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Madison's Parks: From Acewood to Zook

We are blessed to have the park system we have. People who live here know it, people who visit marvel at it. It's a big part of what makes Madison Madison and keeps landing us among the most livable cities in America. We know how lovely the lakeside is at Marshall Park, how wide and green the fields at Warner, how spectacular the view from Hoyt Overlook. Any parent or grandparent who has ever taken the kids to one of the city's 200 neighborhood parks -- from Acewood Park off Cottage Grove Road to the West Side's Zook - would not be surprised to learn that Madison is nationally renowned for the sweep and beauty of our city-wide park system.

But these qualities did not happen by accident.

If you trace the history of Madison's parks, what stands out is this: we owe it all to ourselves -- to an extraordinary civic effort of ordinary Madisonians doing remarkable things. Three decades before Madison even had a municipal parks department, public spaces were being purchased, developed and maintained not by the city but by the private citizen members of the Madison Parks & Pleasure Drive Association. During the decades between 1894 and 1938, there were years when an astonishing one in every 10 Madison households regularly donated money to a private group to create and support the city's public parks.

As a result, this legacy of our forebears who founded our parks isn't just that some of Madison's most charming public spaces--Brittingham, Hoyt, Olin, Burrows, Tenney and Vilas--exist. It's that a citizen tradition of private support for public parks grew with each passing year, each dollar donated, each acre added.

Today, that legacy lives in the Madison Parks Foundation.

Three Men & A Carriage

1890 Madison WIHere's the kind of ironic part about Madison's history: The first "park" created by the MPPDA in the city was made by people who wanted to get out of Madison, if only for a few hours. It was the 1890s, and the city limits were roughly from Bascom Hill to Mansion Hill to the hilly south side of the isthmus. Fashion was to celebrate fine summer days by taking horse-drawn carriage rides into the countryside and beside the lakeshores. Three men--Edward T. Owen, Edward E. Hammersley, and John M. Olin--built the first such PlJohn M. Olineasure Drive in 1892, contributing acres of land and generous easements, building bridges and raising funds to pave their roadways with gravel.

Soon the city's horse-and-buggy set had organized a group to build more scenic routes. They called it the Pleasure Drive Association and installed Olin as president. Then something happened--a small thing, really, in the overall scheme--that made the Association's leaders turn their carriages and take a look back at the city proper.

Mr. Tenney's Park

1899 Tenney ParkIn 1899, Madison lawyer Daniel K. Tenney bought some land near the city's limits and gave it to the Association, forever changing the face of Madison and adding "Parks" to the group's name. Tenney wanted to turn the land into a park, but the city had a history of refusing to finance space for anything as frivolous as leisure. So Tenney went to Olin with his vision: The Association could have his land--14 expansive acres where Lake Mendota meets the Yahara River--but only to create a park. And only if the park would be kept as a public trust to be handed over to the city when it was ready to take care of it.

Daniel K. TenneyAssociation members jumped at the chance, switching focus from rural pleasure drives to in-city "pleasure grounds," and in the process turned the volunteer group into the most powerful force for beautification Madison has ever known. To raise funds for the Tenney project, the visionary Olin slashed Association dues and increased membership tenfold. He also ran what was probably the city's first direct-mail campaign to raise awareness of the need for parks and outdoor recreation. And the money poured in from hard working families eager for a spot of beauty.

Olin then came up with a wildly ambitious plan to dredge the Yahara River, build a lock, raise all eight of its bridges, and build a dappled 20-acre parkway to link Lake Mendota with Lake Monona. He lobbied the city council and the statehouse relentlessly, and talked landowners into donating their river frontage. Amazingly, he got the whole project done in less than three years' time. In "Madison, A History of the Formative Years", Historian David Mollenhoff writes that Olin's profession was law, "but parks, beauty & order were his passion."

