Long before Wisconsin Dells became known as the “Waterpark Capital of the World,” tourists flocked to the south-central Wisconsin area to view the famous rock formations carved over millennia by the waters of the Wisconsin River. I was fortunate enough to grow up and attend school close enough to the popular tourist area, that each year the sixth grade Safety Patrol took an overnight trip to enjoy the area, including the famous
Duck tours (which have been running since 1946) of the Dells to see the world-renown rock formations. It’s an experience many of us carry - and cherish - throughout our lives.
The collection of postcards shown here are mostly produced by Curt Teich of Chicago and copyrighted by H.H. Bennett Studio of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. The exception, is a “Hawk’s Bill, Picturesque Wisconsin Dells — 43” card made by E.C. Kroppe Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This example, the only one in the group that is postally used (Scott 804; Wisconsin Dells cancel), was sent to the Munitions Building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., in August 1945. The sender informed the recipient, “We have had much change of scenery this trip & the air here is very much to our liking.” It’s too bad there is cancellation ink defacing the front of the card, but the colors and the image are still bright and enjoyable.
Of the Curt Teich cards, I find the “Stand Rock” example the most enjoyable. Looking closely, the artist has rendered a man jumping over the gaping expanse between the cliff ledge and Stand Rock. I believe the artist was an optimist, because it looks as though the jumper will actually make it. The card description explains, “It is a huge table, supported by a single water-torn, rather irregular shaped column of rock, about 46 feet high. The top is a great sandstone slab, some 18x24 feet in area and practically level. The top is 5 1/2 feet from the main cliff.” Research suggests the artistic rendering is based upon an old photograph.
Today, Stand Rock is a popular campground with more than 100 acres of nature and hiking trails. As an added attraction, specially trained dogs jump across to the formation and back.
The “Fat Man’s Misery” card shows the plank trail leading through the narrowest point of Cold Water Canyon. The view “In Cold Water Canyon” has such wonderful perspective you want to just step onto the path to explore the ravine.
The Path in Witches Gulch is even more spectacular. This card, copyright 1931, explains, “The path in Witches Gulch leads along the tortuous way, over miniature water falls and between the towering rock walls of this mysterious gorge.” It truly makes me want to tie on some comfortable walking shoes and plan a trip.
Other popular scenes included in my small but colorful and nostalgic collection include “Visor Ledge”; “The Toad Stool”; “The Jaws,” illustrating Romance Cliff and High Rock; “Hornet’s Nest”; and the view “High Rock from Romance Cliff,” which, as the card explains, are the “Lower Jaws of the Dells” and the first high cliffs on the Upper Dells.
I believe the reason these cards resonate with me is that back when I was in sixth grade and touring with my fellow Safety Patrol, I didn’t have a camera. I can remember how much fun it was riding in the Ducks, what the wooden plank trails were like (I remember stumbling at least a couple of times), and have a vague personal recollection of what the sandstone rock formations looked like. These artfully rendered cards, with their scenic views, bring those nostalgic recollections back into focus.
Contemporary postcards don’t have anywhere near the following that vintage postcards had back in their day, in part because every person who is carrying a smartphone has a high resolution camera at their fingertips; they can capture their scenic setting at will and file those images away to review at any time. Why should travelers spend a dollar on a postcard when they’ve probably got a memory card filled with vacation images. So, far, far fewer postcards are produced today than were produced in the “Golden Age of Postcards.”
Does that mean 100 years from now, since they are produced in more limited numbers, the postcards that are printed today will increase in value? Nope. Because, as we’ve seen countless times, “old” doesn’t automatically mean “valuable.” Supply still has to outweigh demand. There are probably still plenty being produced to satisfy the history and esoterica buffs of the future without them having to compete for them.
Personally, I still buy new postcards when I go someplace special (in addition to the photographs I take, of course). I have gorgeous contemporary cards from Hawaii and state parks that I visit. The vantage points and the clarity of the images are far better
than anything I could accomplish. My hope is they will help keep those cherished memories of family trips in focus - not only for me, but for my family, as well.
The vintage Wisconsin Dells postcards I’ve shown you here are but a small sampling of the plethora that have been produced through the decades. Since the renderings and print runs are plentiful, prices are next-to-nothing to purchase examples like these. Most cards can be had for less than $5 - if not even less than $2.
If you’re just interested in sight-seeing from the comfort of your easy chair, and not actually acquiring cards for yourself, you can view hundreds more vintage Wisconsin Dells rock formation-themed postcards online at http://www.vintagewisconsindells.com/rock-formations.htm.
About our columnist: Karen Knapstein is Print Editor for Antique Trader. A lifelong collector and student of antiques, she lives in Wisconsin with her husband, Joe, and daughter, Faye. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.