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Men Who Made the DellsBy Frank Swanson

Before all the waterslides, go-kart tracks, roller coasters and other family-friendly diversions, Wisconsin Dells was just another lovely and undiscovered corner of America. Two men changed all that: pioneering 19th-century photographer H.H. Bennett and 20th-century ski show impresario Tommy Bartlett. In the process of making names for themselves, they ended up promoting Wisconsin Dells to a worldwide audience.

Had it not been for a severe hand injury during the Civil War, Henry Hamilton Bennett might have remained a carpenter in the small town of Kilbourn City (as Wisconsin Dells was known in the 1800s). Forced to put down his hammer, he took up photography and opened a portrait studio in 1875. He later became interested in landscape photography, preferring to shoot scenery because, as he put it, “It is easier to pose nature and less trouble to please.”

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A shrewd businessman, Bennett realized that the beautiful sandstone bluffs along the Wisconsin River were a perfect subject for the 3-D stereoscopic photos that were all the rage at the time. He distributed his carefully composed landscapes throughout the country, labeled with his name and location. Travelers who had seen his stereoscopic cards descended on the area, wanting to view the Dells' rugged landscape for themselves, and Bennett sold them postcards.

An inventor as well as an entrepreneur, Bennett developed his own stop-action camera shutter and took several pioneering still photos of objects and people in motion—a feat most cameras of the period couldn't do. His most famous stop-action photo showed his son frozen in mid-leap between two landmark rock formations. Circulated around the world, the photo generated even more interest in Wisconsin Dells. You can see “Leaping the Chasm at Stand Rock,” as well as Bennett's equipment and workspace, at the H.H. Bennett Studio, preserved as it looked in 1908, the year he died.

The Dells would have to wait almost a half century for another booster like Bennett. It was 1952 when radio personality Tommy Bartlett brought his traveling “Water Ski and Jumping Boat Thrill Show” to town. The spectacle was such a success, city leaders invited him to stay permanently, and the Tommy Bartlett Show has been delighting audiences at its Lake Delton location ever since.

Not only did Bartlett create an immensely popular variety show on water, he also spread word about it—and Wisconsin Dells—far and wide by giving away free bumper stickers, making him a household name throughout the Midwest. His traveling shows were so successful at bringing the sport to millions across the globe, he was inducted into the Water Ski Hall of Fame in 1993, despite having water skied only once in his life. By the time he died in 1998, Bartlett had expanded his attraction empire to include a hands-on children's museum called the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory for which he famously purchased a module from Russia's Mir Space Station.

Bennett and Bartlett were different men born in different centuries, but they had much in common, too. They shared a certain entrepreneurial spirit, they both possessed restless, innovative minds coupled with a gift for self-promotion, and most importantly, when it came to the scenic beauty of the Wisconsin Dells, they both knew a good thing when they saw it.

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Wisconsin Dells, WI

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