Lake Wingra in the Seventies

by Leslie Brooks Rowley[1]

As I look back on my boyhood days in the seventies, it seems strange to be calling this "Lake Wingra." Nobody ever called it by that name then; it was always "Dead Lake." It seems alright to call it "Wingra" now. It would have to have a new name, because it isn't the same lake at all!

Neither is the city the same. In the seventies, Madison [Wisconsin] was a small city of only a little over 8000 inhabitants, sparsely settled as far west as Camp Randall, and as far east as a half mile beyond the Capitol. Everyone pumped well water, and "Chick Sale" retreats dotted the landscape. In the intervening fifty to sixty years the city and the country around it have changed as much as has Dead Lake, and as much as have we, who were then in our young boyhood.

My earliest acquaintance with Dead Lake came about through my uncle Daniel Campbell 's (who married my mother's sister[2]) purchase of a farm on the borders of that lake. That farm extended along (now) Monroe Street west to a point intersecting the line of the property then owned by Governor Washburn, then southerly to the shore of Dead Lake, and along the shore of Dead Lake easterly to what is now Randall Avenue.

It embraced that part of the city which is now known as Wingra Park, Vilas Park, and Oakland Heights, and joined land on the southeast, then belonging to my grandfather, A. E. Brooks[3], and to Dr. Bowen. Both pieces extended to Mills Street, and both being low, marshy lands with a small creek running through them, emptied into Third Lake bay. The lower part of the Campbell farm was also wet, marshy and springy.

The borders of Dead Lake in those days along the Campbell farm, as I remember it, took in a large part of the lower land now used as Vilas Park. If I were to draw a straight line from the big willows surrounding the Washburn trout springs and ponds to a point just below the lion houses in Vilas Park as they now exist, that line, slightly curving in at the center, would just about be the Dead Lake water line bordering the farm. The shores of the lake were shallow, and one had to push a boat through a hundred yards or more of weeds and cat-tails before reaching open water.

About the time I was ten years old, I began to venture out on the lake in a flat-bottomed skiff that drew very little water. I found that the shores of the lake on all sides were marshy and of large extent, and that it was a veritable Paradise for all kinds of feathered game. There was a good bit of wild rice along the south and west borders and some wild celery. Numbers of teal and mallards seemed to nest there. Snipes were plentiful in the marshes, and red-heads and canvas backs used the lake for a feeding place. These big ducks used to rise from the lake and fly over Dead Lake Hill to Third Lake (Monona). Blue bills were there in large quantities, too.

As I grew a little older and was allowed a gun, I used to kill all the ducks I could carry home, either on Dead Lake or flying across Dead Lake Hill. Quail were abundant on the Campbell farm and the adjoining highlands. At certain times of the year flights of wild pigeons used to fly along the lake shores and light in the wooded borders among the oaks and feed on acorns. There were twice as many pigeons as blackbirds, and much easier to kill.

Wingra, or Dead Lake, was fed from springs of which there were many. They were principally to be found in the marsh land which covered a wide area in all directions, except for the highland on the north side, and a wooded knoll on the southwest side of about twenty acres. These springy marshlands were particularly large on the south and east extending up the road now used to go to the Fish Hatchery, and on the west and southwest sides extending to Monroe Street and Nakoma Road, and taking in the flat part of what is now the Nakoma Golf Course.

Muskrat and mink trapping attracted quite a number of Indians every year. Their favorite camping place was on the wooded knoll about a hundred and fifty yards east of the large spring. They used dugout canoes and both traps and spears for muskrats. Large pickerel were plentiful and easily speared. There were also black and yellow bass, and many of the garfish, perch, sunfish and crappies.

The Indians who camped on Dead Lake were friendly and the younger ones full of fun. The bucks had a few old single-barreled, muzzle loading, bored out army muskets, but never killed much with them, although they loved to shoot them; principally for the noise, I think. The boys had hickory bows and blunt headed hickory arrows, and when they went into town with the bucks and squaws to trade for supplies, they would shoot pennies off a split stick set up as a target in the Capitol Park. They were good shots and got quite a lot of pennies each trip.

These boys also shot some squirrels, quail, partridge, gophers and rabbits with their bows. I had one of the bucks make me a bow and arrow and practiced with the boys in their camp. They shot free hand, and I learned to shoot that way too, and never got over it. I always kept up my archery, but could never overcome my tendency to free hand shoot, and it was quite a handicap to me when I tried archery target shooting, where one has to aim at a little pill on the ground, in order to hit a bull's-eye on a target four feet high at sixty yards.

