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Automobile Camps

At the beginning of the century, pioneering auto tourists had few places along the open road where they could rent a room after a day's drive.  The majority of established hotels were located downtown and allowed for easy access to the railroad.  This was not an ideal situation for motorists, who were unwilling to leave their automobiles in the livery stable and did not want to enter the hotel lobby after a day of dusty travel.  A growing number of motorists began bringing their own gear and creating makeshift camps along the roadside at convenient and attractive locations.  This solution worked until the popularity of automobile tourism swelled after World War I, and the flood of travelers camping on private property upset landowners.  Despite the trespassing, some community leaders and landowners saw the potential for profit and began to establish campsites, restaurants, and stores.


The Stevens Point automobile
camp, c.1920, was typical
of the automobile
camps popular during the
early 1920s. Original
photograph located at the
University of Wisconsin,
Stevens Point, Library.
In an effort to entice auto tourists, many communities began building municipal tourist camps in city parks.  Neighboring towns soon began competing for tourists and added extra conveniences, including picnic tables, fireplaces, flush toilets, showers, sheltered eating and recreation areas, and electrical hookups.  Communities would then advertise these comforts on signs placed along roads leading into town.  Tourist camps were popular because they were relatively secure and offered amenities like water and toilets.  By 1923, Wisconsin had an estimated 300 auto camps.

The heyday of free municipal camps was short-lived.  Free camps eventually drew freeloaders, squatters and criminals.  J. Edgar Hoover, former director of the FBI, called all but a few tourist camps "camps of crime, and frequented by nomadic prostitutes, hardened criminals, and promiscuous college students."  In an effort to discourage use by the lower classes and eliminate the criminal element, campsite owners required users to pay a rental fee.

Roadside Highlight:  Menomonie Tourist Park, Menomonie

The "Menomonie Tourist Park," renamed Sanna Park in the 1980s (determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1992), was established in the mid-1920s at about the same time as USH 12 was realigned in Menomonie.  It is tucked in a scenic area between Highway 12 and Wilson Creek.

Menomonie was a popular seasonal tourist destination and a stopover for automobile tourists traveling across Wisconsin and the nation.  The park was located along the historic Yellowstone Trail, which stretched from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to Yellowstone National Park and Seattle, Washington.

The park was created through an initiative of the Menomonie Improvement Association.  Noted Boston landscape architect Warren H. Manning was hired to design the park and his plans include most of what is present-day Sanna Park.  At the time of construction, plans for the park included water facilities and a cook shack geared for the auto tourist/camper.

In 1936, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) constructed picnic tables, a log kitchen, and a footbridge over the river in the park.   Neither the kitchen nor the bridge remains.  Stone pillars dating to 1940 mark the entrance and have the words "tourist" and "park" inlaid on the facades.  Two gabled brick structures remained in the park until the early 1990s, but have both been removed.  The smaller of the two buildings housed the park office and the larger housed restrooms.

A 1924 Wisconsin automobile guide noted that the Tourist Park camp was 10 acres and offered parking space, benches and tables, water, bathing, boating, fishing, dancing in several pavilions, a comfort station, and a caretaker.

According to Dunn County News accounts in 1939, 20 to 30 cars of tourists would stop at the park daily.  Camping at the park ended in the 1970s.  The only remaining features of the original Tourist Park are the stone pillars at the entrance and a modest picnic shelter.


The "Menomonie Tourist
Camp" as it appeared in
2002. Mead & Hunt photograph.

Stone pillar at
the park entrance.
Mead & Hunt photograph, 2002.

Menomonie Tourist Park office,
c.1992. Wisconsin Department
of Transportation, Bureau
of Environment, District 5 file.
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