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Plain Talk: Lake Mendota book essential for Madison history lovers

Plain Talk: Lake Mendota book essential for Madison history lovers

I've just finished a delightful new book that anyone interested in Madison's colorful history needs to go out and buy.

Its title seems boring: "On Fourth Lake: A Social History of Lake Mendota," but boring the book is not.

In fact, author Donald Sanford, who worked at Wisconsin Public Television for three decades and now helps organize big community events plus serves as a captain on Betty Lou Cruises, has put together hundreds of vignettes that recount Lake Mendota's history, including that of the people who lived and worked on the lake from the time it was simply called Fourth Lake.

The book's design and layout is remarkable, filled with hundreds of pictures, maps and clippings of newspaper stories (where else can you find a picture of a barefoot teenage Jerry Frautschi hoisting the sails on the family's scow?) expertly arranged to take the reader on a cruise around Lake Mendota's 26 miles of shoreline.

Sanford worked on this 359-page high-quality book for nearly a decade, and its attention to detail and the depth and breadth of its stories are evidence that he left no stone unturned in his research.

He begins a cruise around the lake during which the reader visits Mendota's unique shoreline features and learns the history of the parks, homes and businesses that front or have fronted the lake since Madison was developed. But first he recounts how Mendota and its three neighboring lakes were formed by the glaciers 15,000 years ago and how the shoreline and neighboring marshes have been changed by humans in the years since.

Today's fishermen will be intrigued by the story of how, in an effort to increase the number of game fish in the lake, the Wisconsin Fisheries Commission back in 1877 decided to stock the lake with hearty German carp. It seemed like a good idea at the time, Sanford writes — but we all know what a bad idea it turned out to be. Americans were just not into carp, but the carp proliferated to the point that hundreds of thousands of pounds were being pulled from the lake by the 1920s in a losing battle to eradicate them. They continue, of course, to be a nuisance to this very day.

You'll recognize the names of Madison families throughout this book, learn about the clubs and businesses that sprang up along the lake, discover that a large brewery was once located near where Tenney Park is today, be reminded why there's a Farwell Drive, a Warner Park and what was once known as the Gold Coast.

You'll also be reminded that Lake Mendota can be an unforgiving lake as Sanford recounts the many boating and swimming tragedies that occurred through the years and just how vicious the waters can become when heavy winds blow through. And then there are stories of the heroes, folks who live on the lake and traditionally have kept an eye out for boaters and winter ice fishermen who sometimes run into trouble.

Sanford's book became available this month at University Book Store's two locations and the bookstores Room of One's Own and Mystery to Me, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's museum shop, the Ace Hardware Center on Willy Street and D&S Bait and Archery Center.

Its cost is $35, but in reality, it's priceless.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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