PART I: wandawega before 1925
‘Though the business facilities of this village and its situation as a market town are highly appreciated by its inhabitants, few of them seem to realize the fact that its location is of great natural beauty; so much so that were a view of it from one of the surrounding high points transferred with its living tints to a gilt framed picture and hung against the parlor wall in its native home it might be admired as a fine view of some distant place well worth journeying to.’ J.A. Leonard, MD, Sketch of Whitewater, Walworth County, March, 1855
Beautiful Girl, She Bear, Violent Foot.
There is an impenetrable shadow of mystery that surrounds the pre-history of the area around what is today known as Lake Wandawega. The years before the mid-nineteenth century are obscured, at least in part, by the fog of time. But, at the very least, we do know for certain that the area in and around Walworth County was home to native cultures for many centuries before white people arrived. The oldest of these Native Americans were the unnamed tribes of the Oneota people, who were Wisconsin’s first artisans, farmers and traders. Some time later, the Potawatomi and Winnebago tribes came to live in the area. It’s not hard to imagine the men and women of these tribes spending happy summer nights underneath the stars and picnicking beside the lakes of Walworth County. Following the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, the last of these native peoples were forcibly removed to Kansas and the Oklahoma territory.
It was during the 1840s, the years of white ‘re-settlement’ in Walworth County, that a group of Mormon separatists led by James Strange found their way to Voree, Wisconsin - only fourteen miles to the east of what is today Camp Wandawega. After breaking from the mainline Latter Day Saints Church and their second president, Brigham Young, the Strangite group may have been the first to come to the area as a means of ‘getting away.’ After arriving in Voree, Strang claimed to receive a divine revelation from an ancient inhabitant of the vicinity, the ‘Rajah Manchou of Vorito,’ when he discovered a set of mysterious metal plates covered in an unknown language and illustrated with a map of the area. But then, in 1850, the entire Strangite community left the area forever, only to resettle on Beaver Island, in the northern reaches of Lake Michigan where, for six years, Strange ruled as the ‘king’ of his sect. On June 20,1856 Strange was shot in the back by two of his ‘subjects’ and killed. Soon after, the rest of his kingdom was exiled from the island and was scattered throughout the lower midwest.
By the 1870s, what we know today as Lake Wandawega was called ‘Otter Lake’ by the white settlers who inhabited its shores: families with names such as Newman, Parsons, Cameron, and Russell. At some point toward the end of the nineteenth century, Otter Lake was renamed Russell Lake for the prominent family who had farmed along its southern banks. But in 1925, the farmland around Russell Lake was placed into the hands of savvy Chicago developers and subdivided; the lake was renamed ‘Wandawega’ to evoke the area’s native heritage. It is thought that ‘wandawega’ is a variant of the Potawatami word meaning ‘a beautiful girl with golden hair hanging down her back.’ The name could have also come from the Dakota word meaning, ‘to break with one’s foot.’ Or, perhaps, as some have argued, the name comes from the Winnebago word meaning ‘she bear.’ ‘Beautiful girl? She bear? A violent foot?’ What ever the word’s true origin, the name was unforgettable and catchy as hell. And so, it stuck.
While the precise origin of the lake’s new name is unknown, the act of renaming the lake and its environs marked the beginning of the modern era for Lake Wandawega. In being renamed, Lake Wandawega became an attainable attraction, an inexpensive vacation getaway for blue collar and middle class urbanites from Chicago, Milwaukee, and the region.
And so, the stage was set for the strange, rambling drama of Camp Wandawega’s history to unfold. It was only a matter of time before an eclectic cast of characters, both foreign and domestic, would begin arriving on the shores of Lake Wandawega, ushering in an era of new development, scandal, mystery, and murder.
Land Boom (1920 - 1925)
The economic boom of the early 1920s was a time of rapid and successful real estate development for the lake communities of southeastern Wisconsin. In July of 1925, the Elkhorn Independent made front-page news of the ‘land boom’ currently taking place: ‘people from outside the state are flocking to Walworth County right now and are buying the choice summer site building lots at prices which would astound older residents...who can remember when every lake in Walworth County was considered “free property.”’ Better roads to and through Walworth County made it practical for subdivisions to be built, and easier for Model T’s full of out-of-towners to pour in from Chicago during the summer months. Located just four miles north of Elkhorn, Wisconsin on Route 12, and with 4,800 building sites available, Lake Wandawega was an idyllic locale more than ripe for the picking.
In a 1925 newspaper ad, the US Bond & Mortgage Company of Chicago described the area of the new Lake Wandawega development as, ‘beautiful...good, rolling, partly wooded land bordering 4,000 feet on Lake Wandawega.’ The same ad promised the local readers of the Elkhorn Independent that the migratory occupants of these future summer homes would soon become ‘new neighbors who will trade in your stores, bank in your banks, and buy from your farms.’ Housing parcels located on lands adjacent to the Lake originally sold for $240 per acre and were reserved for sale to ‘respectable’ individuals and families. In one particularly ‘scandalous’ and publicly outed ‘ruze,’ a group of ‘negro’ businessmen from Chicago had offered more than $1,400 per acre for a lakeside parcel (nearly six times the going market rate), but, upon being found out that the buyers were black, the purchase was denied. The Independent reported that these ‘negroes’ had hoped to take ownership of the valuable lakefront property by way of a brokered, ‘five hand[ed]’ deal and had afterward hoped to establish ‘a club for the colored people of a certain section in Chicago.’ And despite this blatant (front page!) display of bigotry (no doubt typical of the era), Walworth County and the new Lake Wandawega development was moving forward. This era of development would bring with it an influx of new residents to the area who were eager to seize a variety of money-making opportunities with both hands.
Of the many new residents to find their way to the shores of Lake Wandawega in the 1920’s, none came from farther afield than a young woman named Anna ‘Orphan Annie’ Andersen. No other individual would do so much to plant the seeds of future mythologies, and no other person would leave a more notorious mark on the history of Camp Wandawega.