The Apollo drops guests off at the Lark’s Hotel in the 1890s (left), and a station wagon prepares
to take Pines guests back to the train station in the 1920s (right).

Field Trip Guide (Part 3)

By Kevin Patrick

Country Lodges and Cabin Resorts – Wisconsin Dells

The traditional Wisconsin Dells vacation is defined by a rustic, knotty pine cabin in the woods near the Wisconsin River, Lake Delton or Mirror Lake. The bucolic requirements of such a resort required a diffuse development pattern that could only be achieved by the automobile. Early tourists traveled by train so country lodges could not be far from Kilbourn and had to be connected to the railroad depot by boat or station wagon.

A rustic log cabin at Birchcliff on Lucky 13 north of Kilbourn.

The first country lodge was the Lark’s Hotel built around 1890 at Larks Landing in the Upper Dells by the Dells Resort Company who also owned the Dells Boat Company that linked hotel to the Dells Boat Landing one block from the railroad depot. With the arrival of the automobile, country lodges and cabin resorts spread north up River Road, Lucky 13, from Kilbourn along the east side of the Wisconsin River and included the Blackhawk Hotel, Auerbach’s Shady Lawn, Meadowbrook, Birchcliff, The Pines, Berry’s Cold Water Canyon Lodge, and Chula Vista.

Lucky 13 was the auto spine of the Wisconsin Dells country resort where lunch stands and filling stations like Uncle Al’s catered to out-of-town tourists.

Founded in 1923, Meadowbrook hosted Al Capone, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Benny, and the Andrew Sisters. Chicago millionaire William Newman dammed Dells Creek to make Lake Delton for his Dell View Resort in 1927. The resort went bust during the Great Depression, and the land around it was sold to developers who spread country lodges and cabin resorts to Lake Delton and the Lower Dells after World War II.

At the high end, Berry’s was an early all-inclusive country resort between Lucky 13 and the Upper Dells (left). At the low end, Dells Park was a free auto camp across the Wisconsin River from Kilbourn (right).

Dells area tourist development shifted to US 12 after World War II where it was transformed in the 1980s to become the water park capital of America.

U.S. 12 – Wisconsin Dells Parkway

Wisconsin Dells was remade in the image of the automobile out on US 12, the Wisconsin Dells Parkway, in the postwar era. The foundation, however, was set in the 1920s. Federal Route 12 was marked out west from Detroit through Chicago to Yellowstone by way of Wisconsin Dells in 1926, running concurrent with Wisconsin Lucky 13 from Madison to an intersection just west of the Milwaukee Road bridge adjacent to the Lower Dells boat dock. This was the new main road to the Dells. Tourist development began with the 1927 creation of Lake Delton and the Dell View Hotel.

Opened as a rustic log cabin in 1938, the Del-Bar Restaurant was purchased by Jimmie & Alice Wimmer in 1943 and rebuilt in 1953 with a Modernist Prairie-style design by James Dresser who studied under F. L. Wright at Taliesin.

The country lodges and cabin resorts built around Lake Delton anchored the southern end of the parkway with summer tourists, causing the 3 miles of US 12 between Lake Delton and Wisconsin Dells exploded with a sprawl of new motels, gas stations, restaurants and attractions in the 1950s and 1960s. The Modernist raked-gable became the signature style of the new and improved postwar Dells used for restaurants, gift shops, ice cream stands and dozens of motel blocks.

Although later transformed into a steamboat, Mr. Pancake’s 1962 restaurant sports the Modernist raked-gable design also used by the Playday Motel.

The Dells transformed again in the 1980s and 1990s to become the waterpark capital of America. By then, US 12’s Modernist motel strip was aging. It was repurposed starting in 2010 when Mt. Olympus Resorts began to buy old motels to accommodate the throngs of tourists attracted to their water and theme parks. The signs and individual identities were lost under a uniform blue and white paint scheme with names inspired by Classical mythology. Gone were the Luna, Star, 4-Seasons, Pine Dell and Riviera motels, replaced by Mykonos, Poseidon’s and Cyclops villages. The Flamingo Motel followed the same model, expanding by taking over adjacent motels like the Playday/Mayflower and painting them all pink and gray.

Postwar Dells Tourist Attractions on US 12
1. Fort Dells, US 12 & WI 13. Now a Walgreens,
McDonald’s, Starbucks and an I-HoP.
2. Riverview Amusement Park, US 12 & County A. Now
Timbavati Wildlife Park.
3. Wisconsin Deer Park, US 12 & County A.
4. Original Wisconsin DUCKS, US 12 & Bonanza.
5. Storybook Gardens, US 12 N of Pilgrim. Behind Dells
Mining and Bigfoot Rope Course.
6. Biblical Gardens, Clara Ave. & Newsome Rd.. Now
Canyon Creel Condominiums.
7. Tommy Bartlett’s Water Show, US 12 & Newsom Rd.

Postwar Attractions – Wisconsin Dells-Lake Delton

The tourist geography of nature-centered places like Wisconsin Dells can be subdivided into component parts. The Dells are the primary attraction supported by infrastructural tourist services like gas, food and lodging establishments, and augmented by direct and indirect accessory businesses. Directly related accessories allow the tourist to experience the primary attraction in some way like the boat tours. Boat tours of the Lower Dells and Lake Delton changed radically with the arrival of the first WW II surplus amphibious DUCKS in 1946. Bounding in and out of the water to the splashy delight of tourists, the DUCKS started operating on Lake Delton in 1952, and then along a hilly land and water route through the Lower Dells in 1954.

Indirectly related accessories are diversions that compete with the primary attraction by selling something else to the tourists drawn to the primary attraction. Indirect diversions proliferated with the mass auto-tourism of baby-booming families in the 1950s and 1960s. Still in business, the Wisconsin Deer Park was one of the early arrivals, opening on US 12 in 1952. This was followed by Storybook Gardens in 1956, Fort Dells in 1959, and Biblical Gardens in 1962, all of them passive parks (stroll-see-learn) geared toward children.

In addition, there was the Enchanted Forest and Prehistoric Land, Pioneer Village interpreting the Dells’ frontier history, the slanty-shanty Wonder Spot, Riverview amusement park, and Tommy Bartlett’s Water Show. A Milwaukee radio personality, Bartlett saw his first waterski show in 1948, and in 1952 brought
the concept to Lake Delton with the with Tommy Bartlett’s Ski & Jumping Boat Thrill Show. He put on water shows for five World’s Fair’s from Seattle in 1962 to Knoxville in 1982, and although he died in 1998, his Lake Delton show is still popular.

Kid-friendly themed restaurants arrived with the postwar tourist attractions like Stanton’s Call of the Wild Restaurant, and Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Meals serving up all you can eat since 1958.

End Part 3

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

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