Long before the white man arrived, the Potawatomi called Oconomowoc home, but in April of 1937, 11-years before Wisconsin became a state, Charles B. Sheldon purchased 160-acres of land on what is now known as Fowler Lake. Sheldon moved to Wisconsin from New York to mine lead. Like most miners, he struggled to survive. He purchased the Oconomowoc property for $1.25 an acre with the hopes of building a life on a farm.
Days later, H.W. Blanchard acquired the property to the west of Sheldon’s farm. The address of that property became 517 North Lake Road, which, today, is the city's latest addition to its park system.
Ken Burns, our country’s premier documentarian, once said the Constitution is America’s best idea, followed by the idea of public parks. “Like the idea of America itself,” he wrote, “full of competing demands and impulses, between idealism and exploitation, between the sacred and the profitable, between the immediate desires of one generation and its obligation and promise to the next, the public park idea has been constantly debated, constantly tested, and is constantly evolving, ultimately embracing places that also preserve our community's first principles, its highest aspirations, its greatest sacrifices... Most of all, the story of the public parks is the story of people, people from every conceivable background, rich and poor, famous and unknown, soldiers and scientists, natives and newcomers, idealists, artists, and entrepreneurs.”
History of Oconomowoc Parks
One doesn’t have to look far to find a debate over preserving natural spaces. The idea of preserving natural spaces has deep Wisconsin roots. There’s John Muir, considered the father of our national park system, who said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
Another proponent for natural spaces is Increase Lapham, who held many titles, including naturalist, botanist, and geologist. Lapham Street runs north and south in Oconomowoc and Lapham Peak State Park is the highest point in the county. Lapham’s Milwaukee obituary proclaimed that “‘a calamity has fallen upon the State!’ in the death of this nobleman.” The newspaper went on to state that “No man has done more to develop the natural resources of
Wisconsin than has Dr. Lapham.” Lapham died of an apparent heart attack while fishing on Oconomowoc Lake. He was 64 years old.
Wisconsin architect Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Nature is my manifestation of God.
I go to nature every day for inspiration in the day's work.”
Wisconsin’s Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is considered “The environmental classic that redefined the way we think about the natural world.” Leopold wrote, “There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.”
“The ultimate test of man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard,” said Wisconsin Governor and then U.S. Senator and Gaylord Nelson. Nelson is considered the father of Earth Day.
David Hastings is not well known, but this Oconomowoc pioneer’s words lament the end of wild spaces, which symbolized the change happening throughout the country in the late 1800s. In the midst of America’s Gilded Age, a term Mark Twain coined for his book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, a period of “unscrupulous speculators, corporate buccaneers, shady business practices, scandal-plagued politics, and vulgar displays” the country was moving from an agrarian society to one dominated by cities, factory jobs, and industrial corporations. In the shadow of this societal and economic shift was Hastings. Born in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, in 1812, Hastings began as a cabinet maker at the age of 15. He transferred those skills and became a cobbler which he continued until 1842. He later moved west to the Town of Oconomowoc, Section 32. That’s when he began farming with his wife, Mary, according to Waukesha County Wisconsin Genealogy. At the age of 80, Hastings gave the following speech.
Let us hang our harps on the willows,” Hastings wrote, “and take the last view. Here is the same water where we used to sport a vast number of waterfowl that are not allowed to rest on its bosom. The tong of the cowbell is hushed, the drum of the partridge, the hoot of the owl, and the chirp of the squirrel is no more heard. The fox, the wolf, the deer, and the Indian with his frail canoe has gone to return no more. The land has been cleared and fenced and the cattle may be seen as it were upon 1,000 hills.
The lake is dotted, here and there, with steam and sailboats, and on the distant shore may be seen the beautiful city of Oconomowoc, springing up as it were by magic with its arches, spires, and glistening domes, which we hear strains of plaintive music. All grand in its way, but how weak to fill the place of nature.
Give me back my home with all of its hardships, with my little family, l and old-time friends around me. And I will be satisfied, but how vain the thought. Some are scattered and some are gone to their long homes.
Peace to their ashes and I am soon to follow. So may it be.”
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, 1892
Preserving our open and wild spaces is not a new idea nor a new concern. It was with that look to the future that the people of Oconomowoc began to preserve some of the city’s more pristine properties.
