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Lost and found: Madison's past

Madison natives share a fondness of the past

Nostalgia is big. And Madison natives near and far share a fondness of the past. In fact, the Lost Madison Facebook page has attracted more than 26,000 followers to its steady stream of ephemera from our city’s history. Here we present some of the page’s most popular images.

Zoo Crew

Children who grew up in Madison in the 1950s and 1960s might recall riding on the Kiddie Train at the Henry Vilas Zoo. Donated by the local Lions Club, the colorful train took its wee passengers on a route around Vilas Park and along the edge of the lagoon. Besides the tiny train ride, the park also offered kids camel rides and even tortoise rides.

Days Gone by Downtown

This vibrant postcard takes us back to the 1950s and to the 200 block of State Street. We can see the city’s two famous downtown movie houses—the Orpheum, which still stands, and the Capitol, seen on the right. The south side of the street later became the Civic Center and eventually, the Overture Center for the Arts. The Capitol Theater inside Overture is named in honor of the theater. On the left, you can make out the green and white sign of the beloved Carmel Crisp Shop—about where Noodles & Company is today. The shop was famed for its salty and sweet popcorn. It originally stood across the street but had to move in the early 1940s when Montgomery Ward moved in. 

Family Fun

Ring-a-ding-ding! In the 1960s, diners at King’s Food Host on Capitol Square enjoyed a unique, oh-so-modern feature: Each table and booth had a telephone for diners to call in their order to the kitchen. Here, Jill Bauer, second from right, sits along with her mother and siblings at King’s as they eagerly await their food. While Bauer says the four-color menus and the foot-long hot dogs were draws, it was the telephone that made the restaurant special. “Ah, the phone—so much joy, so much heartbreak. Who among us would get to pick up the phone, talk into the handset and command a waitress (always a waitress) to appear with our food?” Bauer recalls. “Alas, it was always one of my older sisters—I was deemed too young.”

Rad Rhino

East Towne Mall opened in 1971 and featured a groovy mix of sunken seating areas, palm-filled planters and interesting sculptures. Much of the artwork, including this big fellow known as “Space Age Rhino,” was created by renowned sculptor Joseph McDonnell. These fondly remembered features, including a huge fountain in the center court of the mall, are long gone. But Space Age Rhino survives, albeit stripped of his colorful paint. Today, he stands sentinel in a field south of Cambridge.

Sweet Memories

Peppermint Park: Even the name conjures sweeter, simpler times. Madison’s very own kiddie amusement park was opened in 1960 by Robert Sakrison. For roughly eight wonderful summers, Madison kids got to ride a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, a carousel—even ponies. The park also had trampolines and arcade games. This family photo comes from Melissa Allen O’Loughlin, who was 10 years old when it was taken in 1963. “Our family lived on the west side when the area was new and booming,” she says. “Having an amusement park so close was a real treat.” Unfortunately, Peppermint Park was right along the then two-lane Beltline. When the roadway was expanded, it ate up half the park’s land and Peppermint Park closed for good.

A Friendly Welcome

Back in 1956, the Octopus Car Wash chain was launched in Madison, and for nearly six decades the charming Ozzie the Octopus ornamental statues were landmarks around the city. “You turn at the octopus,” was a common way to give someone directions in the pre-GPS era. But in late 2015, Octopus Car Wash was sold and the iconic Ozzies were brought down from their lofty perches. Today, the Ozzies sit safely in a yard in rural Dane County while the owner decides what to do with them.

Wheel-y Cool

Time for a couples skate! The original Rollerdrome was on Packers Avenue near the Oscar Mayer plant, but in the 1950s, it moved to North Stoughton Road. That’s where generations of east-side kids roller-skated to music from the British invasion in the ’60s, the disco scene in the ’70s and the new wave in the ’80s. The comparable roller rink on the west side was The Wheel Thing. But alas, photos of both rinks are exceedingly rare.

A Day in the Life
This wonderful snapshot shows three men crossing State Street at the intersection with North Lake Street, heading toward a Rennebohm’s Drug Store. Rennebohm’s was once a familiar sight with more than two dozen locations around the greater Madison area. Younger generations have likely never seen this location—today a Walgreens—when it had storefront windows. They were bricked over during the anti-war unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A Night at the Drive-In
For east-siders, few places from the mid-20th century are more fondly remembered than the Monona Root Beer Drive-In across from Olbrich Park. Famed for its curly fries made by hand, the drive-in was best known by the nickname the “Hungry Hungry” because of the large neon sign that flashed the word “hungry.” Some Madisonians even recall seeing the sign across Lake Monona from downtown. This photo belongs to former drive-in owner Tim Femrite, who worked there in the ’50s as a teenager. “I started there humping cars—that means waiting on them,” Femrite says. “I cut buns, peeled onions, pattied hamburgers. It was hot in the summertime, but it was fun.”

Santa's Here
Surely one of the most charming stories from Madison’s past comes from Manchester’s Department Store on the Square. As best as can be gathered from old newspapers and documents, during the 1939 Christmas season, children visiting the store could look through a giant telescope—called the Magiscope—and see Santa Claus in his North Pole workshop. In reality, in a trick of mirrors, Santa was sitting one floor above them. The U.S. patent for the device belonged to Harry S. Manchester. Why there is no record of the Magiscope being used again is one of the great mysteries of Lost Madison.
P-P-Pickle P-P-Pete!!!
Once upon a time, Kelly’s Hamburgers was a national chain that competed with the likes of McDonald’s. Madison had several Kelly’s locations around town, but locally, the restaurants are best remembered for their iconic mascot—a smiling dill pickle slice with a stutter, called Pickle Pete. He appeared in newspaper ads and radio jingles in the ’60s and ’70s and, as best as we know, Pickle Pete was unique to the Madison market.

Look, Don't Touch
Generations of Madisonians have memories of shopping at Steven’s House of Gifts on East Johnson Street. Many children were warned not to touch anything in the store filled with delicate and expensive gifts, including Hummel figurines, clocks from Germany, fine china, furniture, jewelry and more. The store served customers looking for the perfect gift from the 1960s to the 1980s before moving to a smaller location across town. Steven’s closed for good in the late ’80s.

Cinematic Magic
Clearly, that’s the pedestrian bridge across North Park Street on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, so why does it say Grand Lakes University? Because for a brief time, Madison’s campus was a film set as crews shot the 1986 movie “Back to School” starring Rodney Dangerfield. Many UW students were extras and it was exciting news in Madison at the time. Some say the fake school name temporarily affixed to the bridge led to the decision by administrators to ultimately engrave the real school’s name in the same spot.

About Lost Madison

The Lost Madison Facebook page was created in 2012 as a place to collect classic old photos, advertisements, postcards and other images from Madison’s past—as well as the stories that go with them. Carefully curated, the page comes alive through the memories of thousands of Madison natives who add their recollections of the city’s past.


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