Thursday, February 28, 2013
magazine article from the premier issue of 'Our Wisconsin"
My Sweet Memories of Aqualand This daughter of a zoo-keeping family recalls her growing-up years at one of Wisconsin’s most popular--and beloved--summer tourist attractions. As a little girl, the first time I saw a newborn baby, I tried to scratch the boy behind his ears. Being raised in a zoo taught me very young how much animal babies liked a little help scratching that hard-to-reach place, so I thought human babies would appreciate it too. My family created Aqualand, a northern-Wisconsin tourist park and petting zoo. It ceased operations some years ago, but at its height in the 1960s, Aqualand drew as many as 72,000 visitors per summer. Even now, people I meet all over Wisconsin are in awe when they hear I was part of the Aqualand legend. It entertained generations of people and for 45 years was a keystone of countless families’ summer vacations to the Star Lake/Boulder Junction area. My husband, Dick, well remembers coming home from college with me for the first time while we were dating. We laugh as he tells people his surprise at finding a forest of cardboard boxes in the kitchen--each housing a baby animal of some sort, and all of them waiting to be cuddled, fed and, of course, scratched a little bit behind the ears. Founded by my granddad, Pat Wilsie, and carried on by my folks, Bruce and Jody Wilsie, Aqualand was established in the boom era of Northwoods summer tourism in the lat 1940s. World War II was over, people with more disposable income were relaxing in to family life... and that included summer vacations. The most popular family car of the time was the station wagon, and Wisconsin’s Northwoods was a favorite destination for it. Vacationers Flocked North The overwhelming popularity of Aqualand is evidenced by old photos of cars lining the roads after the parking lot filled. Dad, who also worked as a fishing guide, recalls returning home one day to find the parking lot so packed that 104 vehicles were parked along old narrow Highway K. Highlights everyone still remembers are rows of giant fish tanks with portholes that allowed visitors to see native fish swimming, up close and personal. There was a muskie pond where purchased frogs could be tossed into the water. Watching several hungry muskies simultaneously surface for a snack was a sight no one forgot. The otter pools were mobbed with spectators as these mammal’s playful antics gave everyone a smile. Smart-aleck goats would cross the suspended swinging bridge to stand on a platform and use their mouths to hoist a bucket of corn on a rope, which traveled upward via pulleys. My personal highlight was watching the teenage boys who worked during summers at the zoo, as they attempted to cross that swinging bridge on a dare. None were as sure-footed as those goats! Bears Chugged “Bruin Brew” Everyone recalls feeding the bears “Bruin Brew,” a colored punch made for us at the local soda bottling plant. Younger visitors remember bottle-feeding newborn fawns in the nursery. Countless cute snapshot opportunities were everywhere you looked, and these photos now reside as sweet mementos in so many family albums. Just recently, I located a vintage video of Aqualand from 1970. Someone had saved it to a website that publishes home movies. This 5-minute family video featured one of our goats crossing the old bridge. As a kid, I would never have dreamed that watching that tough old goat strutting his stuff would one day make me cry. I remember our pet timber wolf Dakota, how gentle and loyal he was with us as children. I remember Mo, my self-proclaimed personal pet cougar; the soft pads of his paws that never clawed, never hurt. He knew I was weaker and he knew I loved him. Little Smith, the baby raccoon that rode on my shoulder until the day he decided to see what my earlobe tasted like... Yes, I remember Aqualand, as so many people do. It was magic... it was my home.