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A Repeat Of History?

In 1937 the City of Milwaukee ceded their parks to Milwaukee County because of financial problems.  The thought then was to spread the cost of building and operating parks to a broader tax base.  This consolidation of City and County parks worked very well as the tax base of the County was growing exponentially.  Unfortunately, our parks today are suffering the same malady that lead to the consolidation. 

To put the current financial problems of our parks in historical perspective it is helpful to understand how our present system of parks was created.

The 15,000 acres of parks and parkways enjoyed today by residents of Milwaukee County arose from modest beginnings. When the City of Milwaukee was established in 1846, its founding fathers, most notably Solomon Juneau, Byron Kilbourn and George Walker had provided "public squares" in their early settlements. These were followed by a park on the east-side of the city overlooking the lakefront, today's Juneau Park; and the Flushing Tunnel and the Water Tower sites, which were landscaped by the Board of Public Works as an incidental side to their main functions for sanitation. These public parks were intended to be public places, open to everyone without charge, where people might relax in a pleasant green landscape free from the urban hustle and bustle but were soon not enough to satisfy the needs of a rapidly expanding city.

Between 1870 and 1900, Milwaukee's population quadrupled from 70,000 to 285,000. During this period urban residents were seeking opportunities for recreation, and to meet their need numerous private parks or "pleasure gardens" were established. These gardens catered to families and group excursions, who paid a fee to enjoy a combination of entertainment, amusement and refreshments, in addition to fresh air and flowers.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the City of Milwaukee was faced with the need to improve public services for its rapidly expanding urban population. It was at this time, in 1889 when the Milwaukee Board of Park Commissioners was created. The first board, appointed by Mayor Thomas H. Brown was composed of five civic and business leaders who served without pay. They were: Christian Wahl, president; Calvin E. Lewis, Charles Manegold, Jr., Louis Auer, and John Bentley.

 In 1889 the state legislature passed laws permitting the City of Milwaukee and its park commission to purchase land with money raised from the sale of bonds. The new park board first assembled in June of 1889 and by October 1890, they had agreed upon the five sites to purchase. These sites became Lake Park, Riverside Park, Mitchell Park, Kosciuszko Park and Humboldt Park.

As the City boundaries expanded, the City Board soon found the original legislation too restrictive. New legislation in 1891 allowed the board to purchase land anywhere in Milwaukee County where desirable sites and reasonable prices were more readily available. Land was then purchased for Washington and Sherman Parks.  With these early land purchases, the Board had gone over $800,000 in debt and thus no additional lands would be purchased for the next sixteen years.

Financial problems were a constant hindrance to the physical expansion of the City park system after the momentum of the first few years.

One of the most notable early steps taken by the Park board in its early years was to retain the services of nationally known landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose firm eventually provided the basic layout for three of the new parks, Lake, Riverside and Washington.

By the early 1900's a group of city leaders felt that a broader vision for the growth of the surrounding region was needed. The creation of the Milwaukee County Park Commission in 1907 allowed for the purchase of parkland outside of the city limits. Anticipating the need for population growth into the rural areas, they placed a strong emphasis on sound planning of major transportation routes, zoning for future development and the creation of a countywide park and parkway system.  Under the leadership of Charles Whitnall, the County's park system received widespread public and political approval. A Regional Planning Department was established in 1923, and soon, extensive plans for the park and parkway lands, purchased by the County Park Commission, were developed. With these visionary plans in hand, the New Deal programs of the Depression era became an opportunity for unprecedented development for the parks. Civilian Conservation Corps camps were established in four locations throughout the county and the men and boys were set to work doing everything from building roads to planting trees. Many other Public Works programs such as artists of the Works Progress Administration created additional enhancements such as sculpture, furniture and decorative ironwork for the parks.

Both the city and the county park systems would operate in tandem until the County eventually absorbed the financially strapped City parks in 1937 in the midst of the depression. The county continued both its physical expansion and program development of parks during the postwar years, and has become nationally recognized as one of the nations foremost urban park systems - a legacy to be cherished and enjoyed by residents and visitors to Milwaukee County for generations to come.

The 15,000 acres of Milwaukee County Parks we enjoy today is the result of the creation of the Milwaukee County Park Commission in 1907 and the visionary thinking of the early Commissioners. In addition to the parks that had already been established within the limits of the City of Milwaukee by the original City Park Commission (in existence since 1891), the new County Park Commission had a much broader goal.

The visionary thinking of the early Commissioners conceived of a park system that would form a "green belt" or series of scenic drives and parks which would eventually encircle the county. Parks were located in outlying areas to allow for population expansion. Land was selected for its natural beauty and interest, always bearing in mind its fitness for use in various forms of active and passive recreation.

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