A Trip through Time Down Mirror Lake

By Cathy Sperl

Mirror Lake begins at the west end as Dell Creek flows under the Highway 23 Bridge northeast towards the Wisconsin River.   It opens into a shallow wide area now overgrown with wild rice that provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife.   Sam Lonetree planted the wild rice by packing handfuls of muck from the lake bottom with wild rice and throwing them into the shallow waters.  The wild rice flourished much to the delight of wildlife but is unsuitable for human consumption.

The west end of the lake was a popular resort area from the 1800’s until the 1930’s which included the Fern Dell, Loch Mirror Park and Turtleville developments. In its heyday, this area was the playground of influential people including Al and Lou Ringling with their Ringling Dance Pavilion.   Their favorite activity away from the circus was fishing on Mirror Lake where Lou caught a 5 pound black bass in 1904.  Here the Page family entertained Fighting Bob LaFollette when he made his Progressive Speech at Fern Dell’s Pulpit Rock the summer of 1897. The Page family built their Fern Dell resort in 1905 with its boat rentals, bath house and popular swimming area where many locals recall taking their Saturday night bath in the lake.  Fernwood was built as their private residence after the resort burned down.   Perhaps it was the passing of Al Ringling in 1916 when Lou sold their Loch Mirror Park resort to build the Morris Hotel on the east end, the new Lake Delton resort area that opened in 1926 or the Great Depression of the 1930’s that silenced this once vibrant resort community.

The state bought most of the land on the west end of the lake and opened Mirror Lake State Park in 1966 which currently owns 70% of the shoreline. The old cabins were torn down to allow the land to revert to its natural state.   Several families kept their land and their rustic cabins remind those who visit of a time long ago.  The Frank Lloyd Wright designed Seth Peterson cottage also survived.  The cottage was restored in the 1980’s by a group of local concerned citizens that still operate this state owed property which is available for nightly rentals.   As you travel along the many hiking, biking and skiing trails that take you through these beautiful woods look for signs that they were previously inhabited by lovers of lilies, lilacs, barberry, asparagus, strawberries and blueberries, perhaps you will find old roads or concrete foundations and wonder who had lived there.

From here, Mirror Lake flows through the “Upper Narrows” with steep sandstone formations on either side. These Mirror Lake Dells or Gorges were formed by melting glacier waters that carved through the soft Cambrian Sandstone of ancient seas forming cliffs more than 100 feet high.  Cliff Swallows make their home in these sandstone cliffs naturally controlling mosquitoes along the lake.  A Slow No Wake Ordinance protects the fragile shoreline of the entire lake.  The huge ancient pine trees that once occupied this land have long since been harvested and floated down Dell Creek to the sawmills.  Here the “Kissing Trees”, two huge old pine trees, leaned across the Narrows and met in the middle where they supported each other until 2004 when one of the trees fell into the lake and a year later the other followed.

The water then opens up into a wide area that includes Wildwood Boat House and the Mirror Lake State Park boat landing and beach. Blue Water Bay also known as Gray’s Slough is a wildlife habitat south of the Mirror Lake State Park beach.   Wildwood is an old log lodge built by the Anderson family in the mid-1940’s that has 10 bedrooms with a spectacular great room that facilitates corporate retreats and private rentals.  The restored boathouse is visible from the water but the lodge is tucked up the hill in the serene woods.

As you travel along the lake you will see few signs of human life except at the Mirror Lake State Park boat landing and beach area. Occasionally you will see a short pier with perhaps a canoe or kayak on shore or a pontoon tied up.  Few cabins are visible from the shores of Mirror Lake as they are hidden in the woods on top of the soaring sandstone cliffs.  You will notice the almost complete silence as you see the shores reflected in the calm waters.  The commercial developments on the lake are for those that enjoy the beauty and serenity of nature with kayaks, canoes and pontoons available for rent at the Mirror Lake State Park.

Traveling further down the lake you will find Echo Rock, across the lake are two Sears Kit Houses erected for the Smith sisters that have since been extensively remodeled.   At the “Star of Mirror Lake” is Pickerel Slough and Esther’s Cove on the north and Seal’s Bay on the south.  Mackey Adams built and operated the Pickerel Slough Resort after WWII which included a campground, cabins, bar and dance hall that has since been converted to private residences.

Ishnala began in 1826 as a pioneer trading post. The Coleman family purchased the log cabin in 1909.  An early dug out canoe found buried in the lake is on display here.  In 1953, the Hoffman family expanded the cabin into a restaurant that incorporated pine trees that can still be seen growing through the floor and ceiling with panoramic views from every seat.  They lived in the nearby “Hags Crag” cabin during the summer which was named for two old teachers that lived there on a crag overlooking the lake.  The cabin was featured in the John Dillinger film “Public Enemies” starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.  Filming took place at the Mirror Lake State Park which was turned into a film set with food catered in large tents for the cast and crew and cables ran along the roads which were closed to traffic in the evenings for the chase scenes.

