Mention the Wisconsin Dells and for most, you'll conjure up visions of countless waterparks, roller coasters, go-kart tracks, zip-lines, golf courses and amphibious scenic tours. Since its founding in the mid-1800s, the Dells has managed to cinch up a reputation for itself as the family-friendly destination. With more hotel rooms (over 8,000) than any other city in Wisconsin, 19 campgrounds boasting of nearly 3,200 campsites, more than 20 indoor water park/water playground properties (qualifying as the highest concentration in the world), the Dells is a veritable utopia for vacationing families, weekenders, tourists and thrill-seekers.
This south-central Wisconsin city of 2,600 has a fascinating history seeped in geology, American culture and tradition. Some 19,000 years ago, a glacier reached within just four miles of the Dells. It melted around 15,000 years ago, forming Glacial Lake Wisconsin, a body of water comparable in size to the Great Salt Lake. When the last of the ice holding all of its contents back gave way, a catastrophic flood followed. From the ancient soft sandstone, this rushing torrent carved out steep narrow canyons and bluffs, gorges and valleys, leaving unusual rock formations and scenic vistas–in a matter of weeks! It is hypothesized that the noise of the rushing water would have been heard up to six states away. What remains today is landscape of unequalled scenery. Nearby man-made Lake Delton completes the package, providing even more raw beauty and recreational opportunities for the area's five million annual visitors.
Native American culture is also an inherent aspect of the Dells. The largest and most dominant tribe to inhabit the area was the Ho-Chunk–once called Winnebago by French fur traders. When the U.S. Government began its policy of removing all Indians from the east side of the Mississippi in 1832, a series of deadly conflicts ensued. The Ho-Chunk were ultimately ejected from their lands to northeast Iowa and south-central Minnesota. They were later moved farther west to reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota. With the government's extension of the Homestead Act, the Ho-Chunk were allowed to claim homesteads back in the Dells area in 1874. Today, their culture is preserved by the 4,900 members of the Ho-Chunk Sovereign Nation, which holds title to 2,000 acres here.
Once the Indians were removed, lumbering played a significant role in the area until 1851, when the La Cross and Milwaukee Railroad was chartered. The railroad made plans to bridge the Wisconsin River at the waterway's dells. Two years later, a boomtown named Newport sprang up at the bridge's expected site. Newport's population quickly swelled to over 2,000, all of whom were quite surprised when the railroad finally came through in 1857, building their bridge a mile upstream!
Newport was quickly deserted as its settlers moved on to the new town which sprang up at the actual site of the bridge. Kilbourn City was named for its founder and the president of the railroad, Byron Kilbourn. It was more than a coincidence that the bridge ended up on Kilbourn's land. He had purchased the parcel from Parley Eaton at a reduced price, then lobbied the state to move the railroad right-of-way. Just like that, his property value went through the roof.
Both the town and the area assumed an aura that appealed to vacationers and tourists. For those seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of cities, the Dells became their destination. Leroy Gates began taking tourists on wooden rowboat tours of the Dells in 1856. In 1873, the Modocawanda, the first steamboat, replaced them. Distillate-powered boats took over by 1894. In 1946, a Milwaukee native named Mel Flath brought the first Duck, or amphibious landing craft, to the Wisconsin Dells. Made famous during amphibious operations in both Europe and the Pacific during World War II and the Korean War, their finest moment was D-Day, June 6, 1944, when more than 2,000 were used to transport troops and supplies at Normandy, France. It was touted as the greatest amphibious operation in history as Ducks allowed the Allies to make a beachhead on the rugged shores of northern France under heavy enemy resistance.
Flath's purchase was an impulse buy that he made at a government surplus auction. Shortly thereafter, he opened the "Dells Amphibian Line" which gave tours in the Wisconsin River, exposing tourists to the area's famous sandstone formations. Today, these same vehicles (there are other Duck tour companies) have since become iconic of the Dells.
Henry Hamilton Bennett, an early landscape photographer whose family moved to the area when he was a child, purchased a studio in Kilbourn City in 1865. Much of his work depicted the area's sandstone formations, and his prints, including stereoscopic views, were distributed across the country enhancing the area's reputation as a sightseeing destination. He has been characterized as both the man who made Wisconsin Dells famous and the father of modern photography. His studio remains an historic site to this day, operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Incidentally, the name of the place was officially changed to Wisconsin Dells in 1931, which is how the locals and tourists had always referred to it. The Western Great Lakes area was once part of the French Empire, and this was one of the oldest noted areas in the region, called “Dalles” (meaning "layers of flat rock" to describe the bluff rock formations) by the early French explorers who charted the Wisconsin River during the 18th century. The name stuck and over time the spelling became anglicized as the “Dells.”
