Parks & Rec

The 120th anniversary of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association is a perfect time to reflect on the vision and legacy of our modern, urban park system

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY

How many of us can dream of contributing something in our lifetime that will make a huge impact a century from now? Not just in financial terms, but in joy, in the pleasure experienced by those yet unborn who will walk and breathe in the space we inhabit today?

Think back 120 years to the visionary souls who came to be known as the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association. Think relaxation and play. Think fun.

John M. Olin

Now imagine the inspiration of those early Madisonians, so recently endowed with the wonder of automobiles … but where to drive them? They lived in the midst of myriad lakes … but how best to view and set sail? And then—this is the remarkable part—comprehend how forward-thinking were those grassroots organizers who not only designed the recreational venues for their own families, but also created a system, a commitment to preserve the acres and square miles of physical space for tens of thousands to enjoy long into the future.

It all began in the 1880s, when a group of prominent citizens began to build pleasure drives, purchasing beautiful lakeside parcels, paving them and connecting them around Lake Mendota and later Lake Monona. Under the leadership of John M. Olin, the Park and Pleasure Drive Association was formed in 1894, inspired by the populist notion that all Madisonians—not just those affluent enough to travel beyond city limits by horse and carriage and soon the automobile—deserved outdoor recreation venues like parks and playgrounds. According to historian David Mollenhoff in Madison: The Formative Years, back then Madison’s growing populace had only one public open space besides the Capitol grounds and Bascom Hill: Orton Park in the Marquette neighborhood. “Throughout the 1890s Olin, his board, and a few other opinion leaders began to view city parks as necessities, not frills,” writes Mollenhoff. Tenney Park, named after lawyer and MPPDA member Daniel K. Tenney, was developed in 1900. In the ensuing years, 264 more parks would dot the city, along with 176 playgrounds.

Today, Madison’s 5,500 acres of parkland bless us with twice the park space per capita of any other city in our nation. And the spirit of the Park and Pleasure Drive Association is alive and well in the work of the Madison Parks Foundation.

“We’re committed to renewing the legacy of the citizen-led effort to preserve our parks system for future generations,” says MPF president Grant Frautschi.

To celebrate 120 years of parks and pleasure, join the fun at the Madison Parks Foundation’s event series this summer. Visit madisonparksfoundation.org for event details, history, programs and more.

FREE CONCERT IN THE BREESE

Built in 1923, Breese Stevens is the oldest playing field in Madison and was once home to all Madison high school football games and 1940s minor league baseball team Madison Blues. In a blues revival of sorts, Breese Stevens will rock to The Jimmys, a blues, soul and R&B ensemble, plus rastabilly with the Madpolecats and bluegrass featuring Sortin’ the Mail.
Tuesday July 8, 6–9 p.m., Breese Stevens Field

ICE CREAM SOCIAL 

It’s party time, with a Madison family and friends night at Olin Park, named after the first president of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, UW law professor John M. Olin. Enjoy ice cream from the Chocolate Shoppe plus live music and fun activities for the kids. 
Thursday July 10, 6 p.m., Olin Park

LEGACY GOLF OUTING

Built in 1967, Madison’s largest golf course, the scenic, 400-acre Yahara Hills, is hosting the Madison Parks Foundation’s inaugural golf scramble. The festivities include golf, cart, lunch, door prizes, a live and silent auction and a reception. Register at madisonparksfoundation.org.
Friday July 11, 10 a.m. registration/11 a.m. start, Yahara Hills Golf Course

Jenifer Winiger is the former publisher of Madison Magazine.

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