LAKE DELTON — There are places in this enclave of water parks, fudge shops and endless restaurants that offer nostalgia.
Boat and Duck tours come to mind, along with horse-drawn wagon rides through Lost Canyon and afternoons on the southwestern shore of Lake Delton for the Tommy Bartlett Show, which has been thrilling crowds since 1952.
But even before there were Stanton’s Palm Garden, which opened in 1907 and later became the Showboat Saloon, Storybook Gardens (1956-2010) and Fort Dells (1959-1985) with its 335-foot-tall Totem Tower ride and Black Bart shootouts, there was Parson’s Indian Trading Post.
It’s not as old as the H.H. Bennett Studio, which opened in 1865, but when the trading post began operating 20 years later, it was located on the east side of the Wisconsin River when Wisconsin Dells was known as Kilbourn City. And when it moved to what is now Wisconsin Dells Parkway in 1919, the roadway was gravel with no inkling of traffic jams, rubber-necking tourists, escape rooms, zip lines and Noah’s Ark.
Only now, the future of Parson’s, home to a Native American museum and souvenirs, is uncertain. Business has been down the past four years, according to owners Henry and Candice Lukasavage. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has only added to the worry as tourists remain home with no clear idea of when they’ll be able to return.
“We don’t know how the summer traffic will be once (the pandemic) subsides,” said Candice, 67. “It’s a very, very uneasy feeling because nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
Candice could be speaking for just about every business owner in the country. Millions have been left unemployed, a vaccine could be a year away, and while President Donald Trump signed into law Friday a $2.2 trillion economic rescue plan, the Lukasavages are unclear when or how much they’ll receive or even if they’ll apply to get part of the funds earmarked for small businesses.
The couple was forced to close Wednesday after Gov. Tony Evers ordered all nonessential businesses shut down. They had three customers last week, and one of them showed up Wednesday when Henry had stepped out of the building to pick up the mail.
“I had to turn them down,” said Henry, as he rested on his cane behind a display case filled with jewelry. “It’s a no-win situation.”
Parson’s stands out because of its old-school appearance among Norway pines and its offerings. The business has its roots in a trading post that was opened in 1885. In 1919, Glenn Parsons, a riverboat captain, and Kenneth Counsell moved the business to its current spot to serve the Woodland tribes of the area who used the trading post as a general store that supplied them food, clothing and craft materials, and a place to sell their finished baskets, beadwork and buckskin products. The spot also became home for tribal dances and is where each June the Lac-Del-Ton Indian Festival was held for three days of dancing, visiting and camping.
Duaine and Priscilla Counsell purchased the business from Duaine’s father in 1940 before selling it to their daughter, Candice, and her husband, Henry Lukasavage in 1994.
Parson’s, likely one of the oldest tourism businesses in the state, has remained a throwback and is divided into two sections. One building, constructed in the early 1970s, is typically open seven days a week and is home to a museum filled with Native American artifacts but also has space to sell beading supplies, jewelry and moccasins. There are bags of wild rice, leather pouches, bracelets, necklaces and postcards for sale, too. The museum includes copper arrowheads, war hammers, historic pieces of clothing with intricate beadwork, photographs, taxidermied animals and a belt made with porcupine quills from 1856.
The displays include items from Ho-Chunk, Sioux, Chippewa and Oneida tribes.
“This case has got fully beaded vests, the middle one is dentalium shells from off the coast of Washington state,” Henry said as he pointed out the collection, much of it from the 1800s. “The other one is an elk-tooth dress.”
A neighboring building was constructed in 1927 and is home to four sections of retail. There are toys, gifts, T-shirts, pottery, and scores of trinkets and other vacation souvenir staples. The inventory is neatly organized, while the ceiling shows the original wooden beams used in the building’s construction, two years before the Great Depression. Woven baskets, made by Native Americans, line the shelves.
“There’s a lot of work in those baskets,” Candice said as she showed off the retail space. “We’ve lost a lot of basket makers over the years. A lot of (younger people) don’t want to learn it.”
There’s also a log cabin on the property, which is next door to Tommy Bartlett and near the bridge that offers views of Lake Delton. The cabin, constructed in the 1800s, is now used for storage but has been used over the years as a gas station and an ice cream shop. Now a Subway and a Citgo are located across the street with the Liquor Expo a few blocks to the south.
On Thursday, they were only a few of the businesses open in the Wisconsin Dells area, along with only a smattering of hotels, fast-food restaurants, and convenience and grocery stores, although Pizza Pub was open for carry-outs. All four of the major indoor water park resorts — Mt. Olympus, Wilderness, Kalahari and Chula Vista — were closed, along with all the T-shirt, souvenir and fudge shops. JustAGame Fieldhouse was dark and absent basketball and volleyball players, while the nearby sidewalks of the historic downtown Wisconsin Dells were virtually void of people.
Tourism in Wisconsin Dells generates more than $1 billion in direct spending each year, but the Lukasavages ordered the majority of their inventory for the summer last fall. They normally don’t have to pay their vendors until July, but now they worry about paying them at all, unsure they’ll be able to sell enough to cover their costs.
“We have shipments coming almost every day now and we don’t know if we’re going to be able to pay for them. Is there going to be anybody to buy them?” Candice asked. “I had a vendor call the other day. We have a shipment scheduled for April 1st and they wanted to know if we still wanted it. And it’s one of those things where you don’t know. I’ll take it, but I can’t guarantee 60 days to pay for it.”
Besides missing out on the spring break crowds and the annual Safety Patrol Congress convention, which has been canceled due to COVID-19, they fear field trips to the museum by school groups will also be lost, as schools will be closed in Wisconsin at least through April 24. Unlike 2008, when the country was mired in a recession and Lake Delton drained in the midst of record flooding, the pandemic has affected every single aspect of life and the bottom line of businesses across the state.
“Even if you do have a summer, how many people are going to travel,” Candice said. “It’s scary. It’s such an uncertainty.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.
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