Old-Fashioned Resorts Are Only Part of the Charm

November 5, 2017

By William M. Gurstelle

Elkhart Lake, Wis., is an old-fashioned resort town, in the best sense of the term. You’ll find no Hyatt, Radisson or Hilton hotels here, no chutes-and-ladders style waterparks and no neon-signed chain restaurants. Instead, it’s a locally owned and operated place, full of small shops and attractions, chef-owned restaurants and a unique and genuinely interesting history.

A group of immigrant German hoteliers first came to Elkhart Lake 150 years ago and built the nucleus of resorts from which this traditional holiday spot grew. Of the six or so large hotels that once existed, three still stand, and they are more than holding their own.

The locals are always happy to talk about the colorful history of the place. The area has had ups and downs, traveling a corkscrew path to get where it is today. Elkhart Lake has been a sacred Native American gathering spot, a gangster hideout, a gambling town, a motor racing mecca and, through it all, a (mostly) quiet place where people go to hangout by the lake. Visitors today might find it a bit Brainerd-like, a bit like the Catskills of the 1940s, and maybe, if you narrow your eyes and squint, even a little bit like Monte Carlo. But mostly, Elkhart Lake is a destination unique onto itself.

The Lake

By Minnesota standards, Elkhart Lake itself is not big. It’s only about a third of the size of White Bear Lake, although with a maximum depth of 120 feet, it is the fourth deepest lake in Wisconsin. The lake is entirely spring fed, so coupled with the fact there is no other water inlet, the water is extremely clear. Geologists call it a “kettle lake,” so named because of its bowl shape, which was formed during the Ice Age by the scouring action of stadium-sized chunks of glacial ice.

In the early 19th century, the Native Americans who lived here revered the lake, calling it the “Lake of Thunder” because in cold months the flowing springs underneath caused the winter ice on the lake to crack with tremendous booming sounds.

Moreover, the Potawatomi Indians who lived nearby believed the lake had miraculous healing powers, and it was this claim that attracted the notice of the German-born hoteliers who ultimately built the area’s resorts.

Among the first to come was Otto Osthoff and his family, who built a large resort here in 1880. The story goes that the curative powers of the lake restored the once sickly Mrs. Osthoff to robust health. Along with the Osthoffs came the Siebken and Schwartz families, all of whom built large all-inclusive or “American Plan” hotels. All catered to a mostly well-to-do Chicago and Milwaukee clientele who took the train to Elkhart Lake and spent weeks each summer relaxing here. The Osthoff, Siebken and Schwartz (now called the Victorian Village Hotel) resorts still remain with much of the grandeur (and in some cases, more) of the golden age of resort tourism.

That isn’t to say that things have always been smooth sailing. All of the resorts have weathered tough financial times, fires and changes in the way people take vacations. Over time, resorts like the Osthoff have found their niche, offering luxurious yet unpretentious service, four diamond accommodations, fine food and outstanding service. Visitors come not just from the Midwest, but from all over the world to take in the attractions of the area.

Kettle Moraine

The natural assets of Elkhart Lake, from the lake itself to the gentle, rolling hills that made it the perfect place for the road races for which the area is well known, are due to the glaciers that covered this region about 10,000 years ago. That piece of geologic history is best understood by hiking through the Kettle Moraine, which is conserved in a vast tract of forest just north of Elkhart Lake in the Kettle Moraine State Forest.

The forest contains a prime, 30-mile portion of the much longer Ice Age Trail, which winds for 1,000 miles through most of Wisconsin. The trail more or less follows the topology of the terminal moraine built up by the receding glacier from the last Ice Age.

In her career with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, park ranger Jackie Scharfenberg has led countless visitors through the area she loves to hike.

“Over 600,000 people a year visit the northern unit of the Kettle Moraine,” Scharfenberg told me as we hiked through a U-shaped glacial valley. “Our visitors can do so many things. They hike, they ride horses, ski and snowmobile. With that volume of people, our main focus here is recreation. We manage all the human beings in the forest.”

