Whitnall Park - The Wilderness West of Greendale!

Tied through their birth during the Roosevelt administration and through history to Greenbelt, MD, stand Greendale, WI, and Greenhills, Ohio. Green Sister Cities is a column with stories about these historic communities.


History records and explains past events, while folklore preserves what people widely remember.

I think it is instructional to look at the historical context in which Greendale, WI, was created, what was going on nationally and internationally. Jean M. Miller, a student of Urban and European Geography, provided the following analysis:  (And other big thoughts – JM)

Walking in their Shoes: American Perceptions

In Milwaukee County, we are justifiably proud of our County Parks system. This gem is a legacy that was left to us by visionaries who embraced a national movement towards conserving America’s open spaces. Lets take a brief detour and look at what happened in Europe, leading up to the 20th Century.

The Industrial Revolution brought great benefits and profound changes to Europe starting with the rise of steam technology in England. Western Europe quickly converted from farming to a manufacturing society. A thriving middle class formed. The population in major cities quickly grew, with tenements and ghettos established to accommodate the influx of rural folks seeking factory jobs. This exciting time of innovation and change also created very difficult living and working conditions for the lower classes. Smog and pollution filled air in the cities was an accepted by-product of the factories that fueled the huge economic changes. For most of the working class and many of the middle class, industrial cities were dark and dirty places to live.

Written on the base of The Statue of Liberty in New York harbor are the famous words, "…Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” … (from the sonnet "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus)

This wasn’t just a political statement, but a pretty good description of the desolation that many European immigrants left behind to seek a better life in the United States. The statue is really close to Ellis Island, the entry port for many, including my own grandparents. Immigrants that came to America in any of the three waves of European immigration (colonialism, mid-19th Century, early 20th Century) found fresh air and large majestic vistas.

Meanwhile, back in Europe the longing for simpler times gave rise to Romanticism as a philosophy, including the popularization of landscape art that often recreated a bucolic vision of English and European countryside that was frequently remembered better than it actually existed. Nature was cherished, even if it was imagined. Eventually, this philosophy and art was exported as culture to the Americas as well. Our own wilderness landscapes by artists such as George Catlin, Joseph Henry Sharp, and adventurers Seth and Mary Eastman helped change many American's attitudes towards our own endless expanse of wilderness.

Most Americans considered the wilderness and indigenous peoples as needing to be feared and conquered. By 1914 when Arizona became a state, the contiguous United States was well mapped and the Wild West was over. Many influential people wanted to preserve the best of our country for future generations, leading to the establishment of the National Parks Service in 1916, only 22 years before Greendale opened for residents.

It is in this context of these historical influences that men grew up like Charles B. Whitnall (father of the Milwaukee County Park System) and Rexford Guy Tugwell (One of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘brain trust’ and the creator of the Resettlement Administration that built Greendale). They
followed in the tradition of the Garden City Movement initiated in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard in the United Kingdom. This method of urban planning detailed the design of walking communities surrounded by “greenbelts” or parkways to assure connection of the residents to nature.

The ideas and ideals that Greendale and Whitnall Park represent were born out of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. They were brought to life in America by the immigrants who wanted to preserve the beauty of this country, and by men of vision like Charles B. Whitnall and Rexford Guy Tugwell.                   

Submitted by Jean M. Miller

History and Folklore!

Whitnall Park is a wonderfully close destination for picnics, recreation, golfing, children’s playgrounds, nature studies, and the gardens of the Botanical Center. The park coupled with the Root River and the parkway that winds along the western border of the Village of Greendale provides a natural buffer between Greendale and the urbanization beyond. An unintended but fortuitous consequence of this has been to help Greendale preserve its rural and ‘green’ character. To the north, east and south of the Village limits, road signs indicate one is entering or leaving Greendale, otherwise it would be hard to tell. So how did this treasure that is Whitnall Park come to be established?

In 1907 the Milwaukee County Park Commission was created by the Wisconsin Legislature. There was a growing interest in maintaining the existing parks, and developing a plan for the entire county park system. Charles B. Whitnall was appointed as one of the charter members of this commission, and served on it for the next 40 years. Because of his philosophy and influence, he is generally recognized as the father of the county park system. A document I found on the Milwaukee County website outlines his achievements:

“Whitnall’s early master planning served as a blueprint for much of what developed within the Milwaukee County Park System.  In 1923 he prepared the first preliminary plans of a county parkway system in which he envisioned a “necklace of green,” encircling the county, following the water courses.  Additionally, he proposed acquiring substantial rural areas while they were available and urged the Park Commission to buy these  properties to prepare for a time when social and economic forces would make such large parks a necessity. In spite of critics who argued these areas were “too far away and people will never go there”, Whitnall’s steady persuasion paid off and starting in 1928 the 600+ acres which constituted what was then referred to as the Hales Corners tract were purchased. He had the distinction of being the first individual instrumental in the development of the Milwaukee County Park System to have a park named in his honor while still alive and serving.  This occurred in 1932 when the Hales Corners site was named Charles B. Whitnall Park.”

What’s really interesting to note, is that the purchase of the ‘Hales Corners’ tract was close to seven years before the Resettlement Administration started purchasing land for Greendale in early 1936. Sometimes because our stories concentrate strictly on Greendale, we lose sight of the fact that the desire to create ‘green space’ was becoming universal.

I’ve always wondered how exactly the area of Greendale was picked for development. Now it seems clearer to me. To develop further west of the ‘Hales Corners’ tract would be really, really far from the City of Milwaukee. The closer you get to Lake Michigan the more housing and communities were already developed. North of the future Greendale was the City of Greenfield, and the City of Franklin was already established to the south. So why not just steal (i.e. purchase) farms from part of Greenfield and Franklin and build a Garden Community? Whatever really happened, this much is true. The creation of Whitnall Park on the western border of Greendale is a gift that keeps on giving, thanks to the vision of Charles B. Whitnall. 

This is a condensed version of David J. Miller's reflections on his village's design. To read more of Miller's report, take a look at Greendale Patch.

Contributors: Sally Chadwick, Greendale Village Life, Milwaukee County Historical Society, Riverwest History Society, Jean M Miller, Milwaukee County Parks, Milwaukee County, City of Milwaukee.


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