And The Beach Goes On

When the Winnebago County Community Park Beach House and Swimming Lake was dedicated in 1968 just north of the city limits in Oshkosh, Wis., it was considered state-of-the-art, and quickly became the most popular destination in the area. Although I was only 4 years old, I remember distinctly my mother tying bright-orange ribbons in my hair so she could see me among all of the swimmers at the beach my first summer. As I was growing up in the 1970s and coming of age in the ‘80s, “County” was the place to be every summer. If one didn’t show up at the beach at least once during summer vacation, one was considered a complete social failure at school in the fall—at least on the north side of town. The south side had Pollack Pool with a high dive and kiddy pool, but the cement made the bottom of a swimsuit pill and smell like bleach. Little did I know then how times change. Forty-four years later, I find myself working for the Winnebago County Parks Department, helping to oversee the transformation of an obsolete local tradition into a one-of-a-kind rental facility that will serve the community for many more generations.

The beach house and lake consisted of a large, solidly built structure with interior space for concessions, restrooms, inside and outside showers, lockers and changing areas, and some really cool outside

The county parks department has succeeded in transforming a 1968 facility into a facility for the new millennium.  Photos courtesy of Winnebago County Parks Department

The county parks department has succeeded in transforming a 1968 facility into a facility for the new millennium.

Photos courtesy of Winnebago County Parks Department.

sinks operated on a foot pump that were large enough to fit about four toddlers. There was what is now called a zero-depth entry, and further out, a line of buoys the lifeguards made children swim to and beyond in order to reach the hallowed diving platform. The lake was and still is all fresh water pumped from a well that overflows a dam into another lake used for fishing and RC boating. There were “piranha perch” in the shallow water that liked to try to nibble one’s freckles, but that just added to the experience. Once the troubles began and the lake had to be drained, the fish progeny were safely moved over the dam to the adjacent lake to resume their lives freckle-free.

A Sinking Ship

By the early- to mid-‘90s, with the onset of video games, the soccer boom, and other distractions, attendance at the beach began to drop, expenses went up, and so did the tax levy. By 1994, expenses totaled more than $55,000, revenue was only about $7,000, and the levy hit $50,000. What was an annual attendance of 13,000 per summer had dwindled to less than half of that number over the average 75 operating days per season. When I joined the parks department in 1999, the beach’s days were numbered. Upon seeing the facility for the first time in 20 years, the changes wrought were significant. What once resembled an imitation tropical paradise, with a dinosaur slide and rotating turtle, now looked like a typical swimming hole from up in the north woods. Due to new safety regulations, the dinosaur and other fiberglass playthings were gone; gone, too, were the giant sinks and outside showers. Safety and access regulations had taken their toll, with ever-tightening budgets making it impossible to replace these structures with newer models. Trees had grown up around the perimeter, which actually helped keep the sand from blowing around. However, the building itself stood solid as ever, unaware of what was in store.

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