Unearthing the Complex Histories of Madison Parks

Foot bridge, trees, and sky reflected in small lake

There is something unique about the way that the parks in Madison, Wisconsin, are scattered throughout the city, complete with well-worn walking paths, lush vegetation, picnic shelters, sporting fields, and playgrounds. Standing inside the boundary of one of these parks, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a bustling state capital. The winding roads canopied with old growth trees separate visitors from their urban surroundings.

The aesthetics aren’t an accident. In fact, it’s all part of a well-orchestrated plan created at the turn of the 20th century by the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association (MPPDA), one of many recreational organizations across the country that promoted public access to nature as a healthy respite from industrialization. The MPPDA shaped Madison’s parks by employing a carefully curated illusion of wild nature as a technology of landscape design. Many of the beaches, hiking trails, and natural escapes that Madison’s visitors and residents enjoy today exist because of the generosity of the 19th-century citizens who donated time, territory, and financial support to the cause. But they have also been made possible by Indigenous erasure and ongoing settler colonial occupation of ancestral Ho-Chunk lands. Madisonians like me are proud of our parks, and we should be. But we should not forget the complex histories beneath our feet.

Early parks and pleasure drives were urban oases—but for whom?

In the mid-to-late 19th century, arguments about health and hygiene—both social and environmental—loomed large in the Anglo-settler imagination. Claims about “landscape health” helped to legitimize displacement of Native American peoples, as the US government argued that they didn’t know how to farm or productively tend to their environments, despite evidence to the contrary. These beliefs paved the way for a violent legacy of land displacement while forwarding the judgement that only settlers knew how to sustainably live in, and make use of, the early American landscape.

As natural resources were increasingly extracted and polluted in the name of settler progress and industrialization, a number of politicians, conservationists, and city planners began pointing to the need for nature as a restorative counterbalance to the ill health and social effects that came with urbanization and economic development. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, of New York’s Central Park fame, for example, believed that landscape design had distinct therapeutic potential, claiming that nature “is favorable to the health and vigor of men.” Cities increasingly added green pockets designed to look like controlled versions of wild nature, rhetorically crafted to offer respite from industrial hazards such as pollution and disease.

path through the woods

Green spaces offered relief from the sounds and smells of industrializing American cities. Image from Madison Park and Pleasure Drive report, 1908. Courtesy of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

However, scholars like Stephen Germic have explained how the parks of 19th century America were also designed to wield nature as a tool to “obscure class differences” and develop a consensus around national settler identity. Stratified social relations were maintained through the labor of creation as well as public consumption of these spaces. Efforts to create city parks (ostensibly for the health and well-being of residents) actively removed Black, Indigenous, immigrant, and impoverished peoples from their homes. While green spaces in urban centers do offer health benefits for those who can access them, the sometimes classist, racist, and settler-colonial histories of early park development provide important contexts for understanding these spaces and how people use these parks today.

The history of Madison’s impressive park system is no exception. Not long after settlers arrived to southeast Wisconsin in the early 1800s, they set in motion plans to remove the Ho-Chunk communities they encountered, as these original residents were seen as obstacles to agrarian and urban development. Despite a series of forced removals and land cessation treaties, some Ho-Chunk people who resided in the area refused to leave their rightful land and continued to live in and around the city—as many still do. As the century progressed, Madison continued to develop in the wake of Ho-Chunk dispossession. Settler populations grew, the city industrialized, and the wealthy leisure class began building private roads for the purpose of weekend escapes from the bustling city on their horses and buggies. A network of roads (or “pleasure drives”) promised relief from urban development in the beauty of the natural world.

In the early 1860s, pleasure drives through the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus followed the shores of Lake Mendota. West of campus, George Raymer established carriage roads through his property, inviting members of the public to take in the rural tranquility, the lake views, and the “scenic” earthern mounds built by the Late Woodland Native American peoples on what is now Eagle Heights. By 1892, a small group of civic leaders decided to connect the pleasure drives linking those on university property to Raymer’s Drive. This expanded drive provided the group with needed momentum, and by 1894, they officially organized as the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, led by prominent attorney John M. Olin.

yellowed map of parks on the isthmus of Madison, Wisconsin

A 1909 map of “The Park System of the City of Madison,” prepared by the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association. Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

Although the group saw their work as creating opportunities for the public to enjoy an aesthetically satisfying respite from their increasingly industrial urban spaces, the fact that most Madison citizens didn’t have access to horses or carriages didn’t deter them. The MPPDA encouraged the public to access the pleasure drives, but in practice these early roads provided a healthful retreat into nature for relatively only a few citizens. A few years later, the association turned its attention to creating parks on land donated by the city’s elite in an attempt to create more widely accessible and democratizing spaces.  They hoped that green spaces like as Tenney Park (1899) would beautify the city and have further positive heath impacts on all the (settler) citizens who called Madison home.