All Around the Town

1909 Madison ParksSuddenly, it was as if a starter's gun had gone off and the race to develop more Madison parks was on. The ranks of ordinary citizens who sent money to buy and develop parkland doubled, then redoubled. At the same time, some public-spirited giants, men who'd be unanimous choices in any city's parks hall of fame, stepped up to add 146 acres of their own land to the handful with which the MPPDA had started. By 1909, Madison had a population of only 25,000, yet a quarter of a million dollars in private funds had been raised just to build public parks, this at a time when a dollar was worth $20 in today's money.

Olin ParkEvery dollar and each plot of land was immediately put to use. The group established a plant nursery to provide trees for the new parks. It installed a statuary fountain at the foot of Randall Avenue and dredged Monona Bay. It enlisted nationally known landscape architect and planner John Nolen to design parks and fill them with amenities. It built beaches, boathouses and bathhouses, and founded Glenway golf course. It created Burrows and Olin Park. And throughout, every donated acre and every completed project required no tax dollars and remained in a public trust.

Vilas & the Five Deer

Vilas ParkThe creation of Vilas Park took that notion of a public trust even further. The park was founded according to Tenney's tradition so that the land would one day be deeded to the city. But the 35 acres donated by William F. and Anna M. Vilas in 1904 came with an extra condition: Nobody--not the Association nor, eventually, the city or the county--would ever be able to charge an admission fee. Nearby neighborhoods immediately raised $10,000 to enlarge and improve the park, and it quickly became one of the city's best-loved "pleasure grounds."

William F. VilasThis was where Madisonians first celebrated weekends in the park on a grand scale. Band concerts were held, and recreational baseball and wintertime ice-skating gained popularity. So many people came to play and socialize that vendors sold thousands of ice cream cones each summer Sunday. It was also, almost by chance, where the zoo was born when a man over on Lakeside Street donated five pet deer. Other animals were soon delivered, and by 1920 the zoo boasted tigers, alligators, camels, and its own fundraising association (known today as The Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society).

Land of Lakes

Lake Wingra had Vilas and Lake Mendota had Tenney. And, starting in 1910, Lake Monona had Brittingham, the city's first water park. With its boathouse and bathhouse, its expansive beach, popular water slide and rental swimsuits, Brittingham was the city's first grand answer to Madison's age-old question: Where can people swim around here?

Brittingham Park 1910Again the land was donated, this time by Thomas E. Brittingham. And again, citizen support for the new park swelled. In a matter of only a few years, Monona Bay was dredged and more than 41,000 wagonloads of fill were used to make a new and gracious sand-lined shore for the park. The bathhouse was built and the roof-high slide went up. Pleasure boating was on the rise, too, thanks to the completion of Tenney Park's lock. To meet the demand for boat storage, one of Madison's treasured landmarks--the Brittingham Boathouse--was built.

In its time, Brittingham was one of the most-used parks in the city; Mollenhoff reports that some 50,000 people swam there the year it opened. Today it's still one of Madison's prettiest downtown parks. But, sadly, the exquisite boathouse has fallen into such disrepair that restoring it tops the wish-list of the new Madison Parks Foundation.

The Torch Passes

Warner Park 1939In 1931, the city established its Parks Division, and by 1938, the Parks and Pleasure Drive Association, having turned over the deeds to all parks, declared its mission complete.

But the momentum never faltered. Indeed, the city continued to accept gifts of parkland and to build playgrounds, shelters, gardens and other improvements upon those gifts. Warner Park, named for MPPDA leader Ernest Warner, was established in 1939, Marshall Park in 1956, Garner in 1965. Owen conservancy was dedicated in 1972. As the city grew outward, emerging neighborhoods deeded lands to Madison for park space, some of which awaits development. Neighborhood and civic groups, likewise, have remained active; raising funds, maintaining gardens, helping to build much needed amenities. The recent Warner Park Community Recreation Center is a living example of the spirit of Parks and Pleasure Drive private citizen activism.

                                                       Madison Parks Foundation,   P.O. Box 2987,   Madison, WI 53701-2987,   (608) 266-4339       Contact Us
Madison Parks Foundation