Past and Present in the Wisconsin Dells

The Wisconsin Dells is a funny place. Like Wall Drug, its attractions scream at you from billboards all over the state – magic shows, water parks, thrills, terror (the amusement park kind), music (often cheesy or popular several decades ago – or if you’re really lucky, both), it’s all there.

As a kid, Wisconsin Dells was one of the many Wisconsin places my family visited in the summer. But not for the water parks that often draw people there today. No, we came to ride the Ducks, those amphibious boat vehicles that apparently saw action in World War II before finding a new life patrolling the woods around the Wisconsin River and Lake Delton (And in more recent years, taking tourists around big cities with some kind of duck whistle and/or silly hat. The Dells had them first). Or to take the boat cruise or visit the H.H. Bennett photography studio, Parson’s Indian Trading Post (open since 1914), or one time, to take the horse-driven canyon tour. Only once did I convince my mom to fork over the money for the wax museum.

We ate at Paul Bunyan’s cook shanty, a circus-y restaurant, and the supper club Ishnala; and we slept in motels straight from the 1950s and 1960s with holiday-themed rooms, see-saws and merry-go-rounds out back, or plastic palm trees beside pastel shades more at home in Florida or the tropics than south central Wisconsin.

Did I mention that I loved it?

Wisconsin Dells holds very specific and place-based memories for me, a mythical childhood-and-vacation Wisconsin that bares little resemblance to the Wisconsin I actually live in now.  My adult self cringes at the artificiality of the whole place with its fake Greek columns, pyramids, enormous wave pools, and log structures, and instead longs to see the striated bluffs and rock formations that first drew people to the area in the mid-19th century. And really, a dog jumps across Stand Rock in imitation of that great Bennett photo of his son leaping across the chasm from 1886, purportedly the first stop-action photo taken in the world? A trained dog?

And yet, I can’t help but smile at the sight of a green-and-white Duck driving down the parkway, and sigh with relief that the deer park is still there even though I’ve never been there to actually pet a deer and I frankly don’t like the whole petting zoo concept in any format. And phew, waterskiing shows.


Maybe it’s the place and maybe its nostalgia. It’s both horrifying and fascinating to see the gaudy and destructive infrastructure atop a place so rich in natural beauty and history. But I also remember the delight of being a kid in a place so unlike anywhere else I’d been. It’s one place where my younger and older selves collide, where one idea of Wisconsin meets another, reminding me that I still have a lot to learn about this place and my place in it.

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