John M. Olin is considered the father of the Madison Parks system. He was a leading entrepreneur, conservationist, and philanthropist. His innovation paved the way for the parks that we have today. John Olin moved to Madison in August 1874, at the age of twenty-three to teach rhetoric and oratory studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After four years, he attended U.W Law School, completing the two-year program in just one year. He eventually became a professor in the law school.
Between 1894 and 1909, Olin was the president and propeller of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association (MPPDA). The MPPDA began with just 3.5 acres of parkland with no park commission. By 1909, Olin established 269 acres of parkland, a park commission, and a “park-building” organization; he persuaded community members to contribute over a quarter of a million dollars to the development and maintenance of the parks.1
Thanks to John Olin and the legacy he created and left, today there are 266 Madison Parks which includes more than 6,000 acres of park land.
*Mollenhoff, David V., Madison: A History of the Formative Years (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1982), 231
The First President of the Madison Park & Pleasure Drive Association
In April 1892, UW Professor Edward T. Owen began work on creating the Madison Park & Pleasure Drive Association and enlisted John M. Olin to work with him. At this point, there were no parks, pleasure drives or lakeshore areas available for public use in the Madison area with the exception of Orton Park, which was previously the City’s cemetery.
Owen purchased 14 acres for park & pleasure drive purposes (extending from the northeast corner of the Catholic cemetery west through the William Larkin Farm around Sunset Point, the dividing into 2 drives – one continuing to Mineral Point Road and the other proceeding North to University Avenue.) for $3,000 which included the improvements to that land. This is now known as Hoyt Overlook.
Owen and Olin obtained easements and contributions to create a causeway across University Avenue – known as Willow Drive. The creation Willow Drive and a gift from Edward Hammersley and a citizens group, a drive was established connecting Observatory Drive with Raymer Road (Eagle Heights Road, later Lake Mendota Drive) in addition to reconstructing the Rustic Bridge. Opening in October, this connection became the first scenic or pleasure drive – University Avenue to (present-day) Capital Avenue. It was a huge success opening to 70 carriages that made the 3-hour drive.