In 1897, when Milwaukee attorney Horace Upham and his wife, Mary, purchased property for a summer home near Wisconsin Dells, they could not have visualized that over 100 years later their beautiful wooded retreat – Wawbeek – would have provided joy and freedom to over 50,000 Easter Seals campers. Nor could they have imagined how their names and the name Wawbeek, which they borrowed from Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” would live on in association with one of the nation’s leading camps serving children and adults with disabilities.
Back in the mid 1930’s, the Wisconsin Association for the Disabled (now Easter Seals Wisconsin), after sponsoring orthopedic field clinics for nearly 10 years, was aware of the need to provide social and recreational experiences for people with disabilities. Pilot projects providing day camping activities had been developed in some counties, but the association sought to develop a statewide residential program that would offer more. Finding a suitable site and funding for such an operation presented major challenges.
Not long after the search began, former association board member Elizabeth Upham Davis and her sister, Caroline Upham Keene, stepped forward to offer their family’s beloved property, Wawbeek, on which the association could develop just such a facility. The Upham sisters wished for Wawbeek to live on as a tribute to their parents’ service to others.
On April 9, 1938, the association gratefully accepted the offer, and the first Easter Seals camp in the country was established. The lives of thousands of people with disabilities in Wisconsin would be forever changed. The National Youth Administration provided a director, staff and necessary equipment to the camp, so the association was able to open Camp Wawbeek almost immediately. During that first summer, 91 children with disabilities were the first to enjoy the “Camp Wawbeek experience”.
Over the years, the facilities have been improved and expanded many times. Loyal friends of Easter Seals have continued to step up, donating time, labor and funds ensuring that Camp Wawbeek is able to meet the changing needs of its campers. The Upham family heirs have remained actively interested.
Today, Wawbeek aims to give children and adults an opportunity to meet new friends and take on new challenges through a wide variety of recreational and social activities. The presence of supportive and well-trained staff and volunteers assures that campers’ needs are being met and puts sometimes anxious parents and caregivers at ease. Camp Wawbeek continues to give campers the “wings” they need to do things they have never done before – and treasured memories that last a lifetime.