History of the Madison Parks Foundation

The Founding of Madison’s Parks: From Acewood to Zook

We are fortunate to have such a vast and vibrant park system. People who live here know it, people who visit are wowed by it. It’s an essential element of what makes Madison Madison and helps promote our reputation as one of the most livable cities in America. We know how lovely the lakeside is at Marshall Park, how wide and green the fields at Warner, how spectacular the view from Hoyt Overlook. Any parent or grandparent who has ever taken the kids to one of the city’s 200 neighborhood parks – from Acewood Park off Cottage Grove Road to the West Side’s Zook – would not be surprised to learn that Madison is nationally renowned for the sweep and beauty of our citywide park system.

But these qualities did not happen by accident.

If you trace the history of Madison’s parks, what stands out is this: we owe it all to ourselves – to an extraordinary civic effort of ordinary Madisonians making tremendous contributions. Three decades before the city created a municipal parks department, private citizen members of the Madison Park & Pleasure Drive Association purchased, developed and maintained public lands for all to enjoy. Between 1894 and 1938, there were years when an astonishing one in every ten Madison households regularly donated money to the MPPDA to create and support city parks.

A citizen tradition of private support for public parks grew with each passing year, each dollar donated, each acre added. Today, that legacy lives on in the Madison Parks Foundation.

Three Men & A Carriage

Ironically, Madison’s first park was founded by residents who wanted to escape the city, if only for a few hours. It was the 1890s, and the city limits were roughly from Bascom Hill to Mansion Hill to the hilly south side of the isthmus. In those days, the fashionable thing to do to celebrate fine summer days was a horse-drawn carriage ride into the countryside and along the lakeshores. Three men – Edward T. Owen, Edward E. Hammersley and John M. Olin – created the first such Pleasure Drive in 1892, contributing acres of land and generous easements, building bridges and raising funds to pave their roadways with gravel.

Soon the city’s horse-and-buggy set had organized a group to build more scenic routes. They called it the Pleasure Drive Association and installed Olin as president. Then something happened – a small thing, really, in the overall scheme – that made the organization’s leaders turn their carriages around and take a look back at the city proper.


Mr. Tenney’s Pleasure Ground

In 1899, Madison lawyer Daniel K. Tenney bought some land near the city limits and gave it to the Pleasure Drive Association, forever changing the face of Madison. Tenney wanted to turn the land into a park, but the city had a history of refusing to finance space for anything as frivolous as leisure. So Tenney went to Olin with his vision: The PDA could have his land – fourteen expansive acres where Lake Mendota meets the Yahara River – but only to create a park. And only if the park would be kept as a public trust to be handed over to the city when it was ready to steward it.

Association members jumped at the chance, switching focus from rural pleasure drives to in-city “pleasure grounds,” and in the process turning the volunteer group into the most powerful force for beautification Madison has ever known. To raise funds for the Tenney project, the visionary Olin slashed PDA dues and increased membership tenfold. He also ran what was probably the city’s first direct-mail campaign to promote parks and outdoor recreation. And the money poured in from hard-working families eager to relax and enjoy their leisure time amid the picturesque landscapes and waterways of Madison. 

Olin then came up with a wildly ambitious plan to dredge the Yahara River, build a lock, raise all eight of its bridges, and construct a dappled, twenty-acre parkway to link Lake Mendota with Lake Monona. He lobbied the city council and the statehouse relentlessly and talked landowners into donating their river frontage. Amazingly, he completed the project in less than three years’ time. In “Madison, A History of the Formative Years,” historian David Mollenhoff writes that while Olin’s profession was law, “parks, beauty and order were his passion.”

Park Proliferation

Suddenly, it was as if a starter’s gun had gone off and the race to develop more Madison parks was on. The ranks of ordinary citizens who sent money to buy and develop parkland doubled then redoubled. At the same time, some public-spirited giants, unanimous choices in any city’s parks hall of fame, stepped up to add 146 acres of their own land to the handful with which the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association had started. By 1909, Madison had a population of only 25,000, yet the association raised a quarter of a million dollars in private funds just to build public parks, this at a time when a dollar was worth twenty dollars in today’s economy.

Almost immediately, the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association put every dollar and each plot of land to use. They established a plant nursery to provide trees for the new parks,  installed a statuary fountain at the foot of Randall Avenue and dredged Monona Bay. They enlisted nationally known landscape architect and planner John Nolen to design parks and fill them with amenities. They built beaches, boathouses and bathhouses, and founded Glenway Golf Course, and Burrows and Olin parks. And to their credit, every donated acre and every completed project required no tax dollars and remained in a public trust.

The Making of Vilas

The creation of Vilas Park took that notion of a public trust even further. It was founded according to Tenney’s tradition – that the land would one day be deeded to the city. But the thirty-five acres donated by William F. and Anna M. Vilas in 1904 came with one extra condition: Neither the association or, eventually, the city or the county would ever be able to charge an admission fee. Nearby neighborhoods immediately raised $10,000 to enlarge and improve the park, and it quickly became one of the city’s best-loved “pleasure grounds.”


This was where Madisonians first celebrated weekends in the park on a grand scale, with band concerts, recreational baseball and ice-skating in winter. So many people came to play and socialize that vendors sold thousands of ice cream cones each summer Sunday. It was also, almost by chance, where the zoo was born when a man who lived on Lakeside Street donated five pet deer. Other animals were soon delivered, and by 1920 the zoo boasted tigers, alligators, camels, and its own fundraising association (known today as The Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society).

Land of Lakes

Lake Wingra had Vilas and Lake Mendota had Tenney. And, starting in 1910, Lake Monona had Brittingham, the city’s first water park. With its boathouse and bathhouse, its expansive beach, popular water slide and rental swimsuits, Brittingham was the city’s first grand answer to Madison’s age-old question: Where can people swim around here?

Again the land was donated, this time by Thomas E. Brittingham. And once again, citizen support for the new park swelled. In a matter of only a few years, Monona Bay was dredged and more than 41,000 wagon loads of fill were used to make a new and gracious sand-lined shore for the park. The bathhouse was built and the roof-high slide went up. Pleasure boating was on the rise, too, thanks to the completion of Tenney Park’s lock. To meet the demand for boat storage, one of Madison’s treasured landmarks – the Brittingham Boathouse – was built.

In its time, Brittingham was one of the most-used parks in the city; Mollenhoff reports that some 50,000 people swam there the year it opened. Today it’s still one of Madison’s prettiest downtown parks.

The Torch Passes

In 1931, the city established its Parks Division, and by 1938, the Park and Pleasure Drive Association, having turned over the deeds to all parks, declared its mission complete.

But the momentum never faltered. Indeed, the city continued to accept gifts of parkland and to build playgrounds, shelters, gardens and other improvements upon those gifts. Warner Park, named for MPPDA leader Ernest Warner, was established in 1939, Marshall Park in 1956, Garner in 1965. Owen conservancy was dedicated in 1972. As the city grew outward, emerging neighborhoods deeded lands to Madison for park space, some of which awaits development. Neighborhood and civic groups, likewise, have remained active raising funds, maintaining gardens and helping to build much needed amenities. The Warner Park Community Recreation Center, which opened in 1999, is a living example of the spirit of the Park and Pleasure Drive’s private citizen activism.

Renewing the Legacy