Many Madisonians have visited the Henry Vilas Zoo since it’s opening in 1911.
I went as a kid and a few times this past summer and just this weekend, Meghan, Cash and I spend some there. This shot was taken there.
The Vilas zoo is a Madison staple, especially for local families and tourists alike. There are some nice exhibits with a wide variety of animals, a new polar bear exhibit and beautiful grounds nestled beside Lake Wingra, an expansive green lawn with play areas and the picturesque homes and streets of the Vilas neighborhood.
Even more impressive than the surroundings is the story of how the park and zoo came to be.
William Freeman Vilas was an accomplished, respected man. He has a building, a county and a neighborhood named after him for starters. Vilas was a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who went on to lead, as a lieutenant colonel his regiment in battle in the Civil War.
Following the Union victory, Vilas got his law degree and became a Law Professor at the UW.
Vilas was then elected as a Wisconsin state assemblyman until he was appointed the Postmaster General and then Secretary of Interior of the United States by then President Grover Cleveland. Vilas was renowned nationally as a good speaker and writer, valued by the president and the Democratic party. From 1891 until 1897, Wisconsin elected him to the United States’ Senate.
William married Anna Fox from Fitchburg and they went on to have four children making their residence on Wisconsin Ave (near the Edgewater Hotel) with views of Lake Mendota.
Sadly, their son, Henry, died at a young age from complications related to diabetes.
A few years later, the couple decided to donate 63 acres of valuable land to the city of Madison under the conditions “for the uses and purposes of a public park and pleasure ground.” The donation came with a mandate–that the park and zoo forever be admission-free.
A 28 acre portion of the land would be used for a zoo-the Henry Vilas Zoo-named in honor of their deceased son.
Today, the grounds are enjoyed by 3/4 of a million visitors per year–for free. Many of whom don’t know the past generosity that allows its existence. I didn’t know it until recently but for any of us who use the park and zoo for any times of recreation should learn about, empathize with and appreciate this Madison family’s legacy.
Though the Vilas’ worked with Presidents and other highly elected officials across the world, their donation to the city of Madison was a gift intended to be enjoyed by its citizens, regardless of their position in life. Citizens they would never meet and, like us, many who didn’t even know them or about them but benefit from their gift. I hope to change that a bit.
I don’t work for nor am I affiliated in any way with the Henry Vilas Zoo but I support it now more than ever and enjoy it and am impressed by its existence. I encourage you to throw in a few bucks next time you visit and/or become a member and/or donate online if you’d like. It’s good to pause for a good cause every once in a while.
On a typical summer day,
Wingra’s wind gently greets the green grass
where families picnic
and children jump, twirl, crawl and play,
one could imagine a young Henry Vilas
amongst them, enjoying the fray.
Maybe William and Anna and see him too.
Their vision is why all are here today.