September 12, 2023

Oconomowoc: Progress, growth where the waters meet

Member Utilities

This article was first published by MEUW Live Lines, Volume 72, Issue 9.

When Oconomowoc Utilities began placing its electric lines underground more than 50 years ago, it was an uncommon practice. In the decades since, it has provided a more reliable service for residents.

“The underground lines do very well in storms,” according to Lucas Caine, Senior Utility Engineer for Oconomowoc Utilities. “The increased reliability is noticed when neighboring areas with overhead lines experience outages during storms, and Oconomowoc’s electric system has little to none. The side benefit is the improved aesthetics.”

While others are just now beginning to adopt the practice, Oconomowoc Utilities is currently working to replace some of the older lines in the service area. The Oconomowoc Comprehensive Plan has a goal of making the city nearly 100% underground within the next five years. All the design work to achieve this is done in-house.

Electric service offered by Oconomowoc Utilities extends beyond the city boundaries and also includes a portion of the Town of Oconomowoc, the Villages of Lac La Belle and Oconomowoc Lake, as well as the Town of lxonia. While there are 13 lineworkers, the department also manages the water and city fleet departments. There are 33 employees.

Those workers have assisted with mutual aid when help was needed in other communities. Years ago, after a major storm in Columbus, and more recently in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Two lineworkers went south to help restore power after Hurricane Ian made landfall there. The crews also work closely with other city departments, like assisting with traffic control for the Canadian Pacific Rail Holiday Train or repairing water main breaks.

“No matter what work the crews are doing, this is being done with safety in mind” Caine said. “We are proud to receive Municipal electric Utilities of Wisconsin association safety awards over the years and we take safety seriously. At the end of the day, we want everyone to go home.”

The city’s population hit more than 19,000 in 2022, which City Administrator Mark Frye said is in line with the consistent growth of living spaces within Oconomowoc. It is not a new trend there, though they are seeing new residential buildings constructed, like 622 units in a newly developed 88-acre tax increment finance district. The development will include 352 single family homes, mixed use commercial space at the former sports complex and a building with 270 single family units.

The draw to the community is not new. More than a century ago, visitors flocked to the serene landscape of Oconomowoc. The city name, an evolution of the Algonquin word “coo-no-mo-wauk,” used to describe the region by the indigenous Potawatomi tribe from the area, is now believed to mean “where the waters meet.” It is fitting for an area that has several waterways and an isthmus connecting the two sides of the city.

White settlers first came to the area in 1837, building log cabins. Others were lured by the stories of resources and beauty. An early settler named John S. Rockwell is credited with ensuring the settlement grew. He established the first store, hotel, fire department and library after building a grist mill. He became known as the “Father of Oconomowoc” and is honored to this day by residents. So much so that a group of organizers rallied to buy a lot for $1.3 million and a second parcel was purchased for $600,000, then donated to the city to establish a park near the city dam rather than have a developer construct a condominium complex there. The park honoring Rockwell and his wife, Lavinia, is in its initial stages but Frye said plans outline an educational green space abutting the water.

Frye said that type of organizing is not uncommon in Oconomowoc. And he should know, as Frye has worked for the city for three decades, having been named director of public works in 2006 and becoming city administrator in 2021. In August, he took on the role as interim utility manager fol­lowing a recent retirement. Recent additions to the city, like accessible playground Imagination Station, a sprawling wooden play place with a variety of interactive options, and a nearby concrete, multilevel skatepark were products of the motivation of individuals who banded together to improve the community.

“People are always willing to get involved,” Frye said. “The momentum from the Imagination Station project was inspirational. A couple hundred people volunteered their time and expertise. You couldn’t get anybody else into that space when they were building it.”

Later, a large accessible bathroom was constructed roughly 10 feet from the playground and nearby the skatepark. Currently, the Rotary Club is gathering funds for a splash pad near Imagination Station. A neighboring bike trail head is planned and will increase the number of outdoor options for people who already enjoy multiple trails in the area.

