NORTH TO WAUPACA
My siblings, three younger sisters and a girl cousin who was indistinguishable from a sister and me, the lone boy, all grew up in Chicago. Six in my family, lived in a two bedroom apartment, in a typical twelve flat brick building on the city’s north side. Our parents had a bedroom. My sisters shared the other. I lived in the dining room. Our cousin was raised by our grandparents. They lived in the same building. The two apartments were connected by an old wooden back porch that served as a highway between the chaos of our place and the warm Scandinavian quiet of Mor Mor’s (Swedish for mother’s mother). We were not poor but my folks lived pretty much paycheck to paycheck. We had one collective extravagance.
We loved Chicago, but from the mid 50s to early 70s we lived for an annual, two sometimes three week, trip to the lakes. My dad, a telephone equipment installer for Western Electric, year after year, invested his entire vacation on the same getaway to Waupaca Wisconsin’s, Chain O Lakes.
( Chain O' Lakes postcard by Wyman Post Card Company Wausau WI)
The station wagon, there were several over the years, would bulge with people, blankets, pillows and snacks for the annual 4 hour trip. In those days, there were no seat belts. If there had been they would not have reached the places we tucked the smaller children. Every nook and cranny was jammed with a body, food, a comic book or doll. The roof was piled 3 ft high with luggage and boxes. It was “North to Waupaca”.
My grandmother owned, an off the water, one and a half room cottage with screened porch. The plumbing was an outhouse and an outdoor hand pump that produced icy clear water. We packed ourselves into that cottage. I slept on the porch because that is where Dad said the sleeping was best. Sometimes each kid brought a city friend. The more the hairier. The cottage, an old converted gift shop, was a short walk from Indian Crossing, the center of “the chain”. The crossing had the Casino, the Sugar Bowl, Ding’s Dock, the Trading Post and the Hearth Restaurant. It was all 4 miles from real town.
Our vacation playground, the twenty-two crystal clear Waupaca Chain O’ Lakes are the, self described, Kilarney’s of America. Of the lakes, only four are large enough for go fast boating and skiing. About half the lakes can be navigated with powerboats and about half are canoe and row only. Tour boats guide visitors through the big lakes and canoes are rented for exploring the small lakes and the Crystal River, which flows from the lakes.
Most years we would rent, from the now closed, Prell’s Marina, a 16ft ski boat with only 40HP. We could afford that for a single week and a pontoon for one or two days. From about twelve years old and up the kids had relatively unsupervised control of the boats. I was a responsible boat operator but my sisters and cousin, once out of sight of parents were only restrained by the potential appearance of Art Kruger of the Lake Patrol. He was at one time scary and kind, just like a lake patrol officer should be.
Sometimes we rented a canoe to explore the small lakes. Sometimes we risked the Crystal River in a translucent, canoe like, boat from Ding’s Dock.
( This postcard by Wyman Post Card company of Wausau WI shows Dings as it was in the 1960's. The pictured launches were used for boat tours and to deliver canoeists to the mouth of the mighty Chrystal. Dings now operates from the casino property and this building is a local Marina.)
To save money in later years we’d float the Mighty Crystal using inner tubes. That was much harder on the backside as the Crystal has a rocky bed and is really more creek than river.
On the chain it was possible to take a boat to miniature golf. There were several popular anchorages and swimming beaches. I fished a few times in the early years when my grandfather was alive. He would cast for Northern Pike and Walleye, while I sat with a cane pole and bobber trying to fool Crappies and Blue Gills. Boring! Mostly our family did not have the patience required for fishing.
We liked taverns with petting zoos, fish hatcheries, drive in movies, Friday night fish fries, Fourth of July fireworks in town and day trips to other lakes and cities. Sometimes even to the Dells to ride the Ducks. My mother would insist on one trip to Wisconsin Rapids because Rapids had a JC Penny’s, which at that time Chicago did not have.
The central landmark of the chain was the Indian Crossing Casino, not a casino at all but a turn of the century dance hall that over the years presented the legends of the swing era and some of the biggest stars of Rock n Roll. The Casino caught many a rising and falling star.
( The CASINO with passing Duroboats)
Anytime kids and teens could hang in the cavernous, varnished wood dance hall to listen to the booming echo of the juke box but you had to be with your parents or over 18 to get on the porch which hung over the boat channel. The porch is where beer and romance became possible when you attained the right age but mostly it was the perch from where you would observe every boat on the lakes as they passed through a narrow bridge and channel that connected the northern and southern halves of the chain. My father would set up family central on the Casino porch, sip Point Beer and buy sodas and Waupaca’s own De-Lish-Us potato chips as the kids came and went on the water or to and from the arcade and Sugar Bowl ice cream shop.
Did the annual glimpse of Lake Life effect later life choices? Two of the sisters and their families eventually bought waterfront cottages at the Chain. My cousin has a cottage in the woods at Indian Crossing about a block from Mor Mor’s old place. Her ‘new” cottage has plumbing. The third and youngest sister married a Wisconsin Boy and they are raising a family in a lake home on Wisconsin’s Beaver Dam Lake, a short drive away.
When I moved to Seattle in 1979 I was determined to live on a lake. My wife and I bought a small house on Lake Sammamish. It needed repair but the owner was willing to sell on contract to two kids with a little cash but not enough cash or enough income to qualify for a bank loan. We paid too much but it has appreciated a bit.
Lake Sammamish is an 8 mile long treasure only 12 miles from central Seattle. It has a history that includes geologic cataclysm, logging and even Ted Bundy. From this lake it is possible to canoe to Seattle, Puget Sound and the World, but all of that takes awhile.
We have raised two daughters on the lake who are accomplished independent boaters. They love our lake and their trips back to the ancestral lakes of Waupaca. I remain fascinated by lakes, lake resorts, and boats. Throughout my career wherever I traveled on business or vacation I sought out lakes, lake drives and waterfront adventure. I cannot guess at how many boat tours I have taken in the US and many other places.
A few years ago while searching for the right mom and pop lakefront resort to purchase I instead bought a boat manufacturing company. I now make small aluminum fishing skiffs that are used on lakes, rivers, sounds and big and small water all over the world. I keep threatening to learn to fish now that sitting with a cane pole and bobber is more appealing to me but so far there is not time.
It seems early exposure to the Lake Life has had a fairly significant impact on the lives of one handful of city kids. At my house there is a framed sign with an anonymous quote. “If you are lucky enough to live on the lake, you are lucky enough”.