Early History of Washburn's Memorial Park

Bob Mackreth


Washburn's Memorial Park was established in 1919, a time of transition and uncertainty for the city on the shore of Chequamegon Bay. During World War I, the municipal population, which had risen to approximately 6,000 since the city's founding in 1883, spiked as high as 10,000 by some estimates. This growth was due to the sudden demand for workers at the DuPont Company's explosives plant at Barksdale, south of town, but when the 1918 Armistice reduced government need for munitions, employment plummeted and boom turned quickly to bust. According to the Washburn Times of April 10, 1919, "...when the war was on the company employed upwards of 4,000 men, but since the Armistice was signed this number has decreased to something over 200 men." Another major employer, the lumber industry, was in serious decline, with sawmills closing throughout Northern Wisconsin as timber supplies depleted.

The establishment of Memorial Park is directly tied to the DuPont plant's burst of wartime prosperity. The park was donated to the city by the DuPont Patriotic Association, an employee organization formed specifically to contribute to the war effort. Company workers contributed two hours' pay each month, the funds to be applied to the Red Cross and similar purposes. With the end of the war, the Association decided to use the remaining balance of funds to purchase a tract of land for donation to the city as a park which would serve as a memorial to the soldiers, sailors, and marines of Washburn who fought in the war.

On November 4, 1919, the Association presented the city with approximately ten acres of land, located between Fifth and Seventh Avenues East and extending from the Omaha Railroad tracks to the Lake Superior shore..

The location chosen had a settlement history that predated the founding of Washburn itself. The ravine that marks the park's western border was the site of a sawmill built in the 1860s: the short-lived settlement known as "McClellan."


A Community Focal Point

The creation of Memorial Park provided the city with a central focal place for large community events- a feature that Washburn had previously lacked. In an era before the ubiquitous diversions provided by television and the Internet, gatherings such as picnics and holiday celebrations held greater importance than might be readily apparent to modern observers. Picnics sponsored by fraternal organizations such as the Knights of Pythias, or business groups such as the North Wisconsin Association of Creameries, were a major feature of community life, and were reported in detail in local newspapers. Baseball games pitting Washburn teams against visiting Ashlanders, sack races, tugs-of-war, sing-alongs and band concerts received front-page treatment. Politicians used these gatherings to make speeches, touring stunt men put on daredevil demonstrations, and visiting experts spoke on ways for farmers to enhance their income.

Until the development of Memorial Park, these community-bonding events took place in a variety of locations. In the years immediately preceding the park's creation, major gatherings were reported at Long Lake, Siskiwit Lake, the State Fish Hatchery grounds at Salmo, the grounds of the Engoe Social Club, and "Kinney Grove," on the lakeshore south of the city. With the opening of Memorial Park, the new facility became the venue of choice, and mention of the other sites fades away.

This shift took place over the course of about three years. The first event reported at Memorial Park was a DuPont Company employee picnic, which also served to mark the site's dedication. In August, 1920, the Washburn Times reported,

Next Saturday afternoon, August 28, the DuPont Co. employees and the employees of the Joseph Brenner Co. are going to have a great old time at a monster picnic to be held at Memorial Park in this city.

The whistles at the plant will sound at the noon hour and the trains will bring the men into this city and they will then make their way to Memorial Park which is located on the lake shore above the pumping station, and was donated to the city as a memorial park for the soldiers, sailors and marines by the DuPont Patriotic Association.

The DuPont Co. as well as the Joseph Brenner company will give their employees a half holiday on full pay, in order that they may all enjoy this outing and it promises to be a big affair... Tables and benches have been distributed about the grounds and on this day the park will be dedicated at a large stone and a bronze tablet will be placed in the park for this occasion and to designate the park.

A key event took place the following July, when the Washburn Merchants Association made a noteworthy change in the plans for their annual picnic. Though the initial announcement had specified that the event would be held at the State Fish Hatchery grounds, a week later, the Washburn Times reported, "After a meeting held during the past week the location of the picnic was changed from the Salmo location to Memorial Park, those in charge believing that the park will be given a boost and the place will prove more adaptable for the picnic."

This picnic was the first community-wide event reported at Memorial Park. As the Times reported on the afternoon of the event,

This is a great day for the merchants of the city and their families as well as others who are attending the annual picnic and outing arranged by the commercial and credit association of the city which is being held at Memorial Park. Practically every business house in the city is closed today and hundreds of people have wended their way to the picnic grounds where the big time is taking place.

