In the 1890s, the Waupaca Chain o’ Lakes began to flourish as a fashionable resort for scores of middle-class tourists who traveled across the county on railroads. The Wisconsin Veterans’ Home and three new hotels on the lakes were largely responsible for bolstering the area’s popularity.
The Wisconsin Veterans’ Home
Purchasing the Greenwood Park Hotel property for the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) to found the Wisconsin Veterans’ Home proved to be a beneficial move for Waupaca’s residents. After the Home opened in 1887, it attracted crowds of visitors from across the state of Wisconsin who saw the Chain o’ Lakes and spread word of their beauty. 6,000 people attended the Home’s official dedication on August 29, 1888.
People visited the Wisconsin Veterans’ Home for a variety of reasons. Some visited to see their relatives and friends who lived there and several Wisconsin Civil War regiments held their reunions at the Home. In addition, several GAR chapters, organizations, and philanthropists sponsored the construction of cottages where veterans and their wives could live together, so some people visited to admire and inspect the cottages they helped build.
The Grand View Hotel
With the Chain o’ Lakes’ newfound visibility, a new group of Waupaca investors took a shot at operating a luxury hotel on the lakes. In 1894, this group – formally called the Silver Lake Cottage Company – constructed the Grand View Hotel just south of the Wisconsin Veterans’ Home on Rainbow Lake. The hotel itself had 20 guest rooms and a dining hall. In addition, the company built 10 private guest cottages.
The Silver Lake Cottage Company learned from the mistakes of the Greenwood Park Hotel and leased the Grand View Hotel to two managers with a lot of customer service experience: Chris Hill and Sam C. Nessling. Hill was the owner of a profitable hotel near Shawano, Wisconsin, while Nessling was a former conductor on the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.
Managers Chris Hill and Sam Nessling operated the Grand View Hotel from 1894 through 1899 with great success. The hotel was so profitable during Hill and Nessling’s lease that the Silver Lake Cottage Company constructed an additional hotel structure with 45 guest rooms called the “Annex”.
The dining room service that Hill and Nessling provided to their guests played a huge role in the Grand View Hotel’s success. They hired cooks to provide guests with “an excellent cuisine” that the Oshkosh Northwestern said in 1899 “would have done credit to Waukesha or Geneva Lake” (two fashionable resorts in Wisconsin). Hill and Nessling also made meals an elegant experience by requiring guests to dress in formal attire and employing an orchestra to play during dinners.
The Smiths’ Rustic Inns
The Grand View Hotel achieved great prosperity, but the two rustic hotels run by the Smith family also contributed greatly to the Chain o’ Lakes’ rising popularity in the 1890s. William and Elizabeth Smith, who settled on land north of Round Lake in 1858, started housing tourists in their farmhouse – called “the Hill” – during the 1880s. The Smiths found the business profitable enough to build four rental cottages on their property.
By the early 1890s, William and Elizabeth were packed every summer and had to turn a lot of potential guests away. This led their son Fred Smith and his wife Minnie to found the Brinsmere Inn on Sunset Lake in 1892. Fred originally only built a hotel structure with guest rooms and a dining hall, but as the business flourished, he added four cottages, a sitting room, and an office by 1903.
William and Elizabeth Smith’s farmhouse burned down on June 11, 1897, but they turned the tragedy into a business opportunity. They established a hotel on Round Lake the following summer, naming it Locksley Hall after the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem of the same name. Locksley Hall originally had a hotel building with 20 guest rooms, a separate dining hall, and the Smiths’ existing four cottages. William added ten more guest cottages over the years.
Staying at the Brinsmere Inn or Locksley Hall was a drastically different experience than staying at the Grand View Hotel. The Smiths were humble farmers, so their hotels provided guests with a truly authentic country experience. Guests ate meals made with farm-fresh ingredients, stayed in buildings without indoor plumbing or electricity, did not follow a strict schedule of activities, and spent most of their time outdoors. The Smiths never required their guests to dress up for meals or follow strict etiquette guidelines.
It’s important to note that the tourists who patronized the Grand View Hotel and the Smiths’ inns were usually of the same socioeconomic class. The vacationers who stayed at Locksley Hall and the Brinsmere Inn could afford to stay at the Grand View Hotel, but they didn’t want to. They preferred to have a vacation experience that was less formal and brought them closer to nature.
By the late 1890s, the Chain o’ Lakes were flourishing as a vacation spot, but one obstacle was preventing the Chain from reaching its full potential – the three miles between the lakes and the Wisconsin Central depot in Waupaca. After arriving at the depot, guests had to take a horse and carriage to their hotel of choice at the lakes, a trip that usually took about an hour. This long trip would be greatly shortened with the construction of the Waupaca Electric Railway in 1899.
To be continued…
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.