The first known recreation in the valley occurred in 1885 when local farmers damned Moen Creek to create a swimming hole. In 1912, a group of progressive thinking Mt. Horeb citizens conceived the idea of forming a larger lake for more recreational purposes. The Lake Park Association was formed, residents rapidly purchased $100 shares and valley land was acquired. A larger dam was constructed on spring fed Moen Creek about a mile north of Mt. Horeb’s main street. The resulting body of water was, apparently, the first artificial lake in Dane County.
A new road, now County Highway JG, was constructed but for many years it ended at the park entrance (see photo above) near the end of what is now Lake Street. By 1913, the park was widely used for hiking, ice skating, fishing and, eventually, ski jumping. In 1915, the quickly constructed dam was washed away, as a raging late summer storm dumped tons of water into the valley. The dam was eventually replaced and, much later, rebuilt in the 1930s.
This joyous New Year’s Day skating scene below is from 1913. Tickets were sold to skate or go sledding: cost 5 cents.
A ski jump was built on the steep hillside to the southwest of the lake with a landing site near the lake’s current sandy western beach. From 1913 to 1920, Stewart Park was alive with visitors to attend world-class ski jump competitions (see photos below).
The events attracted thousands to the valley, and provided entertainment to amazed crowds. Special passenger trains ran from Madison-Mt. Horeb to accommodate the visitors. Gilbert Hagene of Mt. Horeb was a favorite World Champion.
In 1935, the Association property was purchased by Dane County for $2800, becoming the very first county park. The dam was completely engineered and rebuilt, in 1939, by Roosevelt’s Civil Conservation Corp. The park was renamed in 1941 in honor of Frank Stewart, a persistent supporter of western Dane County and a champion of parks. Stewart, a Dane County Commissioner, had noticed that while Madison had many public parks the rural areas had none.
The park was popular with visitors, especially residents of Mt Horeb who used the lake for swimming. A new village swimming pool, built in the late 1950s, greatly diminished the use of the park by locals. The lake was stocked each year with trout and “trout season” brought a different population to the park for many decades.
Slowly Stewart Lake became silted, and urban run off impacted water quality. A county Restoration and Watershed Plan was initiated, coupled with a 2000 Mt. Horeb Village Stormwater Management Plan. The lake was drained and about 19,000 cubic yards of sediment were dredged from the bed. The dam was once again improved. Dane County contributed $570,000 for the project. Sediment control basins were constructed away from the lake.
The village of Mount Horeb added $100,000 while the Mount Horeb Community Foundation provided $5,000 to restock the fish. Mount Horeb High School biology teacher Tom Shay and students collaborated to build the wood structures that will assist with fish spawning and continue to monitor the lake’s sediment levels and surrounding ecosystem.
In 2012 the lake was filled and restocked with a variety of fish, a new beach was constructed to the west and a new pavilion, playground equipment, informational kiosk, and enlarged parking lot were added. In addition, a handicapped access pier was added to the northeast near the dam.
Photo from shelter looking out at the Stewart Park beach, a wedding soon to begin
(Text by Larry Kruckman and Friends of Stewart Park with regards to park supporter Bill Lunney. Historic Stewart Park photos courtesy Johnna Buysee of the Mt. Horeb Historical Society, Larry Kruckman, and others. Apologies to all the staff and volunteers who have been dedicated to Stewart Park but are unnamed in the essay above. Many thanks.)