Elkhart Lake Wisconsin, A chosen spot
By; Patricia Ann McNair
Under inches of new snow, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, is peaceful and hushed. Children build snowmen and play in the cold, their breath making white puffs in the frosty air. The lake is the heart of the town, and in winter it is frozen and still beneath the dark, bare limbs of the trees that line its shores. It is quiet here, and cozy, and decorated for the holidays, dressed and ready for the festivities of the season. This is a place for all seasons, and a Midwestern gem of a town, welcoming the year around. Like so many small towns and villages in the Midwest, Elkhart Lake is picturesque and charming with its clapboard houses, its repurposed depot buildings, its quiet neighborhoods, and vibrant gathering places. But even among pretty towns in a pretty state, Elkhart Lake is something special.
Hundreds of years ago, the Potawatomi Indians named the area me-shay-way-odeh-ni-bis, meaning “Great Elk Heart Lake.” The name came from the shape of the body of water found there, said to be like an elk’s heart. Legend has it that the Potawatomi also called this place “the chosen spot.” Elkhart Lake boasts rolling hills formed by ancient glacial activity and a nearly three hundred-acre crystal clear, spring-fed lake, making this place a spot chosen by settlers, visitors, vacationers, and sportsmen for generations.
Elkhart Lake is nestled in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest, and the village is rich in the natural beauty of the area. In winter, the land appears almost bleached, the trees’ branches scrubbed to shades of gray, and when the snow falls (and it will, this is Wisconsin, after all) the sparkling white blankets the area and the lake ices and a fine mist lifts from the water’s frozen surface. What better way to see all of this wonder and splendor than by strolling the village or by snowshoeing or skiing through it? Enjoy this place, like so many others have over the centuries.
Past and Present
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the days of stagecoaches and frequent railroad travel, Elkhart Lake became a resort town. Located just 60 miles from Milwaukee and 150 miles from Chicago, the village is relatively close to those bustling cities in actual distance, but in attitude and tranquility, it is about as far away from a hectic urban center as one can get.
In those early days, rambling inns were built on the shores of Elkhart Lake, where guests could enjoy both the indoor comforts and the natural splendors of the outdoors. During the Prohibition era, Elkhart Lake attracted folks in pursuit of good times and gambling, as well as natural beauty and outdoor recreation. After Prohibition, the area reinvented itself, and today, some of these historic resorts still offer hospitality and comfortable accommodations to visitors; two notable examples are the Victorian Village and Siebkens Resort, both of which combine historic charm with luxurious modern amenities.
Another resort that has successfully reinvented itself over the years is the completely renovated and expanded Osthoff Resort. In the 1950s, the Osthoff was bought by Harand Theatre Camp, and for decades young, hopeful performers put on plays and shows and practiced and studied theater arts on the grounds. In 1989, Harand sold the property, and Osthoff evolved once more, this time becoming a condominium resort. Handsome new buildings were built, complementing the Victorian look of so much of the town, and by 1995, the first phase of the reinvention was complete.
The next ten years would shepherd in further expansion and renovation for the resort, and today, guests can enjoy not just accommodations but both fine as well as casual dining. The peaceful Aspira Spa, also located on the property, provides guests with an impressive menu of services, perhaps helping to encourage a prominent travel magazine to vote the Osthoff Resort one of the top resorts in the continental United States. There are also some small inns around town (some of which are located in historic properties) and guesthouses, and a variety of other accommodations are available as well.
During the winter months, Elkhart Lake and its surrounding areas offer visitors a rich assortment of vacation activities to choose from. The charming downtown is just a short walk from the lakeside resorts, and there you will find a variety of restaurants, shops, and galleries, Fine (but not stuffy) dining options are available in Elkhart Lake, too, and the food in some of these establishments, such as the Paddock Club, the Elkhart Inn, and Lake Street Café, is made from locally sourced, fresh foods. And a really good cup of coffee and fresh baked goods can be enjoyed at Off the Rail, a cute and cozy coffee shop occupying a space that was once a train depot.
Winter holidays are cause for celebration in Elkhart Lake. Early December brings the Old World Christmas Market at the Osthoff Resort. Like Christmas markets around the world, this one features dozens of vendors hawking crafts and one-of-a-kind items, as well as specialty foodstuffs. And if so many temptations stir up an appetite, shoppers can partake of a good and savory Wisconsin bratwurst and a warm drink to recharge and refuel.
Folks looking for unique gift ideas can find them here and elsewhere in town. From the potions and personal luxury items available at the Aspira Spa to the handmade ceramics and local artisan crafts at Two Fish Gallery and Sculpture Garden, there is bound to be the right gift available in Elkhart Lake for just about anyone on your holiday gift list.
And speaking of gifts, Santa and Mrs. Claus are frequent winter visitors to Elkhart Lake as well, hosting events and meals in the spirit of the holidays. St Nicolas brings his reindeer to the Osthoff for brunch, while Mrs. Claus holds a cookie-decorating workshop for children and their picture-snapping parents.