Water Park Era
As of the late 1970s the Dells area has added a new distinction to its résumé: water park mecca. Since Noah's Ark Water Park opened in Lake Delton in 1979, it's been bequeathed "the largest and the eighth most visited water park in the U.S." This opened the door for several other outdoor playlands, adding more wow to the traditional tourism season of Memorial Day to Labor Day.
In 1989, Stan Anderson, owner of the Polynesian Resort Hotel came up with the novel idea of throwing a roof over slides, shoots, spray pads and other such equipment. Construction of The Water Factory ensued, thus igniting an explosion of indoor water parks, which effectively converted the Dells into a year-round destination sporting 20 indoor water parks. In 2010, TripAdvisor.com ranked it the #1 family destination in the country in their Travelers' Choice poll.
But lest you think all there is to do in the Dells involves water, there are amusement parks, theaters, go-kart tracks, full-scale and mini-golf, museums and dry-land scenic tours. But since this is a horse magazine, let's cut to the chase ...
The Lost is Found
In the fall of 1955, retired eye surgeon Dr. R. O. Ebert concluded that a unique and beautiful canyon on his property on the south shore of Lake Delton needed to be shared with the thousands of visitors that were coming to the Dells each summer. Having just sold the Original Wisconsin Ducks tour, which he owned for two years, he did know a thing or two about such an endeavor. It's unclear if he started walking tours through the canyon, or if previous owners had established the plank walkways that led through its passages. It's also unclear who is to be credited for christening it "Congress Hall Canyon," though it's said that Ebert held a contest to re-name it. While little detail exists, it's obvious that whomever suggested "Lost Canyon" won the prize. Also clear is that Dr. Ebert's "find" was an extraordinary one. Studies indicate that the canyon is 12,000 to 13,000 years old. It is a relic of the glacial period, formed by that famous icecap runoff that sculpted the area. It is, in fact, a terminal moraine, a terminus of the glacier, and the sandstone deposits from which it was patterned are said to date back 500 million years.
The noted Sauk Indian leader Blackhawk knew the canyon. So did the early rivermen, the militiamen stationed at nearby Portage, and the French fur traders. It had been rumored that Old Albert Yellow Thunder, the last of the Winnebago war chiefs (1774-1874), had buried his gold in Lost Canyon. His great-grandson would often dig around in the canyon in hopes of finding it. He never did find gold, but one day, he found a tomahawk. He showed it to his dad who told him that from the shape of its head, which included an outline and beak of a black hawk, that the weapon belonged to Blackhawk himself, who had been captured in the canyon by two Winnebagos.
Dr. Ebert's initial brainchild involved having people drive their own automobiles though the canyon. He removed rubble from the canyon's entrance and interior, then built two miles of road through the chasm. But the automobile idea just wasn't going to fly–the canyon was so narrow and so low in places, there was simply no room for error, or retreat. This, we are fairly certain, is when he came up with his most ingenious idea ...
A pair of 15-passenger horse-drawn vehicles were built low enough to pass under the overhanging ledges. Two teams of draft horses were acquired and trained to go through the very narrow passages. After eight months of involved planning and research, his unique venture was launched and horse-drawn tours began on June 21, 1956. In July, demand had necessitated the addition of four more teams and conveyances. By the end of that first season, on September 23, over 26,000 passengers had toured Lost Canyon via horse and wagon. There was no question that it was a success.
I will conjecture that Ebert was more into starting things rather than running them. True or not, he leased the business to some folks who, for whatever reason, seemed to have trouble making it profitable. They were slow to make the lease payments and Ebert was smart enough to know when it was time to change horses.
He approached Ray Kissack, a respected Navy vet, a member of the Lake Delton Village Board, a member of the fire department and the owner/operator of a Standard Oil station, and suggested that he give Lost Canyon a try. Ray committed, without sharing the "news" with his wife, Avonelle "Avie", until it was a done deal. Avie, now 82 years old, recalls that she was not too keen on the announcement. Ray obviously already had plenty of irons in the fire. "We didn't need more responsibility and risk," she recalls.
The Kissacks leased the business just one year, after which Dr. Ebert, obviously happy with how they ran it, offered to sell it to Ray and a deal was struck. That was in 1967. While reluctant to put her heart into it, Avie upheld her end and after a couple of years, Ray convinced her that since it was for keeps, she needed to get more involved. So she relented.
In 1970, the Kissacks began raising their own Belgians as a hedge against the challenges of finding good draft horses for use in the tours. Virtually all of their teams used today came out of the Waverly Midwest Horse Sale in Waverly, Iowa–a tradition started when Ray and Avie made the biannual trek to attend the sale. They even camped there. Both their son, David, who runs Canyon Creek Riding Stable, as well as his son, Matt, who helps with both enterprises, frequent the auction.
