Point has always been an attractive area for Madison residents,
and even when it was in private ownership, it served as a modest
recreation area for boaters and campers. In 1864, John Boeringer,
who operated a large sailing yacht, the St. Louis, on
Lake Mendota, constructed a refreshment and dancing hall there.
According to one visitor: "The invalid can here procure the genuine
red wine of Missouri and all other wholesome stimulants…several
large parties have lately enjoyed trips to the point, and a large
one on last Monday evening danced…till an early hour" (Wisconsin
State Journal, August 2, 1865).
Centennial Park Idea
Boeringer's business did not last, and within three
years the property was owned by James Herron, who established a
farm on the property. Despite the fact that Picnic Point was in
private ownership, Madisonians continued to visit it. In the Centennial
year of 1876, a plea was made for the city to acquire the Point
for a public park:
The beautiful point is in reality
the most charming spot to be found on either lake. At present
it is used as a pasture for cattle, and consequently it is not
a neat, safe or pleasant place for visitors. A few years ago
it was thickly covered with native trees, but now, alas, they
are going to decay, and a shady spot can hardly be found … (Madison
Democrat, August 13, 1876).
The Breese Stevens Hobby Farm
However, the park idea fell on deaf ears. By 1883,
all of Picnic Point, as well as Second Point and much of the marsh
was owned by business man Morris E. Fuller and his son-in-law Breese
J. Stevens. It was Stevens who developed what has been called a
"hobby farm" on the Picnic Point property.
The Young Family
Upon Stevens' death in 1903, the whole property passed
to his daughters. In 1925 the Stevens sisters sold the Picnic Point
property to Edward J. Young, a wealthy Madison lumberman, retaining
for themselves the 16 acres on Second Point (now Frautschi Point).
Included in the sale were all of the peninsula of Picnic Point,
the upper fields east of Lake Mendota Drive, Bill's Woods, and
Second Point Woods, a total of 124 acres.
The Youngs remodeled the farmhouse into a fine residence, tore down
the barn and other farm buildings, and built a stable for their horses.
Both Edward and Alice Young were enthusiastic equestrians and developed
a set of bridal trails throughout the property.
The fields had been fairly heavily eroded by grazing,
so Mr. Young had them cleared of rocks and seeded with Kentucky
blue grass. Young had his caretaker build the stone wall at the
entrance to Picnic Point. The geologically interesting rocks in
the wall were brought from all over southern Wisconsin by one of
Young's employees (Mrs. E. J. Young, interview, July 26, 1973).
The Youngs lived in the house on Picnic Point for
about eight years until it was burned down in a disastrous fire
on September 4, 1935. After several years' deliberation the Youngs
decided not to rebuild. Despite a number of attractive proposals,
the Youngs offered the first option to purchase the Picnic Point
Farm to the University of Wisconsin. The asking price for the
129 acres was $150,000, reportedly less than the Youngs had paid
for the property 14 years previously. Negotiations were immediately
The University Negotiates
On March 23, 1939, the Regents purchased a one-year
option for $10,000. The intent was to develop Picnic Point "into
a gathering place for students, alumni, and citizens of the state"
Times , April 2, 1939). Although the Madison newspapers were
very supportive of the university plans, the same could not be
said for newspapers elsewhere in the state, which commented:
the fantastic extent to which in so many instances
we have been spending public moneys in veritable floods and that
often has little to do with education … (Appleton
Post-Crescent, April 4, 1939).
The University of Wisconsin has all kinds of
picnic points within an easy radius. It is the owner of hundreds
and hundreds of acres, most of which have been bought at extremely
high figures (Green Bay Press Gazette, April
However, the principal problem for the university
was that it lacked a source of funds to purchase Picnic Point.
There was at that time no University of Wisconsin Foundation to
carry on a major fund raising campaign. The only option was the
Wisconsin Alumni Association, a membership organization which lacked
the necessary resources or motivation.
Perhaps aware of the dilemma it was in, the university attempted
to soften criticism by devising, in concert with officials from the
City of Madison, a "development" plan for Picnic Point
which included all of University Bay. The plan was to turn University
Bay itself into a vast aquatic park. One part of this park included
a harbor for small boats
According to the Wisconsin State Journal:
The establishment of a small boats
harbor in University bay would improve what is now one of the
few uninviting spots on Lake Mendota. It would mean the filling
in of the marsh there and the establishment in its place of a
harbor with dockage room and sightly buildings (August 30, 1940).
Even without the completion of the purchase, work
on filling the Bay began. However, the natural sciences faculty,
aghast at what was happening and greatly irritated that they had
not been consulted, succeeded in convincing University President
Clarence Dykstra to call a halt to these activities. (The parking
area that is now at the entrance to Picnic Point is the only vestige
of this start at filling the Bay.)
The Final Purchase
Discussions continued through 1939 and most of 1940 about the purchase
of Picnic Point, particularly about where the money would come from.
In the meantime, the value of the property kept increasing. In late
December 1940 the Young family came up with a new proposal. It would
sell all of its Picnic Point holdings (128.9 acres) for $230,000
provided the university deeded to the Youngs the 33.5 acres of
university land which included Eagle Heights and
all of the lakeshore west of the Tent Colony.
Because outside funds were still not available, the
university devised a scheme by which its dormitory-financing arm,
the Wisconsin University Building Corporation, would buy the property
with a mortgage from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
These arrangements were approved by the Regents on
June 21, 1941, and the sale became final 12 days later. Edward
Young was quoted, “God made the land there for people to enjoy,
and my understanding is that the University is going to make it
as attractive to the public as possible” (McCabe, A Niche in
The Eagle Heights Natural Area, lost to the UW in
this exchange, was later purchased from the Youngs by university
benefactor Thomas Brittingham, Jr., as a gift, but most of the
land north of Lake Mendota Drive was developed for housing. The
last remnant was later reacquired at great expense by a group of
local activists and given to the university. It is now called "Wally
Bauman Woods." (The information on the UW acquisition is based
on Chapter VIII of an unpublished manuscript entitled A Niche
in Time written by Richard McCabe for the University Bay
An air photo of Picnic Point taken
in 1945, after the university acquired it.
Note how open much of the
land was. (Photo from the UW Archives.)