It was on Dead Lake that I first got acquainted with "Blue Belly," an old Indian who claimed to have been a government scout in the Blackhawk War. He had some kind of certificate to support his claim and a government medal. Blue Belly was lame in one leg, and it seemed to be about an inch shorter than the other. He walked with a staff. He was a big fellow, and a great beggar; as well as the best bow maker I ever knew. He made me bows out of hickory even after I was married. The last time I saw him was in 1894 when he brought me a new bow, and begged a pair of pants. He never lost track of you if you moved.

The previous year, Blue Belly nearly scared my wife[4] out of a year's growth. One day in the fall, when she was in the kitchen with one of our children, she was startled to see Blue Belly standing within a few feet of her in the kitchen, nodding and gesticulating toward his pants. Finally seeing her puzzled and startled expression, he grunted, "Pants," and held out his hand. She rushed into the bedroom, took a pair of my trousers and brought them to him. Whereat he grunted his pleasure and left, much to her relief-- until she found that the pants she had given him were not the ones she had intended. They were a pair of my best spares.

Blue Belly had an enormous pod and slim hips, so the only pants he could beg had to be fastened around him at the hips, and they always had the appearance of just going to come off. But they never did, to my knowledge. I had an idea his name really had been Blue Bell when he was named by his medicine man. He always wore moccasins and moved like a shadow.

Blue Belly was fond of trapping and hunting on Dead Lake, but usually had his family camp a couple of hundred yards below the Black Bridge on the Yahara River, between Monona and Waubesa Lakes. They used to gather a root there which they were fond of. It grew along the border of the river, and I think it was a lily bulb of some sort. They boiled it like a potato. Blue Belly's camp was of tepee shape. The Indians who camped on Dead Lake made their camps out of poles bent over to form an arch and were about eight feet deep. They covered them with bark, rushes, cattails, and woven mats. They were open in the front. They ate almost everything, but the great staple was boiled muskrat.

With my gun I shot a good many partridges on the wooded knoll on which they camped; also some wood ducks and coons. There were lots of squirrels there in the early days. I do not know who introduced carp into Lake Wingra, nor when it was done; but it had the effect of killing off the feed for wild ducks and greatly depleting the pickerel, pike and bass.

I left Madison in 1886 and went North[5] for seven year on Lake Superior. On my return, I nearly lost my life several times on Dead Lake by stepping from a boat to what was apparently dry ground with grass on it, and sinking in silt up to my armpits.

Dead Lake Hill wouldn't be recognized at all for what it was in the seventies and eighties. It was some hill in those days. Beginning just above the bear dens now in Vilas Park, the hill rose gradually towards the east, and about a quarter of a mile from the beginning there were two high peaks from which four lakes could be seen. The ducks seemed to pick those peaks as crossing guides from lake to lake, and the flew low.

Just east of the present bear cages there were two houses belonging to market gardeners, one a Mr. Holt, and the other a Mr. Durry. East of them and on the slope of the hill toward Monona Bay, there was a small abandoned cemetery. I used to think it was a Catholic cemetery, but I never stopped to inquire because some man or animal had partly disintered one of the skeletons and the skull looked right at you from the ground. It was scary along about four o'clock in the morning when one was on his way up the hill to his shooting stand.

My recollection isn't so clear as to the people who lived near the border of Dead Lake west of the Washburn place. Nobody lived beyond it on the lake side of the road, but there were several families on the road on the north side, among whom I remember the Marsdens, the Swains, the Gorhams and the Nelsons. One of those ran a sort of tavern. I think it was called "The Grange," and it was a favorite place to stop for a good glass of beer-- and it was just that on a hot day!

All of the farms in all directions around the city were good places for prairie chicken and quail shooting. Certainly, those were the good old days. Indians used to trap the Four Lakes in all directions, and the place where they generally disposed of their furs was the "McGovern Gun & Fur Store" on West Main Street, just east of the Court House. When I was a youth I used to help McGovern wait on the Indian trade at times.

