Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

1886 experience a colorful and checkered history.

The Potowotomi Indians first called Elkhart Lake “Me-shay-way-o-deh-ni-bis” (or Great Heart Lake) after its shape resembling an elk’s heart. Scooped out by the ancient glaciers, the lake is wrapped by the lush woods of Wisconsin’s beautiful Kettle Moraine. Early settlers from the Rhine region of Germany were attracted to the area for its farming potential. Soon after, visitors came by stagecoach, then train, drawn to the lake, the charming resorts around its shores and to the abundance of recreation.

City folk from Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee are taken with the idea of traveling north by rail for a summer holiday. More than 2,000 visitors weekly are pouring into the tiny village of Elkhart Lake in pursuit of a place beside the fresh, spring-fed lake (that, more than a century later, still is valued for its water quality). By the dawn of the 20th Century, six resorts have emerged in or around Elkhart Lake. The boom continues well into the 1900s, fueled by the inauguration in 1909 of Interurban service into the village.

The town becomes a gambling Mecca and a Prohibition-era hideaway for gangsters, where speakeasies coexist with dairy farms and revenue men track moonshiners. Eventually, though, the village falls into a decline and in the mid-1950s the Osthoff Hotel is sold and for more than 30 years is operated as a Harand Camp drama and arts camp.

In the early 1950s, the arrival of motor racing breathed new life into the region, attracting elitist road racers with their exotic BMWs and Porsches. In the beginning, gentlemen race-car drivers actually held their races on county roads. These were soon discontinued because of problems with crowd and traffic control, and Elkhart Lake became home of Road America road- racing circuit. This permanent track was built into 570 acres of rolling hills southeast of the village and became the longest natural track in North America. Soon, the village regained its old luster as it morphed into a major stop on the international auto-racing circuit, spoken of by racing glitterati in the same breath as Monte Carlo. In all, the permanent population of Elkhart Lake is just over 1,000 residents. Nearly everything is within walking distance, from landmark resorts to newer galleries and boutiques, giving it added charm. Regardless of season, weekends always bring vacationers strolling the streets. The appeal, it appears, is indeed timeless.