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 54 progressive thinking Mt. Horeb citizens conceived the idea of forming a larger lake and purchasing more land in the valley for expanded recreational opportunities. Initially the group considered selling lots for residential housing on the proposed lake–a plan later abandoned. The Lake Park Association was formed, residents rapidly purchased shares worth $10,000, 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, a lake of 6 acres had already formed and the park was widely used for hiking, ice skating, fishing and, eventually, ski jumping. The lake eventually expanded to 13 acres and ice cutting machinery was also purchased; ice harvests began in January 1913. A baseball diamond was also constructed with hillside seating (see ski jump photos below).
Also, in 1913 a ski club was formed and an iron construction company was contracted to build a massive jump 90′ high and 160′ in length (see photos below). Skiers estimated they could reach 80mph on the downslope. The higher part of the jump was located a few yards west at the end of Lake Street, before the sharp 90 degree turn that takes you down the hill into the park. The first professional ski jump competition occurred on February 13, 1914 with 23 competitors, some olympic competitors, including the famous Axel Henderickson, “the somersault man.” Crowds of 5000 plus soon were packing the landing area in the valley west of the current beach area. Large crowds continued through 1917.
While highway JG ended at Lake Street in Mt Horeb the association did construct a 1-2 mile looping drive to the dam. Members using horse and buggy or early cars slowly drove the “loop,” affectionally known locally as Pleasure Drive (no doubt influenced by the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, MPPDA, a movement established by the UW under the direction of John M. Olin, who created Pleasure Drives such as Eagle Heights and Mendota Drive).
On September 17, 1915, it began raining for 14 hours and the quickly constructed dam was washed away as a raging late summer storm dumped tons of water into the valley, as well as throughout Dane county. Activities continued in the park, University Band performances, pony races, lectures, July 4th community celebrations, baseball, and so on. And the ski jump competitions.
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. Note summer baseball seating area covered by snow.
By 1918, with no lake and the impact of a world war and floundering economy, the park fell in to disrepair. Ice machinery was sold at auction on April 9, 1918; a local physician, Dr. J.E. Brager, purchased the property. The American Legion obtained a “land option” in 1918 from Brager and, while not owning the park outright, sponsored activities through 1934. Following the great depression and Roosevelt’s Civil Conservation Corp (CCC) movement, bringing young workers to the area for other projects, local citizens began to ask for the park dam to be reconstructed. On June 13, 1935 plans were finally made to send a CCC crew to the park. Eventually 150,000 cubic yards of soil were moved and used to build the dam and the local roadway (current day highway JG see photo below). On March 14, 1940 while finishing the dam, workers discovered large flat rocks/logs, formerly used as the stairs for the home of Mrs. Wellington, an early settler in 1870.
View of the newly forming lake looking east towards the dam. Note the newly expanded county highway JG cut into the hillside.
Joe Buechner, Commander of the local Legionnaires, wrote an article in the Mt Horeb Mail on April 1935 stating: “It seems to us that it just doesn’t make good sense to pass up this opportunity when we have the finest spot in the entire state in our backyard. We appeal to the public to join with us and cooperate in this project. The future will thank us for our thoughtfulness in providing recreational and playground facilities that will be the envy of every youngster who is deprived of these pleasures.”
Once again the village and local citizens contributed funds towards the park improvements to encourage the county to play a larger role. On July 30, 1935 the county passed a resolution to buy the park from Brager, finish building the CCC dam and 13 acre lake. The American Legion graciously removed their “right to purchase” option. On January 22 1936 the county voted to add additional land was acquired by the County from the Leitch, Rue, and Thies families, for a total of 56 acres. Both county board votes passed by a very slim margin.
The property was purchased by Dane County for $2800 making Lake Park the very first county park. The dam was soon completely engineered and rebuilt. Six years later the park was renamed in 1941 in honor of Frank Stewart, a long time Dane County Board Chairman, and persistent supporter of western Dane County and a champion of parks. Stewart had noticed that while Madison had many public parks the rural areas had none. (The Stewarts immigrated from Scotland in 1843 and were one of the first settlers in the area, establishing a farm on what is now the EPIC campus near Verona.)
Frank Stewart as a young man
The park was once again popular with visitors, especially residents of Mt Horeb who used the lake for swimming and boating. Later, with a new village swimming pool built to the south, bordering but outside of the park, in the late 1950s, the use of the park by locals greatly diminished. Still, 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 to the project 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 2011 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, and enlarged parking lot were added. In addition, a handicapped access pier was added to the northeast near the dam. In 2015 a new pavilion was built with cedar shake roofing and timbers from Stewart Lake Park. An informational kiosk was added in 2018.
Photo from shelter looking out at the Stewart Park beach, a wedding soon to begin
Currently this 191-acre park, and it’s shimmering 13 acre Stewart Lake, offers a challenge for trout and bass fishing. Recreational facilities include picnic shelters, play equipment, and cross-country ski/snowshoe and hiking trails. Today there are 3 main trails to explore, which circle around varied landscapes. Visitors can canoe or kayak, but motorboats are not permitted. Stand-up paddle boards are becoming more popular. The park has evolved much over the past 135 years, but continues to play a vital recreational role for residents and visitors alike.
—Text by Larry Kruckman and Friends of Stewart Park, with regards to park supporter Bill Lunney. Other details were gleaned from an older essay on the park by Jim Neidhardt, available in the Historical Society archives. Historic Stewart Park photos courtesy Johnna Buysee of the Mt. Horeb Historical Society, Larry Kruckman, and others. Apologies to all the park staff, volunteers and individuals who have been dedicated to Stewart Lake Park but are unnamed in the essay above. Many thanks.