Past the “Five Fingers Area” you come to the “Lower Narrows” where you will find Mt. Prospect named for the fools gold found there, also know as Bittersweet Hill for the abundant bittersweet. Interstate 90 was built right through the Ringling Dells Country Club and Golf Course in 1961 where the bridge crosses 100 feet above the lake.  Here Aunt Lou, as she was affectionately known by friends, family and employees, operated a farm with an orchard that produced fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs and other farm products for her hotel.  Camp Delton was built on the site of the Ringling Produce farm in 1975 and the farm house was moved to the Murphy place across the road from Tamarack Resort.

Just past the Interstate Bridge on the south side you will see a site commonly referred to as the “Devil’s Post Office” which was photographed by local H.H. Bennett. This area has many springs including the Allendale Springs that make the ice unsafe during the winter.  Here on the south side of the lake is Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park built in 1971 by the Gasser family on land that was once their family farm.

The end of the ride brings you to the dam that forms Mirror Lake. Originally called LaBar’s Pond when the log dam was built in 1857 to operate a saw mill and later a grist mill called the Mirror Lake Roller Mills.  In 1893, the Timme brothers bought the mill expanding it to manufacture specialized stone-ground flours, cereals and feed.  They became famous for their self-rising pancake flour by encouraging civic clubs to sponsor pancake meals.  Timme’s Mill burned down in 1957 under ownership of the Kaminski family.  The saying “keep your nose to the grindstone” came from mill talk as they had to continually smell the grindstone which tended to generate sparks for smoke to see if it was hot.  The French Burr millstones are displayed here.

The dam was severely damaged and nearly washed out in 1908 and 1917. The old log dam was so well built that when the Timme Brothers rebuilt the dam in 1932 the 75 year old logs remained when the cement dam was added.  Timme’s Mill Park downstream from the dam has long been a popular fishing spot.   The Park has been closed since it was damaged by massive flooding in 2008 but reopened in 2011.  In 2010, the catwalk across the dam was removed, a new spillway and boat launch were built and other repairs were made to the dam.

It is on the cliffs above Timme’s Mill that Lou Morris Ringling built her Morris Hotel in 1920. Long verandas and screened in porches spanned the length of the hotel.  A lavish dining room catered to the guests with fresh fare from her nearby farm.  Guests enjoyed a dip in the swimming pool at the base of the ravine by the boat house.   Many embarked on “Miss Arbutus” for a leisurely 4 mile boat ride to the Ringling Dance Pavilion where they were entertained by local orchestras.   Aunt Lou entertained “Princess Nadonis”, wife of famous African-American composer Harry T. Burleigh, who performed Indian Folk Lore through poetry and song.  Later operated as the Mirror Lake Inn, it was destroyed by a fire in 1932.  81 year old Aunt Lou survived the fire and retired to her Baraboo home where she died in 1941.  The property was purchased by the Hoffman Brothers but remained abandoned until 1991 when it was developed into the Pine Cove Condominiums.

The Southside Landing and Nate’s Landing operated boat tours from the early days. The O’Malley family purchased the property in 1966 where they operated the Port Boat Lines and Anne’s Pizza Port.  Joanne O’Malley fought to save the 1908 steel “upside down” high bridge that had been damaged by the 1957 Timme Mill fire even as she told her children to hold their breath so they would be lighter as they drove across the bridge.  In 1981 the one-lane bridge was replaced with a cement two lane bridge.  Early low bridges were made of wood then iron at the creek level.  The boards of the old bridge often washed out during high waters and had to be retrieved before the bridge could be crossed.

While the farmers waited for their grain to be ground, they could enjoy Baraboo brewed Altpeter’s Root Beer at the “Grotto” in operation since 1866 at the low bridge by Timme’s Mill. The Grotto was a cave with a bench carved into the sandstone cliff that provided cool relief on a warm summer day.  Bunny Page operated it as the “Damsite Tavern” without running water or restrooms until the village shut it down in 1966.  Locals recall that occasionally the flimsy wooden front would fall outwards to the ground and they would just put it back in place and continue with their merriment.

As you travel up the steep curved and paved road to exit Timme Mill Park, think of the farmers that hauled their grain to the mill in a horse drawn wagon on a deeply rutted sandy trail. And should you pause at the Grotto to cool off before the steep climb listen for the ghosts of a time gone by.