The Million Dollar Mermaid Makes a Splash at the Chain o’ Lakes

Ben Gage’s family cottage on Crescent Island, c. 1940
(Courtesy of the Waupaca Historical Society)

The Chain o’ Lakes have attracted several tourists and summer residents from a range of backgrounds and regions across the country since the 1880s. Without a doubt, the most famous one was Esther Williams, the actress who dazzled audiences in her aqua musical movies in the 1940s and 50s. 

The Million Dollar Mermaid star visited the Chain o’ Lakes a few times during her marriage to radio singer and actor Ben Gage from 1945 to 1959. Gage had grown up in Wisconsin and inherited or purchased the small island on Rainbow Lake known as Crescent or Club Island from his family. With a rustic cabin that lacked electricity or indoor plumbing, the secluded island was the perfect place for him and Williams to escape the stress of Hollywood. 

Local newspapers document some of Williams and Gage’s visits to their summer hideaway. In July 1946, the couple stopped at the Chain on the way to Mackinac Island, where Williams filmed This Time for Keeps (1947). The couple made another visit in June 1948, during which the Oshkosh Northwestern reported Williams “wore unusually large sunglasses” to hide her identity. 

Oshkosh Northwestern, July 15, 1946

The fact that such a famous movie star as Williams vacationed on the Chain o’ Lakes excited residents and tourists, many of whom spotted her swimming around Rainbow Lake. It didn’t take long for them to start calling her and Gage’s island property Esther Williams Island.

Williams and Gage’s busy careers and family lives made it difficult for them to visit their Chain o’ Lake’s summer home often. Williams starred in 19 movies between 1945 and 1955 and Ben operated several businesses in southern California, including a restaurant, aluminum factory, and machine shop. They also had three children from 1949 to 1953.

Photo of Esther Williams and Ben Gage from Modern Screen, 1950
(Public Domain)

The couple struggled to keep their island property in good repair. In the winter of 1948, vandals crossed the frozen ice of Rainbow Lake and descended on their cottage, breaking windows and ripping off shutters. Then in August 1950, the island cottage caught fire for an unknown reason and burned to the ground. 

In June 1951, the couple stopped by their island property briefly while visiting family in Wisconsin and a year later, the Wisconsin State Journal reported they planned to rebuild the cottage. However, this never happened.

Williams and Gage’s marriage began to fall apart in the 1950s with some sources stating they separated as early as 1952 and others as late as 1958. It is no surprise then that the couple decided to sell the Crescent Island property in 1955 to Hobert Edmunds of Edmunds’ Dock and Boat Line. Williams and Gage divorced in 1959. 

Hobert Edmunds placed a mobile home on Crescent Island and owned it until his death in 1963. His son Don inherited the island but immediately began renting it to Camp Onaway for use by its campers. In 1967, Don sold the island to the camp, which still owns it today.

It is no surprise that the smallest island in Rainbow Lake is still referred to as Esther Williams Island today. Even though she only stayed on the island a few times, residents and tourists love the fact that even a famous movie star could not resist the beauty of the lakes. 

Learn more about the Waupaca Chain o’ Lakes’ history of tourism by reading The Waupaca Chain o’ Lakes by Zachary Bishop. The book is available now! See the Publications page for more information.

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