"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.
KIMBEL PARK. Located north of the present ZEBULON PIKE LOCK AND DAM on the Wisconsin shoreline, Kimbel Park was named by Richard KIMBEL. Recognizing the financial potential of creating a recreation area in the tri-state area, Kimball decided on a tract of land at the convergence of the Fairplay and Kieler roads in Grant County, Wisconsin. He purchased the property for six hundred dollars from Henry and Josepha Vogt on October 22, 1891. (1) Kimbel immediately began the construction of a dock, a building for his company, saloon, huge dance hall, and a thirteen-room home for his growing family. (2)
Residents of Dubuque paid five cents each way for a ride aboard Kimbel's steamer "Eagle Point" to the park. (3) In 1908 the ferry launch "Cora May" operated daily trips from Dubuque. (4) Each week offered free attractions. One of the most popular shows involved a hypnotist who buried a willing subject six feet underground on a Thursday and then returned on Saturday to excavate him. The subject, a bit shaky when dug up, survived burial in good shape by using a breathing tube. (5) He received twenty-four dollars for his participation. Kimbel also offered the sight of two pure white horses plunging thirty feet into the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. (6) Open to many forms of entertainment, Kimbel even hosted boxing matches. (7) In 1906 the journeymen barbers of Dubuque hosted their employers to a picnic. On Wednesday, weekends, and holidays free fish was served to the patrons of the tavern with their order. (8) The newspaper account noted the presence of "every game known to the ingenuity of respectable manhood." (9)
Kimbel Park was definitely a family business. Eventually to have twenty-three children by four wives, Kimbel found a place in the business for everyone. Some of the older children worked in the dance hall and tavern. Younger children as early as five-years-of-age were assigned jobs. Boys worked on the boats by day and ran the tavern at night. (10) All the boys learned how to pilot boats at an early age and did not stay around long after they were able to find work elsewhere. The girls kept up the family house, cared for the younger children, and cooked in the tavern at night.
As Kimbel Park developed, Richard Kimbel began referring to the site as an "island." (11)
Dance bands provided music to those willing to pay five cents per dance. (12) At other times, a dance would be scheduled for which the men paid fifty cents for admittance while women paid nothing. (13) Many brawls erupted between those involved in the shell games, but Kimbel never used police to maintain order. Physically tough, Kimbel also was known to occasionally use a gun to restore order. The park had a cell-like structure in which intoxicated people were placed temporarily to regain their senses. (14)
Kimbel Park had its obstacles over the years. Perched so close to the shore, it was occasionally flooded. The construction of the DUBUQUE-WISCONSIN BRIDGE in 1902 opened the park to more visitors, but Kimbel lost money due to the fact that his ferryboats were no longer needed. Automobiles also gave Dubuque residents the opportunity to travel to other more distant sites. Attendance at the park certainly declined with the development of UNION PARK and EAGLE POINT PARK.
Kimbel fought these problems by renovating the park's attractions. He added bowling alleys, a club house, and a dining hall.
PROHIBITION proved an obstacle more than all the others combined. Archbishop John J. KEANE and other leaders of Dubuque's temperance movement achieved a major success in 1907. Tavern owners and the Law and Order League signed an agreement forbidding the sale of all liquor on Sunday. Initially this seemed a bonanza for Kimbel Park. Thirsty Dubuque County residents crowded the site. According to the Telegraph Herald, those who arrived late had to wait up to fifteen minutes outside the barroom and ten minutes at the bar before getting served. When their beer arrived, they only got a 'suit' meaning seven-eights was foam. 'Vicious fights marked the course of the day.' Buoyed by their success in Dubuque County, temperance leaders insisted that Grant County officials close bars on Sunday. The officials agreed, and the management of Kimbel Park complied. (15)Christian Anton VOELKER for $949. (16) Several other buyers of the land followed, but the area remained a recreational site. The nature of the crowd, however, changed. The remoteness of the Kimbel Park area encouraged bootleggers. A raid in August, 1929 resulted in the destruction of "three stills of large capacity, seventy barrels of mash and 200 gallons of whiskey with fifty bags of corn sugar being confiscated. (17)
In 1933 the federal government purchased the site before construction on the ZEBULON PIKE LOCK AND DAM. Prior to construction, condemnation proceedings led to the removal of twenty-nine cottages, nine chicken houses, three ice houses, two smokehouses and two taverns. Construction on the dam began in September, 1935. On September 13, 1937, the last of the dam's thirteen tainter gates were closed by W. A. Turner, resident engineer and lockmaster. The resulting rising river level submerged all but the highest elevations on the Kimbel property. For decades, remnants of the site formed a series of small islands. Great-great-grandchildren of Henry Vogt, the original property owner, discovered building foundations and a cistern while exploring the area around 2002. In that year, the Army Corps of Engineers began dredging Sunfish Lake to create a 44-acre island to deflect silt and improve the fish and wildlife habitat. The remnants of Kimbel Park are no longer accessible from the mainland. (18)
In June, 2017 Mike Day, intending to write an article on Kimbel Park for the Telegraph Herald, and I spoke by phone on the subject and regretted more information had never been found. It was later that week that the "first break in the case" occurred. In reading an article posted online by the Telegraph Herald and the CARNEGIE-STOUT PUBLIC LIBRARY, I found mention of a marriage of one of the Kimbel children to a member of the Klavitter family in Dubuque. Taking a chance, I emailed Nelson Klavitter asking if he knew of this marriage. Not only was his answer "Yes," he mentioned a family history. Clue #2. In responding to this news, I asked that a copy be sent to Mike Day and me.
