Tucked away in a relatively quiet corner of the Chain, Whispering Pines Park overlooks Marl Lake.
On an unseasonably cool weekday in June, few visitors are encountered during the walk along the path from the parking lot through the tall white pines and down a flight of steps to the benches along the shore.
But on hot summer weekends, Whispering Pines loses much of its serenity, attracting hundreds of visitors who come to picnic, play and swim.
Today’s weekend crowds are reminiscent of a time when Whispering Pines was a major tourist attraction. According to Jeff Jenswold, who worked as a teen at Whispering Pines in the 1960s, up to 100,000 people came to the park each summer.
Jenswold and his brother, Joel, are nearly finished creating a book about the history of Whispering Pines. They plan to have it finished in the fall and to sell it locally. Proceeds will benefit the Friends of Hartman Creek State Park.
Jenswold remembers a very different Whispering Pines.
Although the pines seemed just as tall, there was a refreshment hut near the entrance, selling hot dogs, hamburgers, homemade barbecue, soda and sweets. A souvenir shop sold postcards, T-shirts, pinwheels, jewelry, rubber tomahawks and candy, among other items.
There were games, a playground area, flower beds and rock formations. Seats lined the main path and a large windmill sat at the top of the stairs leading to the pier where visitors from other parts of the Chain docked their canoes or children dove into the lake.
Whispering Pines even had a museum. Jenswold recalls, in an article he wrote for the Hartman Harrier, that the museum was “crammed with an eclectic collection of rare and interesting items: numerous old and rare clocks, firearms, tools, dolls, stuffed animals, birds and fish. Two mounted white-tailed bucks, antlers locked in a death lock, stand on the floor. A large colorful sailfish adorns the back wall.”
At the time, Whispering Pines was not a state park. It was a private garden that the owners, Christ and Emma Hyldgaard, opened to the public.
“The Hyldgaards moved to their property on Marl Lake in 1929,” Jenswold said. “Christ Hyldgaard had been a successful businessman in Chicago. His intent was to retire there. He planted flowers and people came to see his garden. He started opening his front yard to visitors.”
The Hyldgaards continued to make additions to their garden and welcome visitors. As more visitors came, the Hyldgaards added more attractions.
“It used to be a really busy place in the summer. They would have up to 5,000 people on a Sunday,” Jenswold said. “I remember a lot of the kids’ clubs who were staying at local camps coming over in a flotilla of canoes.”
Jenswold’s grandparents, who had retired to their cottage on Marl Lake, worked at the park, as did Jeff, Joel and their sister Jan Jenswold.
“Our family’s relationship with the Hyldgaards was more than employers-employees; we were friends as well,” Jenswold said.
Christ Hyldgaard died in August 1966. Emma, with the help of the Hyldgaard’s friend, Casey Nowicke, kept the park going until her death on Jan. 3, 1975.
The Hyldgaards willed their property to the state of Wisconsin for a public park. The refreshment hut, museum, souvenir shop, playground, flower beds and all of the attractions that the Hyldgaards had spent decades building, were removed.
“I was originally upset about the whole thing and felt that the park should have been kept the way it had always been. After that, I did not go back to the park for a long time,” Jenswold said.
Over time, Jenswold came to believe that the Hyldgaards would have preferred the decision to return the property to its natural state rather than allowing developers to cut down the white pines to make room for more high-priced homes on the Chain.
“They did not truly own the land,” Jenswold said, regarding the Hyldgaards. “They simply borrowed it for a while and used it, not only for themselves but for the enjoyment of hundreds of thousands of others.”