May 28 2016
The Winnebago tribe knew of the lake as Daycholah, a beautiful, mysterious and magical body of water that seemed to have no bottom. It was a place of spiritual pilgrimage centuries ago, and Native American burial mounds dot the lakeshore.
Green Lake, at 236 feet, is the deepest natural inland lake in Wisconsin. On the northern shore is Green Lake, the community, whose population of 960 sustains an influx of tourists, especially as weather warms.
This is not an average resort town, and the city’s newest lodging option is a reminder of that. Greenway House, a bed and breakfast inn, is within view of the lake and named after the man who put the town on the map as a vacation destination.
When entrepreneur David Greenway opened Oakwood Hotel in 1867, it was described as the first resort west of Niagara Falls. Four years later, railroad tracks were routed to Green Lake, and that brought travelers from as far away as the East Coast.
The Oakwood sat on 35 acres with at least one mile of lakefront and grew from there. During its prime, the resort accommodated 300 people per night, four times its original capacity.
“It even had its own vineyard and telegraph system,” states Oshkosh Public Museum archives. “People were called to dinner with a large Chinese gong” and paid $7 per day for lodging.
Vacationers typically stayed three weeks or longer because it was an ordeal to reach the area, and by 1900 Green Lake was home to five large resort hotels. “The resorts pretty much employed the whole town and had a big impact on it,” explains Matt Lyon, history scholar and Greenway House innkeeper.
But all the resorts were made of wood, some succumbed to fire and much vanished by the 1950s as autos nudged out rail travel in popularity.
Part of the Oakwood complex was an exception, but it eventually fell into disrepair and by 2012 was demolished. “It was a town travesty,” says Christina Lyon, Matt’s wife and business partner. “People still come here and just cry” because the old hotel is gone.
The same almost happened to Greenway House, an 1880 mansion next to the Oakwood where David Greenway lived with his family until his death in 1905. “The house was vacant for a while, a very scary property,” Matt explains. That was after the federal government leased it as a radar station for 10 years.
The lack of attention gnawed at Wayne Chaney, a retired attorney and property developer. “Somebody’s got to save it,” he thought, but almost 10 years passed and nobody did.
“Wayne loves history and loves this town,” Christina explains. So he and architect Brian Fisher took on the project, investing $500,000 to rehab it.
“We didn’t intend to operate a B&B,” Wayne says, but “it didn’t make sense to renovate the building as a residence because it was too big and needed too much work.”
Before 2014 ended, eight construction dumpsters were filled with outdated and unusable materials. Retained and buffed were original maple floors, fireplaces, stained glass, leaded windows. Added were flowering pear trees on the grounds and private bathrooms with spa tubs in the seven guest accommodations.
Guest bedrooms are named after Green Lake’s big resorts of the 1880s, contain nostalgic photos from the era and are within a glance of the lake that still lures travelers today. Instead of an eyesore, Greenway House is the city’s fifth B&B, a tribute to the past and beacon of hope for the future.
Overnight rates for two start at $170 at Greenway House, 380 Lake St., Green Lake. greenwayhousebandb.com, 920-379-0033
One-half mile east of Greenway House is the 180-guestroom Heidel House, a 20-acre lakefront resort that began as a private residence. It is the only public resort that remains in Green Lake. heidelhouse.com, 920-294-3344
Four miles west of downtown Green Lake is the 900-acre Green Lake Conference Center, which organizes Christian-based retreats and accommodates groups up to 1,000. Upcoming events include the Lawsonia Family Golf Camp on June 19-21: Cost starts at $840 for two nights of lodging, meals, golfing and instruction for two people. The event begins with a talk by Dick Bennett, former Madison and Green Bay NCAA basketball coach. glcc.org, 920-294-3323
The weekly farmers’ market in Green Lake is 3-6:30 p.m. Friday, until Oct. 7. The free Concerts in the Park are 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 8 to Aug. 3. visitgreenlake.com, 920-294-3231