Protecting public parks from the public

The Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association faced early obstacles that revealed tensions between their vision of a natural escape and the public’s usage and behavior. Despite the group’s broad appeals to the public to enjoy the drives and park spaces, conflict often arose. For instance, automobiles were initially not permitted on the pleasure drives to prevent early cars and lumber trucks from sullying the scenery with noise, fumes, and evidence of modern industry. The group bowed to public pressure and allowed automobiles access to the drives in 1903, but with strict regulations: only those with a MPPDA’s license would be allowed on limited roadways for just a few hours twice a month. The more technology changed the city, the harder the association fought back by creating staged scenes of a “wild” and “pristine” nature in their city.

Increased usership shaped Madison’s parks in subtle ways. Those who could afford cars and carriages continued to use the roadways, while the parks increasingly became popular social gathering places for the working class. In 1909, a concert at Tenney Park brought in over 4000 visitors, no doubt more foot traffic than such spaces were originally envisioned to hold. The MPPDA was delighted by the usage, but not by the damage caused by the crowds. The group decided that more rules were needed to control how the public was impacting the landscape. Over time, park rules became more complex and directed towards the working class, instructing the public to not pick wildflowers and explaining roadway etiquette and how to dispose of a picnic lunch. Rhetorically, this messaging worked to shape the bodies and aesthetics within these spaces as a means of social control.

People and small boats in lake at Tenney Park, built by Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association

People enjoy a summer day at Tenney Park beach, 1927. Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

The city refused to pay for such “frivolous” leisure pursuits, so the MPPDA began to shape these spaces according to public demands. At its height, one in ten Madison households were regularly contributing money to the association. Soon park designers felt social pressure to add features that met the local population’s desire for natural locations that supported social gatherings and recreational possibilities. Over time, tennis courts, bath houses, bubbler fountains, and a baseball diamond appeared, mirroring national trends in urban park development. The slow, but continual revision of the parks was one of class-based accommodation and sometimes reluctant negotiation. Some of these features are still nestled along pathways winding through dense pockets of forest as an aesthetic reminder of how these various values are still intertwined.

Shaping a “delightful” landscape

What I find most interesting about Madison’s park history is how the group’s manipulation of nature as a technology to combat the effects of industrialization reveals two entwined contradictions.

Ducks on the grass by a lake. City skyline in the background

Parks in Madison are nestled within urban surroundings, like Olin Park which offers a view of the State Capitol building. Photo by Jimflix, 2011.

First, the technology and urban growth that the earliest members of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association were trying to escape are also what made possible the group’s ambitious project of landscape re-architecture. With each new project, wetlands were filled in, lagoons created, and waterways were dredged, deepened, and reshaped for aesthetic appeal. For example, cutting across what is today both Goodman and Olin Parks, Wingra Creek was shaped in a straight path for no other purpose than becoming more “delightful.” Further, each of the association’s reports detail annual plantings that prioritized “native” species that would create visual buffers and aesthetic pleasure, giving the carefully curated sense of a wild—even pre-contact—nature. Nature became a technology capable of neutralizing encroaching urbanization, so that park spaces participated in city-wide “greening efforts” meant to erase the negative visual, social, and health effects of its industry.

In light of the damage done by last fall’s historic floods, I have to wonder if there isn’t a cost that comes with this sort of sweeping land redesign. Today, Madison faces increased flooding risks due to climate change—risks that are exacerbated by drained wetlands and lake waters kept at artificially high levels to satisfy residents with lakefront homes, business owners, and boaters who make use of aquascapes accessible through city parks.

How do visitors come to these spaces, understanding that their entanglements with Native dispossession and settler history continue today?

The second point of contradiction is the way that parks development reshaped and regulated landscapes in order to erase the presence of local Native Americans, while simultaneously claiming that these very landscapes were culturally significant because of Native American presence. This violent legacy of settler colonialism underwrites the very possibility of using nature as a technology to shape America’s developing park system.