The rangers manage this splendidly scenic area well, especially in fall when the trails are uncrowded, the bugs are few and the colors of the maple-oak-hickory forest are bright and beautiful. Once you know what to look for, you can identify the peculiar glacial landforms of this area: the glacial valleys, snaking eskers and unusual hill-like landforms called kames, drumlins, and swales.

Road America

Just a few miles away from the north entrance of the Kettle Moraine forest is the vast Road America motorsports complex. Unlike the one-mile or so oval tracks familiar to most auto-racing fans, Road America’s track is a mammoth 4.1-mile road course. Full of both left and right turns, inclines, hills and corners (including the infamous “Kink”) it is among the best road tracks in the world, holding its own against other road racing venues such as Watkins Glen in New York and Nurburgring in Germany. In fact, it was at Road America in 1969 that actor Paul Newman first began auto racing.

Racing officially began in Elkhart Lake in 1950, when Jim Kimberly, a millionaire sportsman who made his money in the paper industry, began looking for a local place to race his cars. He chartered an airplane, and after a long search, decided the winding, hilly roads surrounding Elkhart Lake were the ideal spot. He floated the idea with local officials and it caught on.

From 1950 through 1952, races were held in the streets of the village. The first race in 1950 drew 5,000 spectators. It drew 50,000 the next year, and 100,000 the year after that. As the cars became faster and more powerful, town officials felt that despite the safety barriers and crowd control measures installed, racing on public roads was untenable. But the racing seed was planted, so in 1955 the Road America course was built. Now, drivers, crews and spectators pack the town several weekends each year for NASCAR, Indy Car and vintage car racing events. Even when there’s no racing going on, the track is worth a visit to experience ATV rides, racing schools and even zip lining.

Resort Life

If one tires of hiking or racing, there are specialty shops, small museums and hands-on activities to explore.

One of the best is the cooking school called L’ecole de la Maison at the Osthoff Resort.  When you first step into the polished, gleaming kitchen, full of granite counter tops, restaurant-style gas stoves and rows of hanging stainless steel pots and pans, you immediately sense that a genuine culinary experience is in the offing. At L’Ecole de la Maison you don’t sit and watch a chef prepare food for you. Instead, you don an apron, scrub your hands thoroughly and learn to cook in the style of Auguste Escoffier.

Chef Benjamin Sommerfeldt, who trained in Europe and has cooked at some of the best restaurants in the Midwest, gets you and your co-chefs fully involved in culinary adventuring. On the day I attended, we made a meal from the best foods Wisconsin has to offer – walleyed pike, garden fresh vegetables, beef tenderloin, and of course, cheese.

Similar to being a sous chef in a French restaurant’s kitchen, each student has a job to do and a recipe to follow. One student chef tackled French onion soup with Gruyere and croutons, while another made potato-crusted walleye with a fennel. I prepared a baby spinach salad with pickled mushrooms and Dijon vinaigrette, which involved coaching on how to include crispy lardons cut from a slab of pork belly. The final result of the four-hour experience was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever enjoyed.

Evening Relaxations

There is never a problem finding a place to relax with an adult beverage in any small Wisconsin town, and the opportunities in Elkhart Lake are even better than most.

Sure, beer is poured nearly everywhere, but more interesting perhaps is partaking of Wisconsin’s favorite mixed drink, the brandy old-fashioned.  Mixing it correctly involves a technique called “muddling,” which basically entails smashing fruit and sugar in the bottom of a glass with a pestle. Every bartender gets good at this quite quickly.

Kicking back and relaxing, either in a local tavern or on the balcony of one’s hotel room, with a brandy old-fashioned in hand, is a wonderful way to end any day in Elkhart Lake.

If You Go

  • Getting there: Elkhart Lake is less than five hours by car from St. Paul, much of it via divided four-lane highway.
  • Where to stay: The three resort hotels — the Osthoff, the Siebken and Victorian Village — all offer a range of accommodations. Book early for major race weekends.
  • Where to eat: The three large resorts offer a range of eating choices, the best and priciest being Lola’s at the Osthoff. In addition, there are several well regarded local establishments, including the Lake Street Cafe, the Paddock Club and the Back Porch Bistro.
  • For more information: Go to elkhartlake.com.