Montello Lake History

©Kathleen McGwin

Montello Lake is formed from the Montello River which flows into the Fox River at what we now know as the City of Montello in Marquette County, Wisconsin.  If you work your way back to the source of the Montello River, you’ll find it called Westfield Creek as well as the Crooked River.  The little river is a hard worker, dammed in Westfield and generating power there for the Westfield Power Company and dammed also at Harrisville where it also generated power until recently.  The Montello dam today, generates power for North American Hydro.

The Montello River runs along what was once the edge of a retreating glacier that covered part of Wisconsin and most of Marquette County about 12,000 years ago.  It runs through land once covered with glacial Lake Oshkosh as well, formed as the glacier retreated.  On the east side of today’s lake, parts of the shores are made up of extremely sandy and fast draining areas that are called outwash fans, places where the ice got “stuck” as it retreated and poured sand out under the 500 foot high edge of the ice.

The confluence of the Montello River and the Fox River drew early people to the area for its rich resources.  Add to that a high, granite hill, that was quite probably a sacred ceremonial space, and it became an important location in the lives of pre-historic, archaic, woodland and Oneota cultures as well as historic tribes like the Ho-Chunk and Menominee.

For generations, Native Americans canoed the small river and walked and lived on its shores.  It provided fish, shellfish, muskrats, and more food sources.  The many springs along its shores, especially in its northern reaches, would have provided open water through a long winter.

An 1876 account of the history of Montello published in the Express newspaper, at that time the only paper in Marquette County, reports that Jason Daniels was the first actual settler in the area and that he built a log cabin by what is now the Montello River.  Other sources say that he built a saw mill on the river.  The first land claim was made by Josiah Dart in 1849.  The very first beginnings of Montello Lake, then, began because of a settler’s saw mill.  That first dam soon gave way to a larger dam that eventually provided power for a flour mill, woolen mill, power plant, and power for the grinding and cutting of Montello Granite.  There would be no Montello Lake if it was not for the entrepreneurs and business men who settled at the confluence of the Montello and Fox Rivers.

(click on picture to see larger)
Above is an 1876 map of Montello showing the mill pond.

Above is an 1876 map of Montello showing the mill pond.

Mill ponds sprang up wherever there was a need for power of some sort.  Some mill ponds were used for other businesses like cranberry growing or became recreational lakes like Montello.  Others disappeared as the dams gave way from disuse or were removed when power was no longer needed.  The Montello River’s making of Montello Lake, today provides renewal energy as well as a recreational area which has its own environmental attributes that harbor a variety of fish, birds, other animals and vegetation.

Early businesses around Montello Lake included the aforementioned mills, but also the undertakings of E. W. Underwood, which included a cranberry bog in the bay where Bay View Resort is now located.   The book Recipe for Community, published by the Marquette County Historical Society and available at www.kathleenmcgwin.com, includes the following about E.W.

Learning Oakwood

Learning Oakwood

 

Besides Underwood’s businesses, there were both a woolen mill and a flouring mill at the dam on the Montello River. The illustration below is from about 1880.

Woolen mill and a flouring mill

Woolen mill and a flouring mill

 
The granite quarry also used water power from the Montello River and mill pond for polishing and cutting stone. The photo below shows Montello Lake from the top of the granite quarry hill about 1915.

Granite Quarry

Granite Quarry

 

 

 

 

 

Montello Lake has provided many resources to those who live and work around it, including ice for ice boxes and storage. The photo of cutting ice on the lake was taken before or around 1908.

Cutting Ice

Cutting Ice

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recreation has always been a part of Montello Lake, even when it was mainly a mill pond. What is now Montello City Park used to be called Robinson’s Grove, below.

Robinson's Grove

Robinson’s Grove

It was part pasture and part woods where people spent Sunday afternoons picking wild flowers and picnicking. What is now Wisconia, was once a recreational area that included a shooting range for the Montello Rod and Gun Club. Farther north on the lake was Sky Lodge, a popular resort with tennis, beauty contests, fishing, cabins, a lodge, and an airstrip.  The location is now Sky Lodge Christian Camp, but once planes landed with folks from all over the Midwest to enjoy a Montello Lake vacation.

What is now Wells Point Park was always a popular camping spot and once the location of the city beach. Scores of children learned how to swim at that beach and when the city moved it to its present location, it was a controversial decision. The city council in the mid 1950s, had decided to sell Wells Point to help finance the purchase of the Robinson property for a new city park. They met with so much resistance, that they city kept Wells Point and still purchased the Robinson property, but moved the beach off of Wells Point.

Sky Lodge

Sky Lodge

Montello Lake has seen many changes since it was formed as a mill pond for Jason Daniel’s saw mill. It still keeps changing, but continues to be a source of recreation, wildlife habitat, and inspiration to those who love its waters and shores.