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A walk in the park

Humboldt's storied past enchants those on historical tour

Aug. 16, 2007

As they were following local historian Ron Winkler through Humboldt Park on Aug. 11, participants in the Bay View Historical Society's Way Down South Walk found fascinating facts about the park's storied past surfacing at every turn.

Sadie Will of Bay View recalled the day she and her husband spotted a green brontosaurus towering over the foliage on the island in the middle of the park's lagoon.

Will, who has lived on East Russell Avenue since 1948, could not recall the exact year that the dinosaur turned up, but guesses it might have been in the late 1960s. The story going around Bay View at the time was that some high-school boys had "borrowed" the dinosaur sculpture from a Sinclair gas station and given it a temporary home on the island.

"We couldn't figure out how those kids got it over there," Will said. "We got such a kick!"

Despite the dinosaur sighting, the park has not been around since the dawn of time. It has, however, been an urban green space since 1890, when it was one of four original parks owned and operated by the city of Milwaukee, Winkler said. Ownership of the park was transferred to Milwaukee County in 1936 in an effort to trim the city's budget.

Dedicated as South Park

Fans of animated television may be interested to know that Humboldt Park was originally called South Park until it was renamed in 1900 for Baron Friedrich Heinrich Alexander Von Humboldt, a German scientist, naturalist, explorer and statesman. Attempts to rename the park after General John J. Pershing to honor the World War I hero were unsuccessful, Winkler said.

There is a monument to World War I heroes in the park, however. The octagonal Wisconsin red granite gazebo, topped by an eagle clutching an orb, honors Bay View servicemen who gave their lives. The monument has been standing on a hill at the southern end of the park since 1921.

Lily pond restored

Winkler said one of the main attractions of the park in the late 1800s was its lily pond on the southeast side.

That sparked another memory for Will. She recalled visiting the park with her baby son in the 1950s, when the lily pond was in bloom.

"It was covered in white lotus," she said. "And it was just gorgeous."

Although the lily pond fell into disrepair over the years, Winkler said, it was restored in the mid-1990s.

The Humboldt Park lagoon has been a focal point of the Bay View community since it was completed in 1893 and enlarged in 1910. Winkler said residents flocked to the lagoon in the summertime to rent a boat and take a picnic lunch over to the island, and ice skaters glided across its surface every winter.

Footbridges marked creek

Overflow from the lagoon, which locals referred to as a lake, was channeled into a creek that meandered through the park, Winkler said. Small footbridges crossed the creek, which had several waterfalls, small rapids and a miniature pond.

"It was really quite idyllic," Winkler said. "Unfortunately, that did not survive until today."

Winkler said a boathouse featuring a refreshment stand stood on the east side of the lagoon from 1893 to 1960, and a footbridge invited visitors to cross over the water and explore the island. The Bay View Historical Society's collection has postcards of Humboldt Park with views of the boathouse, he said.

A number of buildings constructed near the lagoon have come and gone, but the Lannon stone pavilion built by the Works Progress Administration in 1932 is still in use today. Winkler said the design of the pavilion, located on the west side of lagoon, was meant to resemble a New England farmhouse.

In addition to Winkler's tour, another group led by Todd Smith of Bay View was exploring the same sites during the event.

Even those who have been Bay View residents for much of their lives seemed to learn something new on the Way Down South Walk, which included more than 50 sites important to Bay View's history.

Glady Parsons, who grew up in Bay View but now lives in Denver, said the historical society tours "uncover untold details that you'd never know about…It just brings your hometown to life.

"It's amazing how much Ron Winkler knows," she added. "It sort of makes you feel grounded, because in today's world, everything is changing all the time."

First band shell in 1932

One of the most popular spots in Humboldt Park is known to residents as the chalet or the band shell.

Ron Winkler, who conducted a tour of historical sites on the southern end of Bay View, said the original Humboldt Park band shell was dedicated in 1932. Shaped like the Hollywood Bowl, the shell was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1932 at a cost of $8,855.

The band shell was the scene of live performances by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the popular Music Under the Stars evening performance series. Washington Park, on Milwaukee's west side, has a similar band shell, which was also known as the site of Music Under the Stars.

After the Humboldt Park band shell was destroyed by fire in 1976, a new chalet-style venue costing $2 million was built on the same site.

Music at the chalet

Today, the chalet is used to present live music on Tuesday nights, with a variety of concerts sponsored by Milwaukee County Parks and the Bay View Neighborhood Association.

Winkler said the official name of the venue is the Humboldt Park Chalet, but don't try to convince longtime Bay View residents to refer to it by that moniker.

"We'll call it the band shell," said Mark Nitka, Bay View Historical Society president.

FYI

WHAT: Chill on the Hill concert featuring rock/alternative country band The Pugilists

WHEN: 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 21

WHERE: Humboldt Park Chalet, 3000 S. Howell Ave.

SPONSORED BY: Bay View Neighborhood Association

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