By: Jack Hankes
Historians and visionaries differ primarily in the direction of their gaze and the degree of certainty surrounding their work. Historians work with facts (or they should), while visionaries massage ideas; so this is a history about some local visionaries.
In about 1846, David Drake established both a sawmill and a gristmill on the site of what is now Crystal Lake, cleverly naming it Drake’s Mill. Records imply that it was located south of what is now Highway 33. Drake’s Mill was a flourishing business for a number of years, at least to the extent one could flourish in the grist business in those days.
Dr. George Swan bought property on the east edge of the pond in 1889, establishing a resort, which he named Crystal Lake. The resort included a pavilion, walking trails, refreshment stands and good fishing, the latter no doubt a stocked contrivance to attract guests. Men were certainly drawn to women who appeared to enjoy fishing, and those equipped with a boat were no doubt the most attractive.
The resort did well for several decades, but over time local demand grew for a community swimming pool. Early in 1930 the Beaver Dam Kiwanis Club, then four years old, began gathering support for a pool from area individuals, businesses and organizations. Support was sufficient for the Kiwanis Club to take an option on 18 acres and later form the Crystal Lake Recreation Company, its principal members including E.C. Dowe, C.A. Starkweather, A.A.Volkman, L.E.Martin, Cecil White, A.H.Luedke and Edward Jacobs. In August they exercised the option and bought the land from the Crystal Lake Ice Company for $5,250 or roughly $69,000 today.
During the depression, labor was readily available, thus a number of area unemployed worked to develop the beach area in the spring of 1931, opening on June 21. Lights were added and the beach remained open 24-7 during a very hot and dry summer. Fundraisers were held periodically to help retire the debt. Sand and trees were added later, and by the time it was largely completed, the community had about $25,000 invested, a princely sum for the time and about equal to what was spent to build the Williams Free Library.
A contest was held to name the newly developed beach; the winning entry penned by one Marguerite Dunlap, a student at Hillcrest School, later known as Wayland Academy. Her submission was Minne Wonka or place of happiness and contentment beside the waters (coincidentally a suitable depiction of this writer’s golf experience – save the happiness and contentment parts).
For the next eleven years the Kiwanis Club and others continued to make improvements at the beach and raise additional funds to retire the debt. In 1942, the American Legion contributed a final amount sufficient to pay off the debt. Having then grown to some 43 acres, it was deeded to the City of Beaver Dam on January 6, 1942, the same day President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a State of the Union address in which he proposed massive spending to battle the nation’s deepening economic depression.
Use of the beach and bathhouse was free to children, and the work of many area citizens and organizations made that possible. Twenty-seven more years passed without major improvements, and in 1969, the City of Beaver Dam invested in some major improvements to the facilities, including a new beach house, parking lot lights and landscaping.
My siblings and I learned to swim at that beach, spending many an early June morning with a cohort of similarly skinny rascals, feigning a talent for swimming and wondering if the water would ever warm up. We did note, albeit discreetly, that the instructor wore a sweatshirt or two and drank hot coffee from her perch on the pier. Ah, back in the day.
Importantly, this story isn’t about a beach. It’s much bigger than that. It’s about the power of vision and an ability to marshal forces to make good things happen. It’s about understanding that when it comes to community, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. It’s about believing in the possible rather than fretting the seemingly impossible. In the midst of the Great Depression, big thinkers stood up and made some very good things happen. That thinking got us here, and similar thinking will shape our future.