With winter just around the corner, the weather may not be ideal for a boat ride. But readers can tour Lake Mendota aboard a new book, “On Fourth Lake: A Social History of Lake Mendota.”
Madison resident Don Sanford recently published the story of Lake Mendota, his history of the area complete with residents’ interviews and photographs, along with gleanings from other sources.
The book leads readers on a tour of the lake, starting with where the Yahara River enters Lake Mendota.
“Each chapter is about what you could cover in a canoe or kayak,” Sanford said.
Sanford has spent much of last 39 years on lakes looking at the shoreline. He is a member of the Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club, past Commodore of the Mendota Yacht Club, and Commodore of the International Nite Ice Yacht Class Association. He is also a captain for Betty Lou Cruises.
The book also offers tips for mariners trying to make their way around Lake Mendota.
Westport residents will recognize their home shores in four chapters from the book.
Chapter two starts at Jackson Point, where Dr. James A. Jackson Sr., founder of the Jackson Clinic in Madison, bought land in 1910 for a hunting camp. That point, between the channel and marshes of the Yahara and North Shore Bay, is now part of the Cherokee Marsh Conservation Park.
After heading south and around the lake, the book takes readers to Pheasant Branch Creek and Fox Bluff. It tells the story of Waconia, along with the strange sighting of sea serpents.
In the late 1800s, well-known fisherman Billy Dunn reported seeing one of these three feet from his boat, Sanford recounts from a Wisconsin State Journal article. He “grabbed an oar and struck the snake, stunning it.
“Dunn struck it again with a hatchet, splitting its body in two,” the book notes.
Readers will also learn about the beginnings of Mendota County Park with recollections of the days of settlers and the Ho-Chunk, and attention given to the various effigy mounds.
That’s where at Rowans Trading Post in 1832, Col. Henry Dodge brokered peace with the Ho-Chunk, convincing them not to join forces with Chief Blackhawk.
Fox Bluff residents can learn the history of their lakeshore, known by the Ho-Chunk as Wau-konja-homa or “Thunderbird’s Roost, the roosting place of the Thunderbirds or Thunderers, the most powerful clan in their culture.”
Sanford has interviewed many individuals who grew up around the lake, including Kathy Sanna Fleming, who lived in Fox Bluff in the 1950s and ’60. Fleming recalls the place as “remote” in the winter, adding “We were often snowed in.”
The history of Holy Wisdom Monastery is also included, with a recollection from Michael Woldenberg, whose family owned Camp Indianola, now home to Gov. Nelson State Park.
Woldenberg recalls skating a half-mile from shore and watching the nuns skating along frozen ice.
Sanford notes the book offers a third-person and a first-person historical account, filled with interviews of residents and former residents along the lake, some now in their 90s. Jack von Rutenberg of Von Rutenberg Ventures recalls his boyhood on lake, as well.
Sanford’s idea for the book was planted while he was en route to Lake Superior for a sailing trip with friends. One had just finished his first year of working for Betty Lou Cruises, and he began recounting stories of Lake Mendota. It seemed Sanford had many of these, and his friends made him promise to write them down.
Sanford, a Madison resident since 1976, heard many stories during his ice boat and sailboat races, he said.
“I decided to a do a brain dump,” he said.
At the time, he was working for Wisconsin Public Television, and he began to look up some of the hearsay at the nearby Wisconsin Historical Society.
The more he researched, the more people he talked to, and the more stories he had. Ten years of research translated into two to three years of writing and rewriting, he said.
His original concept was to write a portable book, one boaters could stash on board to appreciate the lake, but the material grew too unwieldy for such a small vessel.
“I had no idea what I was getting into and how much history there is, and how many interesting people there are along the way,” he said.
In particular, he was impressed by meeting Woldenberg, whose father Haskell Woldenberg, owned Camp Indianola.
“He had personal knowledge and photographs I could find nowhere else. I met him at Gov. Nelson State Park and he showed me trees he had planted in the 1950s,” Sanford said.
Sanford, who grew up on Cazenovia Lake in Syracuse, New York, said he understood Woldenberg’s personal connection to Lake Mendota.
“If you grow up on any body of water, you are imprinted,” he said, adding salmons have the same imprinting experience.
“If you’re lucky enough to grow up on water, you'll remember places where you almost drowned or had your first kiss. If it’s on water, that’s in you,” he added.
Before the area was as developed, Westport was “the entertainment capital and entrepreneurial capital,” Sanford said.
“During Prohibition, it was just far enough from the long reach of the law to not be bothered by police activity,” he added.
Carp fishing and marinas were big business, then, Sanford said.
The book, 359 pages, is filled with anecdotes, memories and maps, and is indexed. Websites are also included for Lake Mendota users, and a section documents all individuals who have swum across any section of the lake through 1985.
It is available at several Madison stores, including Ace Hardware Center, Williamson Street, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Gallery Store, A Room of One’s Own, University Bookstore, along with The Boathouse in Westport and Arcadia Bookstore in Spring Green. The book can also ben ordered online at lakemen dotahistory.com.