What Rockwell established only grew when the city was incorporated in 1875. Its population had grown to nearly 3,000. A railroad arrived. The city became a favored retreat of wealthy vacation seekers from bigger places like Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis and other cities in the Midwest. Some of the stately summer homes built there more than a century ago are emblematic of the ones there now as residents glide by on kayaks or relax near the water with a fishing pole.

By the 1880s, Oconomowoc had six luxury resorts. Known as the “Newport of the West” until the Great Depression, Oconomowoc was visited by seven U.S. presidents, such as Grant, Taft and even Theodore Roosevelt. Main Street was dubbed “Avenue of the Presidents” as a result.

Because of the attraction of moguls, industry followed. Businesses like Carnation Company, Brownberry Ovens and the Oconomowoc Canning Company were established. Pabst Farms became an international name for purebred livestock.

Another byproduct of the popularity of the region became a fixture in Oconomowoc’s bustling downtown. Oconomowoc served as the setting for the first ever showing of the movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” in 1939. The premiere led to the creation of Oz Plaza downtown, which features life-size statues of the characters and a mural depicting elements of the film. There are plans to expand the yellow brick road and make the plaza more elaborate as the city looks to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the movie premiere next year. The city will mark 150 years of existence in 2025.

Meanwhile, Oconomowoc Utilities is nearing its 125th anniversary.

The utility was created before it was given its name. According to past issues of the Oconomowoc Republican newspaper, the city’s common council met May 1, 1899 to pass an ordinance allowing for the purchase of Waterworks Bonds. The price was $42,000 with a 4% interest rate. In 2023 funds, the cost would have been more than $1.5 million. A month later, a select committee presented a proposition to the council in which “the Oconomowoc Lighting Company offers to sell to the city of Oconomowoc its electric lighting plant, together with all poles, lines, and apparatus for use in connection therewith, for the sum of $40,000.”

To purchase the lighting company, the city first needed approval through an election. A simple majority was needed from legal voters. Frye said in his research it dawned on him that the term legal voters only meant men, since women were not legally allowed to vote until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1919.

The vote passed. The first payment of $5,000 was ordered to be sent to the Oconomowoc Lighting Company in June 1899. In July, an article reported that the superintendent had “taken up his office in the City Clerk’s office, in the City Hall, and everything in the matter is running along as smoothly as if the plant has always been under municipal control.” The entire transition was completed by the end of 1899.

It set the stage for a community which continues to thrive under the stability of public power. The population continues to rise. Development has been swift in recent years as the commercial district, named after Pabst Farms, boasts a variety of stores and welcomes new construction. AA baseball team Lake Country DockHounds have a large stadium that can be seen from the interstate.

The Lake Country Trail is a multiuse recreational trail that extends from Waukesha to Oconomowoc. The 15-mile trail is frequently used by bicyclists, in-line skaters, hikers and joggers during warmer months. As the snow falls, cross-country skiers can be found traversing the path.

Those looking to see fall colors will have ample opportunity and, in the spring, foragers can see the forest floor carpeted with flowering trillium before seeking out morel mushrooms. Winter weather allows for different types of activity options, like ice fishing or figure skating, even ice boating. Those looking for another sport can throw down over a hockey puck.

In the summer, the rivers, lakes and ponds allow for swimming, water skiing, fishing and all types of boating. There are trails for biking and hiking, areas to picnic and camp, and facilities for a variety of other sports. There are six golf courses to choose from as well.

As in the past, Oconomowoc remains a popular tourist destination. The downtown, born anew in recent decades according to Caine, hosts individual and unique stores to peruse.

The local beach is busy even at noon on a weekday in the summer. Nightlife provides entertainment for visitors looking for some live music or playing pool at a local dive. The City Beach Band Shell along the beach attracts swathes of people who enjoy the night air and the tunes of local bands. There are waterski shows, downtown beer gardens and moonlit movies.

“This city, the people here, really come together and work toward making it better,” Caine said. “We are here to make sure they can achieve the goals they have and continue to make the future of Oconomowoc even brighter.”