“If he is not amazed at the surpassing loveliness of the scene, he is less than human.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls Fowler Park the “crown jewel” of Oconomowoc’s parks. In 1839, nine years before Wisconsin became a state, Allen Hatch purchased the land that is now Fowler Park. Over time, the property changed hands six times,
The property once included a “grand house” built by Dr. James Henshall in 1867. Before moving to Wisconsin, Henshall worked as a medical doctor in New York but then began studying “the scientific and life history of fish as a means of rest and relaxation.” The New York Times wrote that Henshall “made a trip around the world and “penetrated to the far reaches of the earth in pursuit of [his] favorite pastime.” He “fished in many out-of-the-way streams in Spain, along the Mediterranean Coast and Egypt and Turkey.”
“When he moved to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin,” wrote Clyde E. Drury, a noted bass historian, “he began to study the fish up close. He stocked a pond on the property with adult bass and studied their breeding, spawning, and feeding habits for several years. He also studied the bass in several other nearby lakes.”
Henshall published the Book of the Black Bass in 1881, which ESPN fishing expert, Ken Duke, called “groundbreaking”. “His was the first book on the subject," Duke wrote, ”and its equal has not been seen since.” In fact, Duke takes his accolades even further, writing that “Book of the Black Bass is everything about the black bass just as Herman Melville's Moby Dick is all you want to know about whales. It would be decades before anyone had anything substantial to add to Henshall's primer.”
The laurels don’t end there. The American Fisheries Society said the Henshall is “the Apostle of the Black Bass”. Henshall became a contributing author for Forest and Stream magazine, later to become Field and Stream, and wrote under the pen name Oconomowoc.
His articles championed the black bass as a premier sport fish and recommended certain tackle for anglers pursuing bass. In particular, he advocated an 8-foot rod that most of his contemporaries considered too light for bass fishing. Henshall never patented the design but created a demand for the "Henshall rod" through his articles in Forest and Stream. A Vermont rod-maker, Charles F. Orvis, began making the rod to Henshall's specifications and wrote to the doctor that he couldn't keep up with the demand. The Henshall rod was the standard in the bass market for more than 20 years until better materials and craftsmanship came along and allowed lighter and sometimes shorter designs.
His world travels brought him world recognition. In 1900, the French government awarded him the silver medal in recognition of his scientific research at the Paris Exposition. Just four years later, in 1904, he received the gold medal for his literary work on fishing at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, informally known as the Saint Louis World's Fair.
While Henshall’s house was under construction, the local newspaper heralded it as “a masterpiece of architectural design.” The brick home, which Henshall named Sunnybank, had three bedrooms and a living room that ran the length of the building, and a fireplace at each end.
Like his fishing rods, Henshall’s home on the Folwer property was also worth admiring. “The location of the doctor’s house is not excelled for beauty,” the Oconomowoc newspaper reported. “Let the reader, by moonlight or at sunset, visit his grounds, and if he is not amazed at the surpassing loveliness of the scene, he is less than human.”
In 1879, Henshall sold the property to William Marston and upon his death in 1923 the property was willed to the city for a park.
The city said no.
The estate was then sold to Frank Roemer, the president of Roemer Drug Company, considered Milwaukee’s Progressive Druggist. In 1944, Roemer offered the property to the city for $25,000. If the city didn’t come up with the cash, he planned to subdivide the property and sell the lots.
The development plan struck a nerve throughout the city. Citizens were split on the idea. City council members were petitioned and people stood on street corners passing out handbills. A public inspection and a referendum vote were scheduled.
If the referendum was approved, the city would purchase the property. If the ballot measure failed, the property would most likely be subdivided and the idea of a public park would be lost.
The intensity of the issue can be measured by the polls. A record number of votes were cast that day. In the end, the public voted not to purchase the property. Like the city, the citizens said no.
That’s when the two sisters, — Ida Binzel and Anna Binzel Theobald — stepped forward and saved the land in June of 1945. Their goal was to save the property from development and preserve it for public use. The women were related to one of Oconomowoc’s pioneer families, Peter Binzel, Sr., who founded Binzel Brewery in 1868, according to the Oconomowoc Chapter of the Daughters of American Revolution. The brewery was located southeast of Norweigian Bridge, now known as Veterans Bridge.
The Henshall house, Sunnybankhouse, was razed in 1964. There was little outcry from the public. That’s when and where the current park shelter was constructed. Today, Henshall’s German Renaissance Revival coach house is the only original structure still standing. The house is overseen by Oconomowoc Rotary for the Boy Scout, Troop 12.