The family history, an amazing document, offered a hint to a singularly important piece of information. When the term "island" was used it was enclosed in quotation marks. This generally indicates the word enclosed is not actually what it implies. A trip to the Grant County Court House and the help of two staff members answered the question. Was the famed Kimbel Park really located on an island? The maps and descriptive information found definitely said,"No."
To Richard Kimbel, the remote area of land he owned along the Wisconsin shoreline, must have seemed an island. For much of its existence, the park's activities were operated by his rules. Boats were the common means of accessing the site.
Research at the Grant County Courthouse did reveal a Kimbel island. This, however, belonged to Albert Kimbel, one of Richard's sons. Adding to the confusion, the map has the spelling as "Kimball."
Mike Day and I met later with members of the Klavitter family to share our findings. They came prepared to share photographs which appear in the encyclopedia and Mike's newspaper article.
It is my belief that unless new information is uncovered, Mike Day wrote the definitive history of Kimbel Park for the issue of the September 3, 2017 issue of the Telegraph Herald. Kimbel Park, an entertainment paradise of its day, was for decades shrouded in mystery as to its location.
I wish to give great credit to Mike Day of the Telegraph Herald and Marilyn Pierce and Christopher Colney of the Grant County Courthouse for their tremendous help in finding the records necessary to compile this story. Above all others, our thanks goes to Nelson Klavitter and Lyn Klavitter Jungblut for sharing their family history and pictures with us.
1. Record of Sale, Grant County Courthouse, Lancaster, Wisconsin p. 27
2. Day, Mike. "The Lost 'Island," Telegraph Herald, September 3, 2017, p. 6A
3. Kruse, Len. " George Kimbel, Man of the River," My Old Dubuque. Loras College: Center for Dubuque History, 2000, p. 191
4. "The City in Brief," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, June 24, 1908, p. 5. Online: http://p8080-10.30.40.140.ezproxy.dubuque.lib.ia.us/ResCarta-Web/jsp/RcWebImageViewer.jsp?doc_id=76d75574-3467-4ecf-9df4-c2b7da149f1e/ResCarta/00000008/00000361
5. Kimbel's Park. Online: http://www.port-byron.com/captain-richard-kimbel/
7. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, August 13, 1896, p. 5. Online: http://p8080-10.30.40.140.ezproxy.dubuque.lib.ia.us/ResCarta-Web/jsp/RcWebImageViewer.jsp?doc_id=76d75574-3467-4ecf-9df4-c2b7da149f1e/ResCarta/00000003/00000121
8. Jungblut, Lyn Klavitter. "Captain Richard Adam Kimbel," Unpublished family history.
9. "Lather Distributors Glad," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, July 31, 1906, p. 5
10. Liddle, Olive Stewart, "Captain (Grandpa) Richard Adam Kimbel" unpublished family history
12. Dahlinger, Mark. "Shoot-Em-Up Shell Games in the Mid-Mississippi," Telegraph Herald, July 15, 1956, p. 19
13. "Local News in Brief," Dubuque Daily Herald, September 4, 1890, p. 4
14. "Action Line," Telegraph Herald, March 21, 1977
16. Deed Record No. 153, Grant County