How celebrating beauty can also destroy it

The power of the visual arts & the law of unintended consequences

by Doug E. L. Haynes

H. H. Bennett at the dells
An interesting case illustrating the power of the visual arts is rooted here in Wisconsin in a town that was once called Kilborne. The artist whose influence is still felt today is photographer H. H. Bennett who was active in the latter part of the 19th Century. One of the ironic twists to this tale is that the beauty which Bennett sought to document is largely obscured as an indirect result of his influence. To explore this story fully one must travel to a place that seems to be the last place in this state where one would expect to find a cultural treasure. What was once called Kilborne is now know as that cultural wasteland, the Wisconsin Dells.

The story really begins tens of thousands of years ago in the last ice age. At that time torrents of water released by melting glaciers poured through central Wisconsin carving the rocks into formations called the dells. For the Ho Chunk, the dells were considered a holy place. When Europeans began to settle in Wisconsin, early arrivals to the region took note of the pastoral beauty of the region. Several artists passed through but H. H. Bennett settled there and made it his lifeís work to document the beauty of the dells. He was a pioneer photographer who created innovative cameras and darkroom equipment. He was also prolific and carved out a niche for himself by selling 3-D images of the scenery. Bennett also used his photographs to promoting tourism in the dells. Since the dells are located on an existing train route between Chicago and Minneapolis / St Paul, Bennett invited visitors from Chicago and Milwaukee.

Early tourism in the dells was nothing like what exists today. Visitors would arrive by train and stay in lodges for one or two weeks at a time. They enjoyed fishing, horseback riding and other leisurely pursuits. Bennett would make a few extra dollars taking portraits of guests although this part of the business dried up when Kodak started selling cameras to the general public in the early 1900ís.

After Bennett passed away in 1908, the reputation of the dells as a get-away destination was firmly established. The next part of the story is where the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Other promoters set up shop in the dells, cashing in on the reputation that Bennett had established. Over time the nature of tourism in the dells transformed. Visitors were no longer encouraged to commune with nature. Instead promoters set up early versions of the type of thrill rides, souvenir stands and amusements that are currently available at the dells. Bennett would hardly recognize the place today and if he did, it would grieve his artistic sensibilities.

The Bennett family continued to run a photo studio in the dells until 1999.
Now the studio is open to the public as a museum run by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

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