Devil’s Lake, Vilas Zoo, Taliesin at 100 years

Three major southern Wisconsin attractions this year reach the same milestone – 100 years of existence. Their centennial celebrations stretch through the summer.

Living at the 30-acre Henry Vilas Zoo, Madison, are around 700 creatures that represent 170 species. These numbers are average for an accredited zoo, Director Jim Hubing says, but two facts make this home for wildlife exceptional.

Zoo admission is free, a claim that less than 10 of the nation’s 212 Association of Zoos and Aquariums members can make. Free parking elevates the Madison zoo to an even more elite category.

Zoo staffers participate in 20 of the association’s species survival plans. That includes raising African lions, Amur (Siberian) tigers, Geoffroy’s marmosets (from Brazil) and red pandas (from China).

A goal is to boost species populations out of endangered levels. Less than 2,500 red pandas, for example, today survive in their natural habitat.

Nearing completion this summer is an expanded Children’s Zoo and its new gardens (the veggies in one will enrich wildlife diets), bigger playground, mini train station/tracks and goat feeding area (where a sign warns that “goats have no manners”).

“We think the free admission is our strongest attribute,” Jim says, and it’s possible because of financial support from the city of Madison, Dane County, Friends of the Zoo and other donations. Carousel and mini train rides cost $1.

The zoo is at 702 S. Randall Ave., Madison. For more: www.vilaszoo.org, 608-266-4732. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The centennial celebration is ongoing until Labor Day. Dozens of events – yoga and tai chi classes to art and gardening workshops– are listed online.

Rock N’ Roar, a benefit dance with music by Fuzzy Side Up, keeps the zoo open until midnight on July 23. A historian on Aug. 1 talks about how the zoo has grown and changed.

Young Shakespeare Players perform July 31 and Aug. 14; the Madison Savoyards perform “The Zoo,” a comic opera, Aug. 20-21.

Final fact: The zoo’s first four-legged residents were deer.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate near Spring Green was named Taliesin, which is Welsh for “shining brow,” because he designed the buildings to figuratively wrap the brow of the hillside where it stands.

On the 600 acres are Wright’s longtime home, Midway Farm and the Hillside Studio (first a boarding school for children, then a living area and school for architectural study). The area’s rolling hills and farmland influenced Wright’s organic design concepts, in which structures blend with their natural surroundings.

Guided tours of the Taliesin estate last one to four hours and begin at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, 5607 Hwy. C, two miles south of Spring Green. The visitor center also is the only freestanding Wright restaurant. For more: www.taliesinpreservation.org, 877-588-7900.

Centennial events end with an Oct. 15 gala of music, food, drinks, silent auction and presentations. Also scheduled are weekend art workshops, July 30-31 and Aug. 13-14; an architecture camp for grades five through 10, Aug. 15-17; various exhibits, concerts and other gatherings.

Final fact: Near Taliesin is the 1886 Unity Chapel, built during the tenure of Wright’s uncle, a Unitarian minister. In the churchyard is a Wright gravestone, but the architect no longer is buried there; his body was moved to Taliesin West in Arizona in 1985, after his wife’s death and almost 30 years after he died.

A noon to 4 p.m. July 3 fundraiser at Unity Chapel, 6514 Hillside School Rd., includes music, a trivia contest and old-fashioned lawn games. For more: www.unitychapel.org.

Craggy bluffs and sandy beaches have long drawn a crowd at Devil’s Lake State Park, the state’s biggest and most visited. Naturalists wrote of jumping from rock to rock in the mid 1800s. Mary Todd Lincoln visited. So did Ulysses S. Grant. The Ringling Brothers owned a shoreline summer home here, and circus elephants waded in the lake.

Today’s visitors come to swim, hike, camp, climb the bluffs – and dance to Big Band music inside the Chateau on a few Saturday nights, just as romantics did decades ago.

About 4,000 of the 7,000-acre, long-shuttered Badger Army Ammunition Plant eventually will be turned over to the state and greatly expand park boundaries.

Programs at the Nature Center begin at 10:30 a.m. during most days in summer. Roznos Meadow, the park’s newest hiking trail, heads through almost two miles of woods and restored prairie. The most challenging trails ascend the bluffs, one rising 500 feet in elevation from beginning to end.

“We have capacity issues on summer weekends,” says Steve Schmelzer, park superintendent. Devil’s Lake had 1.8 million visitors in 2010.

The park, S5975 Park Rd., Baraboo, has two entrances, on highways 123 and 159. It is open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. For more: www.dnr.wi.gov, 608-356-8301.

Music, Friday night fish fries, art exhibits, history programs and special geocaching sites help mark the park’s centennial year. Sauk County Historical Society, Baraboo, hosts a park history photo exhibit. Centennial party days include July 23 (sales, music, activities at Old Fashioned Fest, Baraboo) and Aug. 28 (music and ice cream social at the park).

Final fact: Only two state parks in Wisconsin – Interstate (St. Croix Falls, 1900) and Peninsula (Fish Creek, 1909) – are older than Devil’s Lake.

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