When the Waupaca Chain o’ Lakes were a Fashionable Resort – Part 1

Engraving of the Greenwood Park Hotel that was located on Rainbow Lake
Taken from the History of Northern Wisconsin (1881)

Today, the Waupaca Chain o’ Lakes are more akin to the cottage communities of Wisconsin’s Northwoods than luxury resort communities like Lake Geneva, but it wasn’t always that way. When the Chain first became a vacation destination in the 1880s, Waupaca businessmen sought to turn the lakes into a fashionable resort for well-to-do tourists from major cities.

When European Americans began settling in Waupaca County starting in 1849, they did not immediately see the Chain o’ Lakes’ value as a recreation spot because they were focused on farming to survive. This changed after the Wisconsin Central Railroad laid its tracks through Waupaca in 1871 because it led to locals gaining more free time. They were now able to purchase food and supplies from out of town and could work more consistent hours as farmers or a variety of other professions. 

Residents of Waupaca, Farmington, and Dayton began having fun at the Chain o’ Lakes by the late 1870s. Locals started to regularly picnic and camp in Greenwood Park (the present-day site of the Wisconsin Veterans Home) and row and swim in the lakes. A few Waupaca residents even built the first vacation cottages and boathouses. Around 1880, Hank Mumbrue started giving tours of the lakes on a steamboat that he docked on Taylor Lake.

Seeing the Chain o’ Lakes potential for recreation, Waupaca businessmen started to advertise the lakes as a vacation destination in 1880 to bring business to their hometown. In March of 1880, local lawyer Irving Lord wrote an article for The Inter Ocean, a Chicago newspaper, declaring that “Waupaca will make some efforts to be known to the outside world as one of the popular summer resorts of 1880”.

The Inter Ocean, March 5, 1880

In his article, Irving Lord describes the natural beauty of the “already somewhat famous ‘Chain o’ Lakes’” and all the activities that tourists could engage in while visiting. Regarding places to stay, Lord mentions that the Wisconsin Central Railroad was trying to find residents in the area to house tourists, but stresses that “we need a hotel at the ‘Chain o’ Lakes’”. Lord’s wish would soon become a reality.

In 1881, a group of Waupaca residents, organized as the “Greenwood Park Association” (see note below), purchased the spot known as Greenwood Park on Rainbow Lake and started building a house that they intended to use as a summer home for their families and friends. However, other locals learned of their plan – Irving Lord was probably among them – and persuaded the Association to open the building as the Greenwood Park Hotel that summer. 

Engraving of the Greenwood Park Hotel and adjoining cottages
Taken from the History of Northern Wisconsin (1881)

The Greenwood Park Association went to great lengths to make their hotel comfortable and fashionable enough to attract wealthy vacationers. The Association renovated the main building to have guest rooms and a large dining room, built a boathouse and docks, and constructed several private guest cottages. Several prominent Waupaca women managed the hotel with the goal of making guests feel “as though they were in a good, quiet home… with facilities for games, rowing, fishing, etc., at their command and pleasure”. All meals were made with farm-fresh ingredients.

The Greenwood Park Hotel achieved moderate success over the next three years, attracting wealthy families from all over the United States. In 1884, the Chicago Tribune started reporting on who stayed at the hotel and the Wisconsin Central Railroad even considered buying and expanding the hotel.

The Chicago Tribune, July 13, 1884

Despite this success, the Greenwood Park Hotel closed after the summer of 1884 because the Greenwood Park Association was not able to cover the costs of operating it. A number of factors played into the hotel’s failure: Waupaca was not yet known widely as a vacation destination, the hotel could only accommodate 75 people and expanding would be expensive, and the Association never hired an experienced hotel manager. 

However, the Greenwood Park Hotel would play an important part in helping the Chain o’ Lakes become a popular resort. In 1887, the City of Waupaca purchased the hotel’s building and property and donated it to the Grand Army of the Republic to use to found the Wisconsin Veterans’ Home. This new institution would bring thousands of potential tourists to the Chain o’ Lakes and spread the word of the lakes’ beauty.

To be continued…

Note: In 1884, the Greenwood Park Association included A. J. Van Epps, W. A. West, Charles Churchill, W. J. Chamberlain, S. T. Ritchie (of Manawa), and Mrs. J. Jardine.

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

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