Thrills and hills in Elkhart Lake
At the northern tip of Wisconsin's kettle moraine, an old resort town still draws a crowd.
© Beth Gauper
A bicyclist passes the Osthoff on the Lake Street Walkway.
In its entire 150-year history as a resort town, Elkhart Lake rarely has been a sedate place.
The early resort owners loved entertainment and built opera houses, dance halls and theaters. Then they put in casinos, and gambling became so commonplace that placing a bet was like buying an ice-cream cone; everybody did it.
The town was a little bit Catskills, a little bit Vegas and a lot of Chicago.
Elkhart Lake is quieter these days. The biggest gamble likely will be whether the foie-gras agnolotti or chipotle-braised pork cheeks is the better choice at the village's bistros.
It's still a fast place, though— especially during the Concours d'Elegance in July, when vintage race cars roar into the village from Road America.
Two things brought in the colorful characters that shaped the town.
The beautiful lake, for one. The story is that the Potawatomi named it for its shape, but it makes more sense that it was mixed up with nearby Crystal Lake, which really is shaped like an elk's heart.
Elkhart Lake is the crystalline one, spring-fed and clear. It's a kettle lake, formed in the depression created by a giant chunk of glacial ice, and the fourth-deepest natural lake in Wisconsin.
It's also close to the big cities, an hour from Milwaukee and 2½ hours from Chicago. That's where the money came from.
One of the biggest high rollers was Matheus Gottfried, a millionaire brewer from Chicago. His 1890 Villa Gottfried was modeled after a castle on the Rhine and included a zoo, game preserve, theater, floating pavilion and public horse-racing track.
Otto Osthoff came from Milwaukee. The former Prussian soldier had managed a brewery and then Schlitz Park, and in 1886, he and his wife opened Hotel Münsterland.
They soon renamed it Otto Osthoff's Hotel, ''the Famous Summer Hotel of the North-West.''
© Beth Gauper
Kayakers paddle past Victorian Village Resort.
The resort that became Victorian Village opened in 1872, and Siebkens Resort goes back to 1883. Both attracted the Jewish carriage trade and had social directors, and all of the resorts offered meals on the American Plan.
In the early days, women and children came for a month or more, while men commuted from their city jobs on weekends. In the 1920s and '30s, the resorts attracted the nouveau riche, many of them gangsters and bootleggers.
But in 1945, the governor decided to crack down on gambling. Wisconsin's first anti-gambling bill forced the local police to finally notice the many casinos, and the resorts started to struggle.
Then millionaire sportsman Jim Kimberly, scion of the Kimberly-Clark paper fortune in Neenah, began looking for a local place to race his cars.
He and three buddies, including Fred Wacker of the prominent Chicago family, charted a race circuit on the hilly, winding roads around Elkhart Lake, where the last glacier had dumped piles of rubble.
The first race in 1950 drew 5,000 spectators. It drew 50,000 the next year, and 100,000 the year after that.
Racing on public roads in America ended in 1952, but racing returned to Elkhart Lake in 1955, when the Road America course was built. Now, drivers and spectators come from all over to the “National Park of Speed.''
Of the six Victorian resorts at the turn of the century, three remain, including the Osthoff.
The Osthoff family ran it until 1955, then sold it to a Chicago couple who turned it into a theater camp. In 1989, investors bought it and razed the old buildings.
The sprawling new Osthoff Resort was built in the Victorian style, like Siebkens and Victorian Village.
Together, these lovingly landscaped resorts give the village of less than 1,000 people an old-fashioned, genteel look.
Until 1970s, none had air conditioning; instead, guests soaked up the breezes from Lake Michigan, only 13 miles away.
© Beth Gauper
Jim Benson narrates a cruise on the Elkhart Queen.
Now, the resorts have air conditioning and every other luxury guests expect, plus, at the Osthoff, a full-service spa and a cooking school.
They can gaze at the lake from balconies or the many patio and deck restaurants, and up-close from resort beaches.
Visitors can get right onto the lake via Jim Benson's Elkhart Queen. Benson, who operates Captain Tom's Pontoon Cruises, gives narrated tours.
He points out the former site of the first resort, built in 1856, and of the Villa Gottfried, whose owner not only brought horse racing to Elkhart Lake but paid for the village's electrical and sewage systems.
“They just don't make millionaires like that the way they did in 1910,'' he says.
Over the years, the lake has attracted many millionaires from cities but also nearby Sheboygan, including the Kohler family.
“In 1970, you could buy a house for $29,000, but now you'd be hard-pressed to find one for less than $1 million,'' he says.
A few vestiges of old Elkhart Lake remain. Around a point at the far end of the lake, there's a lovely collection of vintage cabins and boathouses.
It's Family Camp Brosius, bought in 1921 by a gymnastics organization and now owned by Indiana University.
“Some people don't like it that they don't pay taxes on 11 acres of lake, but if it wasn't for that, we'd have 100 condos,'' Benson says.
On Sundays, there's a no-wake zone on the whole lake, and dozens of kayaks and sailboats appear.
Fitness buffs fill the town for its June triathlon, and bicyclists and hikers come to enjoy the rolling roads and paths in nearby Kettle Moraine State Forest and on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
It's been a while since the idle rich were idle in Elkhart Lake. There's too much to do.
The Elkhart Lake Chamber of Commerce sponsored our visit.
© Beth Gauper
Camp Brosius is a vintage resort on a point.
Trip Tips: Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
Getting there: Elkhart Lake is an hour north of Milwaukee and 25 miles northwest of Kohler and Sheboygan on Lake Michigan.
Accommodations: Three large, Victorian-style resorts, all on the north end of the lake, provide a variety of luxurious rooms, suites and condos.
The Osthoff is a large, full-service resort with a spa and cooking school.
Often, resorts offer a special deal: If you arrive on a Sunday or Monday and stay two nights, you get a third night free.
Across the street from the lake, the 1902 Jay Lee Inn has seven rooms.
There's camping at Marsh Park and in nearby Kettle Moraine State Forest.
© Beth Gauper
A sign in front of Siebkens Resort marks the Hard Left, the first sharp corner on the 1951-52 race circuit and one of the most dangerous turns.
On the lake, there's Lola's on the Lake at the Osthoff Resort and the Back Porch Bistro at Victorian Village Resort.
Swimming: There's a public beach at Fireman's Park, $3 adults, $1 children 12 and under.
Golf: The 27 holes at the 1927 Quit Qui Oc Golf Club are open to the public.
Nightlife: Bands play at the three big resorts, and Victorian Village offers musical revues. In the off season, the Osthoff offers special theme weekends.
Pontoon tours: Captain Tom's Elkhart Queen is available Monday through Saturday in summer. Pick-up can be anywhere on the lake. Call 920-876-2903 or 608-347-2922.
Road America: The complex offers motorcycle, sports-car and vintage-car races as well as driving schools and public karting.
For more, see Foot to the floor in Elkhart Lake.
Last updated on March 1, 2019