Speaking of Indians, my Grandfather Brooks used to tell me of an incident in his early life among the Indians in southern Michigan. Along about 1835, he had homesteaded a place in the woods near a tribe of Indians. To keep on the friendly side of them he invited the chief to his cabin one day for dinner. My grandmother, a lady of the old school, gave him a good dinner of two courses: meat, bread and vegetables, and when that was eaten, removed most of the dishes, and served pie and coffee. The old chief, not to be outdone, invited my grandfather to dinner in his wigwam, and to show that he knew a thing or two, also served a three or four course dimmer. First they had coon, and then the chief ordered the squaw to "take off coon, bring on succotash." Then, "Take off succotash, bring on coon, until they had been served several times of each. At the end of the meal, the old chief with much pride announced, "Just like white man." They parted good friends and remained so until my grandfather moved to Madison in the early forties, and took the farm which afterward was platted into the Brooks Addition.

What could be said as to the area centering around Lake Wingra in the early days could equally well be said regarding Mendota, Monona and Waubesa, with their marsh lands, cultivated farm lands, and uncut forests. Wild life was everywhere. We shot coons, hunted foxes, and saw wolves and occasionally a wild cat. Feathered game was abundant. It was a boy's Paradise. Life in the open was good for us. The shady wild woods, the long stretches of marshes bordering sloping uplands, teeming lakes and pure springs are memories never to be forgotten. It was a great privilege to have been a boy living in Madison in those early days. Love of nature can never be driven out of the heart of youth, whatever his age.

I am glad that the University of Wisconsin is developing an Arboretum around the west side of Wingra where wild life may once more be sheltered, protected and induced to breed and multiply. The youths of today will be able to appreciate what might have been their privilege if they had lived in the days when Nature was natural, and had received no artificial civilization at the hands of men who are never content with Nature "as is," but must change it to suit their various speculative needs.

[1] Leslie Brooks Rowley, b. Niles, Berrien Co., MI 10 April 1865, d. Madison, Dane Co., WI 20 Jul 1937, m. 1) 14 Dec 1885 Eugenia Bradford Knight (see below), 2) 27 Aug 1934 Rose Margaret Thielman, b. 19 Feb 1890, d. 18 April 1966. He was the son of Manley Silas and Julia Maria (Easterbrooks) Rowley. Leslie Brooks Rowley was involved in real estate and became an attorney. He wrote most of the banking laws for the State of Wisconsin, and for many years was the proprietor of a the Rowley Service Bureau which served the banking industry. In 1906, he was the Republican candidate for mayor of Madison, running on the "dry" ticket. He lost the election, but the platform on which he ran resulted in a reduction of the proliferation of saloons in that university city.

[2] His mother's sister was Mary Louisa BROOKS, b. Niles, Berrien Co., MI 1 Sep 1840, d. 7 Feb 1921, m. 1) James Sargent SMITH, 2) Daniel CAMPBELL, d. bef. 1 Jul 1895. She was the daughter of Abiel E. and Mary E. (Bort) Brooks.

[3] Abiel E. Brooks, b. Little Falls, Herkimer Co., NY 25 Apr 1801, d. Madison, Dane Co., WI 27 Jul 1891 and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery there. He was the son of Abiel Luther and Ruth (Miller) Easterbrooks. Abiel E. was the first to shorten his name from Easterbrooks to Brooks, and documents are found with both spellings. After employment in the construction of the Erie Canal, he removed from Little Falls to Berrien County, MI. He was thereafter a founder of Ossian, Winneshiek Co., IA. He removed once more to Madison. The campus of the University of Wisconsin lies upon the site of his original farm there. In the 1849 gold rush, he formed a company with his sons and others. After an outbreak of cholera, he returned home by way of Nicaragua and the Gulf of Mexico. He brought back enough of a fortune to allow him to become a real estate developer. His wife was Mary E. Bort, granddaughter of a German immigrant who became a lieutenant and lost his arm in the American Revolution. She was born Little Falls, NY 17 Feb 1806 and died 13 April 1893 in Madison. She was the daughter of John and Jemima (Hart) Bort.

[4] His wife was Eugenia Bradford Knight, b. Wilmington, New Castle Co., DE 3 July 1864, d. Madison, Dane Co., WI 8 Nov 1950. They were married 14 Dec 1885 at Madison, and divorced there 25 Aug 1930. She was the daughter of John Henry and Susan (Clark) Knight.

[5] The 1892 R. L. Polk & Co's Ashland [WI] City Directory shows under "City Government," President of the Council-- L. B. Rowley. On page 226: Rowley, Leslie B., Grocer, 104 E. Second Street, res. 517 Beaser Avenue. [In 1985 the residence was in good repair and occupied.] On the rear cover, a business card of his father-in-law, John Henry Knight listed him as the owner of the Knight Hotel and Chequamegon Hotel. [Knight was also the first mayor of Ashland].

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