Most of their horses are Percherons, but they also employ Belgians and, occasionally, Clydes. With eight teams in use each season (four or five typically used each day). Matt says that, on average, they try to add a new team each year. As horses reach retirement age, they are simply transitioned from the active duty status to fully retired. The Kissacks feel they owe it to the horses that have served them so well, so they're not sold, though some have been "adopted."
Ray passed away in 1989, but Avie has remained very much involved with the business–she still handles payroll, pays bills, sells tickets, cleans and checks in with her employees every day. With 35,000 annual visitors, there is much to do, and keeping up with the demands of the business is no small task.
She is adored by her employees, one of which is Chris Geltemeyer who has been driving Lost Canyon tours for the past 27 years–pretty amazing, especially when you consider the fact that he's just 48. Why would he stick with it so long? "Four things basically," he says, "1-I love working with the horses; 2-The canyon is such a beautiful place to be; 3-My boss is wonderful. She's been like a second mother to me; and 4-I love people. Giving tours provides a unique opportunity to meet folks from all over the world. I gave one [tour] to Tiny Tim (the ukulele-playing pop singer best known for his falsetto rendition of 'Tip Toe Through the Tulips')."
Like most all of the drivers at Lost Canyon, Chris had no previous horse experience when he started. Most of his equine education was acquired from a good, well-broke team. "Bud and Duke were the Clydesdale team that I started with and I drove them for a couple years," he confirms. "Then I had another team of Clydes named Bill and Bob that I had for four years, followed by a pair of Percherons named Mike and Tom, and I drove them for 12 years. Then I had a team of Belgians, also named Bill and Bob and I drove them for four years. I just gave them up to a new driver."
This longevity of pairings between particular drivers with particular teams is not only important, but beneficial. "The driver needs to get to know and trust his team, and the team needs to get to know and trust his driver," attests Chris, who is also charged with the matchmaking.
Having given over 10,000 rides since 1985, Chris says everything about his job is great, but working with the horses is the best part. "It's helped make me who I am," he admits.
So why do people come on this tour? "Draft horses really are the main draw here," Chris relates. "Without them, there IS no Lost Canyon. There are other canyons in the Dells. You can see some from boats and others on foot, but the horses make this such a unique experience. The other reason they come is for the appreciation of nature. The canyon is really a beautiful place."
Wayne Baesemann of Grand Marsh, Wisconsin, drove for Lost Canyon a decade ago. And like Geltemeyer, he knew nothing about horses when he started, yet they are central to his life today. "I loved working at Lost Canyon. It spurred me to my present career," says the full-time farrier. "The beauty of the place, coupled with the great camaraderie I had with the other drivers, working with the horses and seeing people's reactions to their first sight of the canyon," made it special. "I wouldn't trade my experience there for anything."
Baesemann, who has adopted five of Lost Canyon's retired horses, is equally high on Avie. "She is the sweetest lady there is. She helped me through a lot, and I absolutely loved working for her and respected her for how she treats the horses when they're no longer useful."
Obviously touched not just by the horses and people, but also by the canyon itself, Baesemann says he returns periodically, in part because, "If I want to drive a team, they let me." In reference to that deep appreciation and sense of connection that both he and Geltemeyer clearly have, Wayne concludes, "I love that canyon with all my heart. You kind of become a part of it."
In spite of the famed tranquility sought by Lost Canyon visitors, not all has been totally peaceful, or without regret. Avie sold some of the land adjacent to the canyon that she and Ray once owned. It has since become a resort and water park. The "water park era" changed more than the landscape of the Dells. Visitors that come to stay at one of the mega water parks are less likely to venture out–those with kids often never leave the confines of the resort until they check out. They have everything they need, so the tours and museums and novelty businesses (there are over 70 attractions in The Dells) suffer. There is an enormous disparity between the old traditional attractions of the Dells (the H.H. Bennett studio, the Tommy Bartlett Show, the Ducks and others), and the new. This seems to be a paradox, since the nature aspect is what originally brought visitors and tourists to the area. However, Lost Canyon Tours endures, little changed since its humble beginnings 56 years ago. One of the Dells' classic attractions, it's also one of the most unique and affordable.
Enjoy The Ride
So what do the Kissacks consider their secret to success with the Lost Canyon Tour? Matt Kissack, 23, says, "Get good help, personable drivers and the best broke horses you can find. Safety has to be your top priority–in part because we have so many kids come on the tour." To that, his grandmother, who has employed literally dozens of drivers over the past 45 years, adds, "Treat your help right, and they'll do you right."
This opened the door to ask her why she loved her job. Avie enthusiastically affirmed, "I love nature, I love animals and I love young people. I can't hardly wait for Spring when I can get back at it again!"
Nothing lost in translation there.
For more information about Lost Canyon, visit www.lostcanyontour.com