In 1867, Green Lake, Wisconsin saw its first resort on the lake—the Oakwood. A smart, wood-frame hotel with trademark broad verandas, it was built to hold 75 guests.
English-born owner David Greenway built the resort with its own vineyards, riding stables, flower gardens and telegraph system. It’s said that guests were called to dinner with a Chinese gong.
In 1905 the room rate was only $7 a night, and at one point the resort was able to accommodate up to 300 guests. Kitty-corner from the lodge, Greenway built a large white house in which to retire.
Oakwood’s opening in 1867 makes Green Lake the oldest resort in the United States west of Niagara Falls. Today, a portion of Green Lake’s Oakwood Lodge remains, but the town of about 1,200 has come a long way since its early beginnings.
What draws people to Green Lake in the 21st century is, of course, the lake, which is Wisconsin’s deepest natural inland lake at 237 feet. Its 27 miles of shoreline and nearly 12 square miles of area translate into an abundance of peace and quiet.
Groups of all kinds are welcome at Green Lake. Many hotels and restaurants are able to accommodate group requests.
The primary activities in town are related to the lake: boating, sailing, swimming and fishing. The Green Lake Yacht Club, organized in 1894, was one of the first yacht clubs in the state; yacht races on the lake date back to the 1880s. Golfing in the area dates to 1896, when the Tuscumbia Golf Course was founded, making it Wisconsin’s oldest course.
Visitors also can enjoy hiking, biking, birding, nature study, camping, opera house performances, an annual county fair, a two-day juried fine arts show and Wednesday night summer concerts.
A weekly summer farmer’s market on Fridays in Playground Park offers everything from organic meats and ripe tomatoes to garlic, asparagus, flowers and handicrafts. Other area activities are hot-air balloon rides, horseback riding, Wisconsin’s state chili cook-off and Harvest Fest, which features a food fair, classic car show, music and 100 crafters. You also can visit a buffalo ranch near Green Lake.
The friendly people and small-town atmosphere draw city-dwellers from Chicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Madison and Oshkosh. The population swells considerably once warm weather sets in.
Indians once lived in the Green Lake area; the last Winnebago chief to rule here was Chief Highknocker. It’s said that every Winnebago was expected to come to Green Lake once a year to worship the Water Spirit; many Indians stayed at the lake year round, which explains the Indian mounds, burial sites and Indian villages discovered through the years.
According to one account, Chief Highknocker loved to sit on a sun-baked rock near the shore of Green Lake. He was friendly with the white residents and would sometimes carve bows for the children.
You can find the chief’s burial site in Dartford Cemetery. Some say the cemetery is haunted, but the local caretaker says neither he, his grandfather nor his great grandfather—all of whom were caretakers—ever encountered anything haunted or unusual. It’s worth the time to look at the headstones that dot the grounds, many dating back to the 1800s.
Thrasher Opera House—Charlie Thrasher built this downtown opera house on Mill Street in 1910, and today the air-conditioned theater holds several hundred people. Songwriter Jimmy Webb, who wrote such hits as “Galveston,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” was a headliner this summer.
The theater first hosted vaudeville and traveling theatrical companies, but is best remembered for the movies that Thrasher showed as soon as electricity became available around 1912. When it was built more than 100 years ago, the facility hosted school dances, basketball games, town meetings and lectures. For information, go to www.thrasheroperahouse.com.
Green Lake Conference Center—Discovered by Winnebago Indians in the early 1800s and then inhabited by pioneers, this 900-acre spread on 2½ miles of Green Lake shoreline attracts numerous groups. Christian organizations, informal groups, schools and universities, and other non-profits use the center’s facilities for meetings, retreats, workshops and conferences. Family reunions are big here as well.
Founders Victor and Jessie Lawson developed the pristine estate in the late 1800s. In the 1920s the land became a country club and later was purchased by the American Baptists for training and conferences. With more than 30,000 feet of meeting space, the center hosts groups up to 1,000 in hotel rooms, suites, lakefront and forest houses, dorms, cabins and campsites.
Facilities include an auditorium, classrooms, seminar rooms and rooms for private parties. Buffet-style meals for up to 720 people can be arranged. A marina with rental boats, golf, bicycling, a 54-acre native prairie and a rare railroad Chapel Car open to visitors are some of the highlights of this conference center. Contact Kate Triller for group scheduling at [email protected] or go to glcc.org, or call 920-294-3323.
Tuscumbia Country Club—New clubhouse facilities highlight this beautiful group venue that caters to golfers, but all groups are welcome. Family parties, banquets, meetings, rehearsal dinners, class reunions, weddings, corporate events and private parties can be accommodated in the main clubhouse or in another facility on the grounds. A Friday fish fry and Sunday brunch are offered.
The 6,514-yard golf course is a par 71 with a 70.3 rating and a slope of 127. Century-old trees mark the course, and just off the ninth hole is the upscale 680 Restaurant. Overnight accommodations at the club are available. For information, go to www.tuscumbiacc.net or call 800-294-3381.
Waterfront Grill—This innovative restaurant, facing the lake at Dartford Bay, sits in the center of everything. Lunch and dinner, live entertainment, catering and private events are the hallmark of this venue, owned by Ann Hillebrandt. The Waterfront Grill offers fresh wild-caught fish, seafood, locally-sourced organic produce and hand-cut Angus steaks. Their whiskey-glazed pork tenderloin with apple brandy reduction is succulent and tasty. There is plenty of room here for parties, wedding receptions and get-togethers, and the location is ideal. For information, go to www.greenlakemarineresort.com or call 920-294-3353.
Goose Blind—For some fun at lunch or dinner, the casual Goose Blind in downtown Green Lake is the spot. Serving pizzas, burgers, pasta and sandwiches, this 25-year-old restaurant operated by the Rowleys also creates its own signature white chicken chili. The one-pound Honker burger is a house specialty. Paging through the menu is fun, with offerings such as Haystack Onion Rings, Crabby Cakes and a Pulled Pork Goose Reuben. An upstairs party room, plus lots of seating downstairs, will accommodate groups to 150. For information, go to www.gooseblind.com or call 920-294-6363.
Heidel House Resort & Spa—On New Year’s Eve in 1945, right after the end of World War II, this hotel and resort opened its doors. Situated about a mile from downtown Green Lake, it quickly became one of Wisconsin’s most popular getaways.
With its main lodge, Lac Verde addition and vacation rental accommodations, this seasoned resort has become the No. 1 spot in Green Lake and the area.
The resort is located on 20 lush acres next to the lake, offering a quiet retreat in a “forest-and-water” setting, ideal for meetings, weddings and parties. The hotel has had 60 years of experience handling large group requests. There is a total of 18,000 square feet of meeting space, and the accommodations can handle groups as large as 340, from business-oriented occasions to retreats to family get-togethers.
The hotel has 190 rooms, many with patios/balconies looking out onto the lake, an outdoor and indoor pool, and a hot tub. In season, there are on-site lobster bakes, as well as beer cruises on a 60-foot, catamaran-style yacht, which can also be chartered by groups. The Pump House Parlor is a favorite spot for ice cream treats. The Heidel House runs the upscale Grey Rock restaurant on the property, in the old mansion of Brigadier General Mason Brayman, who once oversaw the American Baptist Publishing Society.
The hotel’s Evensong Spa across the street offers massages, facials, water therapy, hair and makeup packages, and hot stone pedicures, among other treatments.
—By Don Heimburger