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Memories of Waukesha Beach in Pewaukee forms basis for new historical society exhibit

March 2, 2009

A low, circular concrete wall is one of the few remnants of Waukesha Beach, a popular water springs park turned amusement park that drew tourists from throughout the Midwest to the southern shores of Pewaukee Lake.

The round cement structure formed a rock railing (still standing in a resident's front yard) around a natural water spring so guests could reap the benefits of the pure spring water that flowed freely in what is now the Beach Park subdivision.

Marilyn Hagerstrand and her husband, Milt, of Waukesha recently shared their stories and slides with about 100 people in the meeting room of the Pewaukee Public Library.

Many attendees were residents of the subdivision, others came to learn more and reminisce about the Waukesha Beach amusement park they enjoyed in their youth.

The park was once billed as "Fun Center of Southern Wisconsin."

The Hagerstrands were invited to share their stories and contribute memories and memorabilia because the Pewaukee Area Historical Society is preparing an exhibit about Waukesha Beach that will be unveiled this summer.

"Waukesha Beach started with the springs," said Hagerstrand as she invited guests to step back in time. She set the tone by dressing in a stylish hat and dress, reminiscent of the fashions worn about 1915.

In the 1890s, people flocked to natural springs in Waukesha, Pewaukee and Oconomowoc for their health benefits.

The land was purchased in 1893 by the five members of the Waukesha Beach Land Corp. Thefive members of the Waukesha Beach Land Corp. were the same memberswho formed the Waukesha Beach Electric Railroad Corp.: Alfred "Long" Jones, Timothy Ryan, Walter Sawyer, Patrick Buckley and George B. Harris. (Buckley's Victorian-style home still stands in downtown Waukesha.)

Waukesha Beach opened on Memorial Day 1895 with 1,000 guests in attendance. Beer and soda were available to visitors at a cost of 5 cents per glass. A song, "Waukesha Beach," was composed to commemorate the event.

In September 1900, Waukesha resort hotel owner and Waukesha Mayor Foster C. Phelps bought the property for $25,000. He hired Ted Toll as manager. A clubhouse and pavilion were added that included a dance hall and roller rink. Later the Palm Garden Ballroom was built.

Waukesha Beach became a center for entertainment. Guests could enjoy weekly baseball games played by semi-pro leagues. Swimmers could cool off on the 200-foot pier that featured a 20-foot-tall diving platform. If guests didn't have a swimsuit, they could rent one.

The park drew enormous crowds; one July 4 crowd was estimated at 30,000 people. In 1910, a small rollercoaster, the Figure 8, was built which was immensely popular.

In 1913, Toll purchased the park. He added the Hummingbird rollercoaster in 1924.

Hagerstrand told the audience that Waukesha Beach was at the height of its popularity in the 1920s. Guests enjoyed the Hummingbird rollercoaster and the Mystic Gorge boat ride, along with a fun house and penny arcade.

A ride called the Tumblebug was constructed for $15,000.

The beginning of the downfall of Waukesha Beach began with the Depression.

To attract new visitors, a new rollercoaster, the Bobs, was built in 1931 for $44,000.

Visitors still came to the park and attended dances, which continued to be popular.

In addition to poor economic times, the interurban train that brought tourists to the area faced stiff competition from new bus lines, which contributed to dwindling attendance at the park.

When buses and automobiles replaced the interurban trains, people no longer had to rely on a train schedule andspend a whole day at Waukesha Beach.With buses, and especially cars, offeringmore flexibilityvisitorscould spend an hour or two at the park, then leave.

During its final years, guests recalled promotions such as 2-cent Thursdays, when rides like the Bob, which usually cost 10 cents for adults and 5 cents for children, could be enjoyed for 2 cents.

The last season for the park was 1949 when the park was sold for $100,000. One former visitor recalled getting into the park for free during its last few weeks. He was 9 years old at the time.

Others, including Jack Koepp, whose father, Harry, purchased the land and developed the subdivision, recalled thrilling rides on the Bobs rollercoaster when he was a child.

Many local families participated in the success of Waukesha Beach. The family of Ben Brandt ran the pony rides.

Hagerstrand said Waukesha Beach reminds her of Bay Beach in Green Bay because of the variety of attractions and its proximity to the shore.

Well-kept homes and neatly groomed lawns now form the backdrop for the concrete railing that now seems out of place. It is protected from demolition by a deed restriction. People who do not know the history of the property speculate about the structure's purpose.

Local residents continue to work on the historical society's upcoming exhibit to keep the memory of Waukesha Beach alive, before it, too, fades into the past along with the diving platform, rides and rollercoasters.

Artist, Orel Rooney will paint murals for the exhibit in the Clark House Museum, 206 E. Wisconsin Ave., Pewaukee.

The Waukesha Beach exhibit opening is scheduled for May 31 with a grand-opening ceremony on July 19, during the PAHS annual ice cream social.

Cindy Jaskolski of Pewaukee, one of the exhibit organizers, is seeking stories, photos and memorbilia to include in the exhibit.

Jaskolski hopes to include many Waukesha Beach artifacts and photos on a loan or donated basis, including swimsuits from each era.

For more information or to arrange to share stories or memorabilia, call Jaskolski at (262) 691-3776 or the Pewaukee Area Historical Society at (262) 691-0233.

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