Today Madison is recognized as central to the mound-building culture of the Late Woodland peoples, who lived in the area before the Ho-Chunk. However, during the turn of the 19th century, effigy mounds, linear mounds, and conical mounds were treated as points of attraction at best (like those on Raymer’s Drive), and were often destroyed in the name of development for “land improvements.” The MPPDA did occasionally identify and restore mounds on their drives as visual features. At the same time, however, they were also working with contractors to fill local marshes with gravel landfill taken from significant mound properties in order to create artificial land for future parks. In other words, the MPPDA was only interested in Native American presence when it suited their aesthetic and tourism goals.

Wooden sign, "Bear Mound Park"

A small park in the middle of a residential neighborhood preserves most of an 82-foot long effigy mound in the shape of a bear. One of the bear’s legs was destroyed for road development. Photo by James Steakley, 2009.

It’s no wonder that some of MPPDA’s promotional statements (such as the one below printed in the 1899 report) feel painfully disingenuous about the intended audience for this new Madison landscape. In support of the group’s early mission, Judge E. W. Keyes offered up his property around Lake Monona, “on the hills and fields of ancient Winnequah, where once the old chief planted his corn . . . . The people on the shore of Monona will not be content that the great Mendota shall have a monopoly of this pleasure drive business. It is too good a thing to be enjoyed alone by the Mendotans. The tribe of Monona want to share in all this.”

In Eve Tuck & K. Wayne Yang’s article “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor,” the authors point to this sort of rhetoric as a type of “settler innocence” that relieves settler guilt. Keyes takes on the persona of a Native American (from the “tribe of Monona”) who only wants to “share” the riches of the land. While Olin eagerly accepted Keyes’ offer and praised his generosity, there is no evidence that Native peoples would have shared the sentiment that Keys attributed to them—not only because of its removal implications, but also because they held a different orientation to the living landscape that recognized its profound cultural significance. Even now, the alteration of the landscape and continued settler presence creates what Tuck and Yang call “ongoing violence,” as the lore of the MPPDA often remains the central story of these spaces.

What will the next century bring to Madison parks?

At the end of its 44-year run, the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association was eventually transitioned into the Madison Parks Foundation, but its heritage and impact within Madison’s communities lives on. Hiking trails in Eagle Heights Woods follow pleasure drive paths worn by horse hooves and carriage wheels more than a century ago. When summer picnickers spread blankets on the lush grass of a well-kept park, there’s a good chance they’re sitting near the site of destroyed effigy mounds. Residents enjoy beautiful pockets of green space all year round in a city that prides itself on its historic park system.

But how do visitors come to these spaces, understanding that their entanglements with Native dispossession, settler history, and “natural” aesthetics still have a legacy today? What kinds of alternative relationships to these landscapes might park-goers develop in their wake? Potawatomi scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer offers one possible pathway in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass. She describes how participating in environmental restoration can balance ethical relationships with the land and between communities. Kimmerer draws from a 1994 quote by the Indigenous Environmental Network that equates Western environmental science as the “‘head and hands’ of restoration implementation” and Native spirituality as “the ‘heart’ that guides.” Ecological restoration efforts based on reciprocity can build new relationships to landscapes haunted by past trauma and ongoing colonization.

Today, many of the original MPPDA parks have vibrant “Friends” groups where local citizens engage in environmental restoration activities such as using controlled burns and volunteer labor to curtail invasive plants, while encouraging deep seed banks to emerge. Rather than restructuring the landscape into aesthetic pleasure grounds for the privileged, such efforts hope to encourage the landscape’s historically oppressed features to become apparent, as well as foster community connections and education about the landscapes that the city’s residents occupy. While the environmental restoration movement doesn’t yet engage with contemporary Native American knowledges as fully as one would hope, there are some developing exceptions. An increasing number of programs in Madison and at the national level have been created to make outdoor recreation and park conservation efforts more welcoming to diverse and underserved communities.

If one thing is clear, it’s that the histories of even the most beloved local spaces are complex and entangled in stories of violence and hope. Acknowledging that these histories still have a grip on how current residents view their responsibilities to the landscapes in their (our) everyday lives might continue to open pathways for new and more reciprocal relationships to emerge.

Editor’s note: A caption in a previous version of the article incorrectly stated that the Lakeshore Preserve path within the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus is cared for by the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. In fact, the path is primarily cared for by the UW–Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve staff.

Featured image: Tenney Park in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Katie Wheeler, 2012.

Kassia Krzus-Shaw is a Ph.D. student in the Composition & Rhetoric Program within the English Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research explores environmental storytelling about environmental restoration, health, and community identity. Oh, and she loves Madison’s parks! Contact