks – 100 years young

Join the fun as we celebrate a century of outdoor relaxation at state parks, trails and forests.

Deborah Proctor

Statewide celebration

In the late 1800s, most of Wisconsin was still a vast forest wilderness and the prevailing attitude was that trees were an obstacle to immigration, farming and settlement. A few far-sighted citizens could sense how rapidly an unending hunger for timber was eating up our natural heritage. At the behest of these early nature lovers, the Legislature, in 1878, became one of the first governing bodies to establish parkland – The State Park – 58,000 acres in what is now Iron and Vilas counties. Unfortunately the state only owned 8-10 percent of the land inside the property boundaries, most of the taxpayers lived in southern Wisconsin and lumber barons who wanted those same lands were the greatest influence on Wisconsin government at that time. The first state park was lost by legislative action when the land was sold to the lumber companies in 1897.

A few years later, in 1899, Governor Edward Scofield appointed a commission to investigate park possibilities along the Dalles of the St. Croix River, where Polk County borders Minnesota. The Minnesotans designated their shore as parkland in 1895 and in 1900, Wisconsin did the same; the land on both sides of the St. Croix River became Interstate Park.

Since that day 100 years ago, Wisconsin's state park system has grown to include 93 state parks, forests, trails, and recreation areas, encompassing 139,000 acres. The natural scenic beauty of the state is preserved for future generations, while providing camping, picnicking, swimming, nature education, scores of trails and water recreation for more than 14 million annual visitors.

Famed landscape architect, John Nolen, was hired in 1907 by the newly created State Park Board to develop a plan for the state park system. Nolen's report, completed in 1909, recommended additional parks in four locations:

  • Devil's Lake (Devil's Lake State Park was established in 1911)
  • Door County (Peninsula State Park was established in 1910)
  • Grant County (Nelson Dewey, now Wyalusing State Park was established in 1917), and
  • the Dells of the Wisconsin River (a natural area was established here in 1994, and expanded in 1997).

Nolen felt strongly that "simple recreation in the open air amid beautiful surroundings contributes to physical and moral health, to a saner and happier life." His report noted that "state parks are the only means of preserving, protecting and appropriately improving places of uncommon and characteristic beauty. These parks would make, as no other agency can, adequate and permanent provisions for wholesome outdoor recreation and pleasure."

Wisconsin State Parks: Havens for wholesome outdoor recreation, guardians of scenic beauty and valuable habitat.

© Robert Queen
Wisconsin State Parks: Havens for wholesome outdoor recreation, guardians of scenic beauty and valuable habitat. © Robert Queen

Those benefits are as true today as they were when our first state park was born 100 years ago. State park properties are topographical, cultural, environmental, and economical treasures for everyone. Whether we benefit individually, from recreating in the scenic beauty, or economically as businesses in the surrounding communities adjoining these properties, there is no question that Wisconsin state parks make all our lives better. They are our natural legacy – now and for future generations to come.

Statewide celebration

Join our centennial celebration by attending any or all of the following statewide events during 2000:

  • A capitol proclamation – On January 13, we'll honor the anniversary of the day John Nolen submitted his parks plan to the State Parks Board. In a noon ceremony in the Rotunda of the State Capitol in Madison, Governor Thompson, DNR Secretary George Meyer, State Parks Director Sue Black and the Wisconsin State Parks Centennial Commission will be joined by scouting troops and other community organizations to proclaim 2000 as the "Year of the Wisconsin State Parks System." Warren Nelson from Big Top Chautauqua will debut a new state parks song. Flag-raising ceremonies will unfurl a specially designed centennial parks flag. All state parks will join the celebration by raising their centennial flags at 1 p.m.

  • Help pick a new park – State legislators and the State Parks Centennial Commission want to celebrate this special anniversary by establishing a big, new park; the first major park purchased since 422 acres were bought in 1975 for Governor Nelson State Park in Madison. Early plans call for a property within a few hours drive of city dwellers; a place near state trails that is really scenic and might offer camping and boating. The statewide search is on.

  • Living tributes to outdoor recreation – We commemorate great leaders with statues, great composers with concerts and great parks with great trees! On Arbor Day (Friday, April 28) each state park, and their enthusiastic volunteer Friends groups, neighbors and visitors will plant centennial trees to honor our commitment to maintaining scenic open spaces. Pick a favorite state park, gather your family, bring your camera and grab a shovel so you can show people that you were there when the centennial trees took root.

  • Happy birthday to us! – By tradition, the first Sunday in June (that's the 4th this year) is Open House Day when we dust off the welcome mat and admission to all state parks is free. This year, bring your fork and your appetite because we're throwing a party. You can't turn 100 without blowing out a few candles and eating some good cake. Come on out to wish your favorite property many more happy returns. Times and locations will vary at each park, so check ahead of time to find where we're carving up the calories and whether you'll be treated to marble cake with fudgy frosting, pound cake with fresh berries, or angel food cake with marshmallow topping. They'd better be serving devil's food cake at Devil's Lake! What kind of gift do we want? Well, I hear the park superintendent has been dropping hints for a pair of those silky Smokey Bear boxers. On the other hand, you might want to bring your wallet and pick up a tee shirt or some new sweatshirts sporting the new centennial logo.

  • Back to our beginnings – A special ceremony at Interstate Park on September 20 will unveil a plaque designating the property as the first jewel in a string of state gems now preserved as state parks, trails and forests.

  • A full year of fun – Each state park or trail will cook up its own unique mix of historic talks, nature walks, foot races, festivals, photo displays and special days to celebrate the park centennial throughout the camping season. For instance the Sugar River Trail in New Glarus will sponsor Depot Days at the old railroad trailhead on April 23 to show the railroad's importance to the local culture and economy.

Hartman Creek State Park in Waupaca will host a special Open House at the Hellestad Home, a restored Norwegian log cabin on the property.

The yarns will be spinning at Wildcat Mountain State Park on June 15 when they host evening campfire stories.

You can step back in time at Mauthe Lake in the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest when they host a community festival on June 16.

In July a huge Smokey Bear hot air balloon is slated to tour several of the parks. Meet the real Ursus major up close and personal!

Fly high with the biggest bear around!

© DNR Photo
Big Smokey balloon. © DNR Photo

Old-fashioned toys will be on display and you can try your hand at old time games. Woodsmen and real history buffs will enjoy the French and Indian War encampment at Heritage Hill State Park in Green Bay on September 9 and 10, and the Buckskinner's Rendezvous at Tower Hill State Park near Spring Green on September 9.

To help plan your day trip, weekend outing or a longer vacation around these special events, visit a state park or DNR Service Center to pick up a special listing of centennial programs. You'll also find them at Parks, Forests, Recreation Areas and Trails. Or you can write Centennial Events, DNR Bureau of Parks and Recreation, P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707, or contact the Department of Tourism at 1-800-WI-TRIPS.

Join us in celebrating the best of Wisconsin's last 100 years and the bright adventures to come in 2000 and beyond at Wisconsin state parks, trails and forests!

Deborah Proctor helps manage customer relations for DNR's Bureau of Parks and Recreation in Madison.