Wisconsin’s at-risk tourism gems

When asked to recommend a pretty and close-to-home lakeside vacation spot, Heidel House almost always made my short list. It’s been a personal favorite for decades, regardless of time of year.

The 20-acre resort on the northeastern shore of Green Lake, the deepest natural inland lake in Wisconsin, was built as a private estate in 1890. It switched to public lodging in 1945. Across the street is Tuscumbia, the state’s oldest golf course, around since 1896.

The area’s quaintness is part of the charm. Fewer than 1,000 live in Green Lake, the community. An enclave of Amish farms is within 10 miles. The closest city of size is Oshkosh, 30 miles northeast.

Soon the longtime resort town faces a major challenge because the 180-room Heidel House and its ancillary services – Evensong spa to Grey Rock fine dining – will close May 20.

Financial losses prompted the property’s 35-year owner, Fiore Companies of Madison, to make the decision. “Operation of the resort in its current configuration is no longer a sustainable business model,” says Stacy Nemeth, chief operating officer.

Competition from thrill-a-minute Wisconsin Dells, 50 miles southwest, matters because “the resorts of yesteryear aren’t necessarily the resorts that are capturing the interest of a new generation of travelers.”

If no buyer is found for Heidel House, the owner “will pursue other development options” that were left unnamed.

This is not simply about the closing of a business. Heidel House is a hospitality landmark. Closure heightens the risk that a beautiful part of Green Lake’s character vanishes too.

By 1900, Green Lake had five large resort hotels, thanks to railroad routings into the area and a picturesque setting where travelers lingered for multi-week vacations.

Heidel House was not the first resort in Green Lake, but it survived the longest and is the largest.

“We don’t know the exact impact this news will have on the community, but we do have great faith everyone in our community will pull together to take very good care of the many families who have been making Green Lake their vacation destination for years,” says a written statement from the local chamber of commerce.

There’s still time to experience the classic resort. Overnight rates at Heidel House begin at $69 this month. Look for the “Luck of the Irish” deal at heidelhouse.com.

Heidel House isn’t the only at-risk tourism treasure in Wisconsin. Here are four more; if your favorite is missing, let me know.

Forevertron, Sauk City: A massive sculpture of junkyard materials, billed as the world’s largest, weighs at least 300 tons and is the 1983 work of Tom “Dr. Evermor” Every, in his late 70s. It is on land owned by Delaney’s Surplus along U.S. 12, and the artist moved to a nursing home years ago.

“We continue to hold the Forevertron in high regard and would love to see it moved,” says Christine Taylor of the Kohler Foundation, known globally for rescuing art environments such as this. “Getting involved rests on a host of considerations … For now, we keep it on our radar.”

Call Lady Eleanor Every before visiting. worldofevermor.com

Lake Michigan shipwrecks, Port Washington to Two Rivers: Former Gov. Scott Walker in 2018 pulled the plug on establishing a 65-mile long National Marine Sanctuary, an elite National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designation.

Twelve of the other 13 marine sanctuaries are in oceans (think Monterey Bay, the Florida Keys). Fifteen of 30-some known shipwrecks in this part of Lake Michigan are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Supporters want Gov. Tony Evers to revive the effort. Stay tuned.

Cold freshwater preserves wrecked ships better and longer than salt water, which is a part of what makes the Lake Michigan corridor significant. It is a diver’s dream, but designation as a sanctuary would invite more protection, research and businesses of interest to travelers (think glass-bottomed boats). sanctuaries.noaa.gov/wisconsin

Telemark Lodge, Cable: The late Tony Wise, founder of the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race, opened this 200-room masterpiece in 1972, but it’s been closed five years. There no longer is electricity and the roof is falling in, says James Bolen, interim director for the local chamber of commerce.

In the lobby is a 50-foot-tall fieldstone fireplace. In the former restaurant is a wall of windows that looks out onto slopes and Chequamegon National Forest. The television show “Hotel Impossible” came up with a plan to save the place in 2013, but it didn’t take hold.

As one Facebook fan wrote at the time: “The beauty of the place is that it is in the middle of nowhere. The problem is that it is in the middle of nowhere.” Ownership and development is complicated by the involvement of an adjacent condo association.

Yerkes Observatory, Williams Bay: Public access to the world’s largest refracting telescope, built in 1897, ended in October 2018. The University of Chicago will continue to use the telescopes for research and other educational purposes.

The 77-acre property is referred to as the birthplace of modern astrophysics, and the biggest of five telescopes is 20 tons, with a 40-inch lens. Count Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble and Nobel Prize winners among those who used it.

The university seeks a new steward for the observatory and proposals for the property’s future. Descendants of Charles Yerkes, who subsidized construction, may have an interest. physical-sciences.uchicago.edu