Recreation on and in Wisconsin’s lakes

This post is contributed by Material Culture Summer Service Learner Ally Hrkac. Ally recently completed her B.S. in Secondary Education at UW-Madison and worked with Recollection Wisconsin in Summer 2013 to develop online exhibits and educational resources.

“A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.”  — William Wordsworth

Wisconsin is a land of lakes – more than 15,000 are scattered across the state. These lakes are home to beautiful wildlife and stunning scenery; many play significant roles in Wisconsin industries. But most Wisconsinites first think of the state’s lakes as spaces for play and relaxation.

The sharp contrast in Wisconsin’s summer and winter climates means that opportunities for lake-based recreation abound. In the warmer months of the summer, residents get to be in the lake – swimming, fishing, boating – and the water is a cool relief from heat. In Wisconsin’s cold winter, residents have opportunities to be on the lake, choosing to ice skate, ice fish, or merely walk across the frozen water.

As time passes, the appeal of our lakes does not falter. Summer camps may appear and disappear, the style of hockey or fishing may evolve, and seasons change. Yet the lakes themselves remain for people to enjoy and share. These images show the various recreational activities that people have enjoyed for many years on Wisconsin’s lakes.

What is your favorite lake recreation? Do you prefer the cool water of summertime or the frozen ice of winter?

Wisconsin’s lakes in winter

  • Faculty winter outing at Minnesota point
    Faculty of the Superior Normal School (later University of Wisconsin-Superior) pose with skis and snowshoes during an outing on frozen Lake Superior, ca. 1900. Source: UW-Superior.
  • Ice boating on Lake Geneva, 1905.
    Lake Geneva is considered the ice boating capital of the world. Ice boats "sail" by skimming across the surface of a frozen lake, powered by wind. Source: Lake Geneva Public Library.
  • Lake Michigan - ice on lake by sanitarium - February 1906.
    Several boys and a dog play on a massive ice formation on the shore of Lake Michigan, February 1906. Photo by Louis Milton Thiers. Source: Kenosha History Center.
  • Tall-tale Postcard: Winter Scene at Little Rib, 1911.
    This exaggerated photomontage postcard depicts an impressive ice fishing haul on Rib Lake, ca. 1911. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society.
  • Hockey players at the 1916 Ice Carnival, Madison.

    Hockey players gather around an ice hut on Lake Mendota during the University of Wisconsin's annual Ice Carnival, 1916. Photo by William Meuer. Source: UW-Madison Archives.

  • Ice skating in Kosciuszko Park, Milwaukee. Photo by Roman Kwasniewski.
    Ice skaters at Kosciuszko Park in Milwaukee stop and smile for photographer Roman Kwasniewski. The frozen body of water is a large pond in the park (a pond is technically a small lake). Source: UW-Milwaukee Libraries.
  • Playing cards while ice fishing, Wisconsin Rapids, ca. 1950. Photo by Don Krohn.
    Three men brave the cold to enjoy a game of cards on a frozen lake near their handmade ice fishing tip ups. Photo by Don Krohn for the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, ca. 1950. Source: South Wood County Historical Corporation.
  • Statue of Liberty on Lake Mendota.
    An icy Lake Mendota played a central role in this iconic Madison prank. The Pail and Shovel Party of the Wisconsin Student Association installed the figure in February 1979. Source: UW-Madison Archives.


Wisconsin’s lakes in summer

  • Crew practice, Madison, ca. 1890
    The University of Wisconsin crew team takes advantage of Lake Mendota’s smooth waters for a practice, ca. 1890. Source: UW-Madison Archives.
  • Owl's Club - beach picnic, Kenosha.
    The Owl's Club picnics on a Lake Michigan beach near Kenosha, 1880-1914. Photo by Louis Milton Thiers. Source: Kenosha History Center.
  • Bathing Scene, Lake Mendota, Madison, Wis.
    Swimmers line up for a turn at a diving platform on Lake Mendota. Source: UW-Madison Archives.

  • Bathing beach, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
    This colorized postcard depicts men, women and children enjoying themselves at a Milwaukee beach. Source: UW-Milwaukee Libraries.
  • Girls standing on pier, Three Lakes, 1937

    Camp Idyle Wyld girls line up on the dock of Town Line Lake, Oneida County, 1932. Founded in 1916, Idyle Wyld was the first private girls’ camp in northwoods Wisconsin. Photo by A. J. Kingsbury. Source: Three Lakes Historical Society.

  • Summer sports at Northernaire, Three Lakes, Wisconsin.
    This postcard features the many activities for vacationers at Carl Marty’s Northernaire Resort on Deer Lake and Big Stone Lakes in northwoods Wisconsin. Source: Three Lakes Historical Society.
  • Off the raft. Photo by Don Krohn, ca. 1950.
    Boys jump off a raft anchored in a lake, ca. 1950. Photo by Don Krohn for the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune. Source: South Wood County Historical Corporation.
  • Ski Sprites waterskiing performance, Eau Claire, 1960s.
    Ski Sprites waterskiiers perform in Eau Claire, probably on Half Moon Lake. The Ski Sprites began organized water skiing in 1960 in the Chippewa Valley. Source: Chippewa Valley Museum.



The images in these slideshows come from the following digital collections. Follow the links to browse and search the full collections.

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