H.H. Bennett Studio – One Man’s Vision
At $7 the attraction price might be a little steep for the size of the exhibit, but if you are into photography or marketing, prepare to be inspired. The H.H. Bennett Studio is the oldest operating business in Wisconsin Dells, as well as the oldest operating studio in the USA – in operation since 1865.
Bennett is considered to be one of the best landscape photographers of the 19th century. He might also be described as a one man chamber of commerce for Kilbourn City, transforming it through his photography and promotional skills to what we now know as Wisconsin Dells. H.H. Bennett was the man who made Wisconsin Dells famous.
He was a man of vision who loved the natural beauty of the area. His photographs portrayed an accessible, natural playground – forming the basis for Wisconsin Dells becoming a popular Victorian era vacation destination.
I learned of his tenacity when we visited Witches Gulch (one of the natural areas named by him). It was originally not accessible by foot. He attempted to explore the gulch, but debris and a powerful waterfall blocked the way. He returned in the winter by skating up the river, and according to legend cut an icy staircase into the frozen stream. He and a local steamboat captain built walkways through it in 1875, and since then it’s been a regular shore landing for the Dell’s Boat Tours. His photographs of this area are beyond description.
Of course, Wisconsin Dells has since become one of the biggest vacation destinations of the Midwest. I came here as a child with my family when the attractions were far different than today. We visited Storybook Gardens, Fort Dells, and Familyland, and rode the famous Wisconsin Ducks. Years later we brought our sons to Noah’s Ark (the nation’s largest waterpark), the Tommy Bartlet Exploratory, and Timber Falls. Today, downtown Wisconsin Dells is still known for its fudge, souvenirs, and oddball attractions. New major attractions have been added, but many of the old standbys still thrive. Yet it all started with one man’s vision. That fascinates me, possibly more than his stunning black and white photography.