A nice way to round off a day of shopping, baking, and reindeer watching is by taking a hayride that runs through Elkhart Lake. Songbooks are handed out as riders climb aboard, and riders are led in carols and songs by members of local choirs. After the ride, the Osthoff serves up cookies and cocoa near the fire, a lovely way to keep the holiday spirit nice and warm.
There are numerous things to do around Elkhart Lake as well. Eight miles outside of town is Greenbush, Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin Historical Society runs Wade House historic site, the centerpiece of which is the Wade House Stagecoach Hotel living history museum. The collection of buildings includes a carriage museum, sawmill, and a blacksmith shop, as well as the hotel, which was originally built in 1850. Wade House Baseball in the summer and a Civil War Weekend in September. A fine way to enjoy the cozy hospitality of the Stagecoach Hotel is to make a reservation for one of the Wade House Hearthside Dinners, where diners are surrounded by the smell of fresh baked bread and roasted meats done to perfection.
Spring breaks through in Elkhart Lake slowly, a little at a time. A crocus here, a daffodil there, tulips blooming in a garden edging a wraparound porch. The full-throated song of retuning birds warms up the cool mornings, and the lake turns from an icy white back to a glimmering, clear blue. In early March, the festive sounds of the Big Band Gala help usher in the spring and with the return of warmer weather, bikers can pump up their tires and once again take to the trails, while hikers can exchange their snowshoes for hiking boots.
Since the early 1950s, auto racing has been one of Elkhart Lake’s biggest lures, starting in the spring. In the earliest days of racing in Elkhart Lake, drivers would tear through the streets of town and surrounding area in their sports cars. It wasn’t long before the state government banned public street racing, but soon after that, community leaders and racing aficionados began a massive fund-raising effort to build a permanent racetrack. The result was Road America. The topography of the region is perfect for such a thing; the track at Road America is just over four miles long with twists and turns that run around hills and drop down into ravines.
The racing season, which kicks off in the middle of May with Road America’s Spring Vintage Weekend, draws people from all over the world. Other popular events at the track include a NASCAR race, motorcycle and dirt bike evens, and a number of gatherings of regional auto clubs. For those wishing to revisit the older, less regimented days (at a legal driving speed), both of the public road-racing circuits are posted with a number of markers along the way, commemorating Elkhart Lake’s racing history.
Elsewhere in town during the springtime, music fills the air around Elkhart Lake. Mother’s Day weekend is the time of Jazz on the Vine, a musical celebration at the Osthoff Resort that features jazz artists from all over the world. Throughout the summer, the Osthoff Resort and Victorian Village Resort present weekends of outdoor musical performances and musical revues, and the anything-but-flat terrain of the region makes it a great place for golfers. Quit Qui Oc Golf Club, a family owned and operated course, is made up of twenty-seven holes. The original eighteen-hole course was designed in the 1920s by Tom Bendelow, one of the era’s well-known golf course architects. Under the vibrant blue of a Midwestern sky, gofers will find this rolling course both challenging and pleasing.
Then comes the cooler weather again and the resplendent Elkhart Lake fall scenery. With the change of seasons, the brilliant colors of autumn so common to Midwestern forests bring subtle changes in the loveliness of the landscape. With the autumn comes the end of the racing season at Road America, and as the slant of the sunlight comes through the vibrant colors of the state forest at a slightly different angel, and the shadows grow long over the village, people gear up for the fast-approaching winter.
It is during this time of year that the Farmers and Artisans Market is going strong at the Elkhart Lake Historic Railroad Depot; there is a chill in the air, but there is warmth here as well. Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves send their toasted scents into the air; leaves crunch underfoot, and Elkhart Lake’s restaurants serve up the harvest from farms close by. There is a pumpkin patch at Henschel’s Indian Museum out on Holstein Road, and not far from that on County Road SR, the Sheboygan Broughton Marsh Park Tower offers a spectacular view of autumn in its fiery, colorful dress.
In late October, visitors can enjoy the Harvest Moon Ball-a big band dancing event hosted by the Osthoff Resort. In November, Victorian Village hosts the annual NOMAD fest, (“NOMAD” is an acronym that stands for the New Original Music and Dance). It is any wonder Elkhart Lake continues to attract visitors decade after decade, generation after generation, century after century?
There is much in Elkhart Lake to enjoy: a welcoming, charming, naturally beautiful Midwestern comfort and hospitable coziness that invites folks to stay a while, to relax and indulge, regardless of the season. There are busy times yes, particularly during the racing season, but even then, the pace of the place is slow, easy, a much-needed change from the nonstop busyness of life in so many other towns and cities. Na matter the season, Elkhart Lake has something to offer any visitor. And the Village is surrounded by the rich splendor of the Kettle Moraine Forest, with its glacial hills and rolling terrain laced with hiking and skiing trails. Visitors and locals alike choose Elkhart Lake, over and over again. Just like the legend says, it is “the chosen spot.”
The Elk Magazine, December 2015/December 2016