Adding presciently,

The holding of this picnic at beautiful Memorial Park was a fine thing, for it gave many an opportunity to view the beauties of the place and Memorial Park will have many boosters from this time on.

By 1923, virtually every major outdoor celebration mentioned in news accounts took place at Memorial Park. Some of these were quite large in scale, if reports are to be believed. The 1924 Wisconsin Creameries Association picnic had an attendance of 1,500, while the same event the following year reportedly brought 5,000 revelers to the site. Such events provided an important opportunity for farmers and other rural residents to mingle with townsfolk. The logistics of such gatherings could be challenging at a time when automobile ownership was far from universal; it was noted,

The creamery associations of Bayfield and Sawyer Counties will use their cream trucks to bring in farmers who have no means of conveyance, this part of the program being arranged by the local institutions, while others will come by train, by boat, by automobile.

By 1929, when plans were announced for the first instance of an event which remains a hallmark of Washburn community life, it was natural to select Memorial Park as the site of the initial Washburn Homecoming.


A Magnet For Tourism

While the new park played an central role as a recreation area and community focal point for local residents, it also served another important function: providing accommodations that brought tourists to Washburn. With the decline of the lumbering industry and uncertain prospects at the DuPont plant, city leaders in Washburn, as elsewhere in the region, were already looking toward development of the tourist industry that eventually took on a central role in the northern Wisconsin economy. Events such as the Red Cliff Indian Pageant, outside Bayfield, and the national log-rolling championships, held at a former quarry near Houghton Point, were specifically intended to attract tourists to the Chequamegon Peninsula.

It is clear that Memorial Park was set up from the start with tourism in mind. The park's campsites, incorporated from its inception, quickly proved attractive to a wide spectrum of visitors. As early as 1921, the Washburn Times reported,

Washburn's free tourist campsite is drawing people from all parts of the United States and the list of visitors to this beautiful park is growing weekly. The past week has been a banner one in the number of tourists coming here as the following list will show: these people have seen the park, enjoyed its beauty and the climate and will tell others. It has given Washburn and vicinity more advertising than we ever had before.

The article went on to note that in the previous week alone, patrons of the campground included visitors from Appleton, Milwaukee, Madison, Chippewa Falls, and Neenah, Wisconsin; Terre Haute and Indianapolis, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; Oil City, Pennsylvania; and Platteville, Mississippi.

Other issues relayed rave reviews offered by enthusiastic campers:

F.D. Savage and O. S. Wilson and families of Marshalltown, Iowa have been enjoying the camping grounds at Memorial Park during the past week. They came in two automobiles, and intended remaining but two nights, but they liked the site of the campgrounds and the climate so well that they decided to make their visit a week in length. In commenting upon the free campsite offered by Washburn these people were very enthusiastic and stated that we have one of the best campsites along the entire route and this fact should be advertised throughout the country.


We are camping at your beautiful Memorial Park and we all agree that it is by far the prettiest and most convenient of any campground we have been to and we have been all the way to Winnipeg, Canada, and back by Duluth, and have pitched tents at a new camp every night for the past two weeks with the exception of one night, until we reached Washburn. We've been here almost a week now and we are still lingering, loathe to leave such a beautiful place...


Amenities And Improvements

Articles extolling the park's attractions typically balanced the site's scenic beauty with the wealth of amenities provided to campers:

There is perhaps no finer campsite in the state than Memorial Park at Washburn, owned by the city, and set aside as a free campsite for visitors. This park is supplied with fresh water from a deep well, drilled into the rocks, while it is fronted by Chequamegon Bay where there is a fine bathing beach. The park is covered by a fine growth of pine, birch and spruce trees, from which the underbrush has all been cleared, and there are tables, benches, fireplaces, etc. for the accommodation of visitors...

While the park was initially equipped with basic picnic facilities at its opening in 1920, the city Park Board continued an active program of site development for the next several years. The well was installed in 1922, along with a "diving tower" and "bathing chutes. " Electric lights were emplaced throughout the park in 1925, and rustic bridges built across the ravines that dissect the site. One reflection of the park's importance to the community is the willingness of skilled workers to contribute their labor and local businesses to donate material: the diving tower and bathing chutes were erected by local carpenters who volunteered their time; while, "The work and materials for the lighting system were largely donated by firms and individuals who have taken an interest in this park and a desire to see it improved."

Facilities were expanded again in 1926, when land was cleared to provide additional campsites with covered tables that could be used in inclement weather.




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