EAGLE — The mulberries were ripe and sweet, an indigo bunting fluttered about and frogs in varying stages of development were prolific.
Water from the spring, as it has for generations, continued to pour at 500 gallons per minute out of the ground of the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest at a constant 47 degrees. But much of the beauty of Paradise Springs has been lost — hopefully, for only a few more months.
Muck, downed trees, aquatic weeds and fish cribs lay bare and dry in what used to be a gin-clear pond filled with brook, rainbow and brown trout. A structural failure underneath the more than 100-year-old dam at this historic, state-owned property drained the pond on June 19.
The fish are fine.
A few remain in the shallow, weedy remnants of the pond that continues to be fed by the spring. Most escaped through a hole under the dam’s water control structure and are now likely living in the creek below the dam or in nearby Scuppernong Creek that crosses the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
The problem is nowhere near the magnitude of Lake Delton. That 267-acre lake drained in 2008 after historic rains undermined an earthen dam, emptying the lake into the Wisconsin River, destroying homes and killing tourism for many who depended on the Wisconsin Dells destination. Repairing the breach took thousands of truckloads of sand and rock and millions of dollars.
The effort and cost to restore the two-acre pond at Paradise Springs will be substantially less but comes at a time when money is scarce. Repairs to fix only the hole are estimated at $50,000. However, if the antiquated dam is replaced, the cost rises to about $300,000.
“We have to find the funding for this,” said Anne Korman, assistant superintendent of the forest. “We would like to find a way to get this work done by winter. That would be ideal.”
Many people favor spending the money to make the repairs that would bring the rectangular pond back to life.
When I pulled into the Paradise Springs parking lot on Highway N northwest of Eagle on Tuesday morning, Tom Tischer was about to board his motorcycle and head home to Milwaukee to change clothes. Tischer, 66, a car collector and history buff, was covered in muck up to his thighs after walking too far into the basin of the pond.
Tischer made the 45-minute drive from 20th and Howell streets to get a firsthand look at the pond after hearing about its demise.
“It was a lot prettier before this,” Tischer said. “It doesn’t look like much now.”
Kelly Maddern lives in Waukesha and discovered Paradise Springs about four years ago. She visits the spring once a month during the summer and at various other times throughout the year. She’s leading a private effort to raise funds for the pond’s restoration.
“I love everything off the beaten path,” said Maddern, an author and graphic designer who grew up in Waupun. “Given the time of year or time of day, everything can look so different. Now it just looks really dead, barren and sad.”
Maddern has created a website, www.saveparadisesprings.com, has started a fundraising campaign and is selling T-shirts in an attempt to help the state Department of Natural Resources pay for the repairs. As of late last week, she had just over $1,200 in pledges.
“It’s one of those secret places,” Maddern said. “I don’t even want to fathom the idea of it not getting filled back up.”
The 22,000-acre Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine is environmentally rich and because of its location draws heavily from the Milwaukee and Chicago areas. There are campgrounds, lakes, hiking and biking trails, creeks, marshes, prairies and winding roads through thick stands of pines and hardwoods.
The unit stretches from Dousman to Whitewater and is filled with history. There are log cabins in the forest built by German and Norwegian immigrants plus Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor museum that re-creates life in the 1800s with 60 structures moved to the property from farmsteads and communities from throughout the state.
The story of Paradise Springs is also historic.
The spring has probably flowed for hundreds of years but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that it became a destination. By the early 1900s there was a dam and turbine house that provided electricity for the property’s owner, L.D. Nichols. He also stocked the pond with trout and had “a menagerie of animals” on the property, including peacocks, monkeys and pheasants, according to a DNR pamphlet about the property.
The property underwent further development after Louis J. Petit, a millionaire who made his fortune in the salt mine industry, purchased the springs. Petit built a horse track, tennis and shuffle board courts and, in the early 1930s, a fieldstone spring house. It had a wooden and copper dome and large panes of glass that allowed visitors to look over the pond while being kept cool inside the spring house, even on the hottest of days.
Today, only the shell of the spring house remains but water continues to fill the pool inside and cascade into the pond. The site was also home to a bottling plant for Lullaby Baby Drinking Water but the plant closed in the 1960s and was removed.
“This was probably one of the finest spring houses in Wisconsin,” Korman said during a tour.
After Petit died in 1932, August Pabst Jr. (yes, the beer executive) inherited the property. He sold it to Frank Fulton and a short time later it was sold to Gordon Mertens, who built a two-story hotel completed in 1948. The hotel, built from locally quarried Wisconsin dolomite, had deluxe bedrooms with private, steam-heated tiled baths, a dining room, a cocktail bar and a rooftop garden and sun deck. The building was removed in the 1970s.
A half-mile paved trail with 11 interpretive markers now helps visitors on self-guided tours of the property that the DNR acquired in the 1980s.
Chris Maaser of Delafield hunts and hikes in the forest three or four times a week but was on the Paradise Springs trail last week checking out the drained pond, something he visits only about once or twice a year.
“It’s a really cool place. The pictures I’ve taken before (it drained) are really nice and scenic,” said Maaser, who favors the pond’s restoration. “Anything to get people out in the country versus the city, which is what I think we need more of.”