In 1899, Madison, Wisconsin lawyer Daniel K. Tenney bought some land near the city’s limits and gave it to the city’s horse-and-buggy set that had organized a group to build more scenic routes – the Pleasure Drive Association, with John M. Olin president.
Tenney wanted to turn the land into a park, but the city had a history of refusing to finance space for anything as frivolous as leisure. So Tenney went to John M. Olin with his vision: The Association could have his land – 14 expansive acres where Lake Mendota meets the Yahara River – but only to create a park. And only if the park would be kept as a public trust to be handed over to the city when it was ready to take care of it.
Association members jumped at the chance, switching focus from rural pleasure drives to in-city pleasure switching focus from rural pleasure drives to in-city “pleasure grounds,” and in the process turned the volunteer group into the most powerful force for beautification Madison has ever known. To raise funds for the Tenney project, Olin slashed Association dues and increased membership tenfold. He also ran what was probably the city’s first direct-mail campaign to raise awareness of the need for parks and outdoor recreation. And the money poured in from hard working families eager for a spot of beauty.
Olin then came up with a wildly ambitious plan to dredge the Yahara River, build a lock, raise all eight of its bridges, and build a dappled 20-acre parkway to link Lake Mendota with Lake Monona.
He lobbied the city council and the statehouse relentlessly, and talked landowners into donating their river frontage. Amazingly, he got the whole project done in less than three years’ time. In Madison, A History of the Formative Years, Historian David Mollenhoff writes that Olin’s profession was law, “but parks, beauty & order were his passion.”