Having a job that requires regular travel to all parts of the world — you can find yourself bouncing into a town with little preparation or forethought. Another plane ride, another town, another client or possible client to meet. The focus and preparation on the 2-hour product presentation and meeting their needs.
And then after the fact you realize where you are, and explore the town a little bit.
And so it was for me flying into Oshkosh, Wisconsin to meet with the Oshkosh Corporation — makers of trucks and defense systems — not the clothing.
I’d been to Milwaukee a bunch of times, and Green Bay; but this was not Milwaukee or Green Bay — this was Oshkosh — to the North and West of Milwaukee, and South of Green Bay.
1. The Great Fresh-Air Pine Smell of the Great North
The first thing you notice when you arrive at the hotel — which for me was a Quality Inn on Route 44 — is the fresh air — and the smell — a Fresh Northern smell with a whiff of Northern Pines in it. The smell of the Great Northwest. Fresh air. Amazing.
Doing a quick perusal of the brochures near the front door of the hotel — there were many for Lake Winnebago. And it was then that I realized Lake Winnebago was essentially across the road. This was a tourist attraction. A Great Northern place to be.
2. Lake Winnebago
Oddly enough, Lake Winnebago has a history of smelling like crap — dating back to Indian days. In fact the English name “Winnebago” is derived from an Algonkian Indian word meaning “people of the dirty water.” The name is thought to come from the fouled water and smell of dead fish and algae that builds up by the Fox River flow into Lake Winnebago by the city of Oshkosh.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Lake Winnebago is known to be rich in nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which creates blue-green algae in late summer. “Blue-green algae, also known as Cyanobacteria, are a group of photosynthetic bacteria that many people refer to as “pond scum.” The blue algae “causes low concentrations of dissolved oxygen in the water, so on warm summer nights during algal blooms, the dissolved-oxygen concentration sometimes drops too low for the fish, and a die-off can occur.”
I was there in late August and did not see any algae or experience a bad smell. The air smelled incredibly fresh.
More on the Air
There are parts of Wisconsin that are known for having the cleanest air in the country, notably the Eau Claire/Menomonie and La Crosse/Onalaska areas (see map above). The Oshkosh to Green Bay area used to be known for heavy industry and paper mills — but the air is much cleaner these days. In a letter to the editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in May, 2023, Chuck Friedrichs writes:
“I grew up in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin during the 1960s and ’70s. That area between Green Bay and Oshkosh was home to lots of paper mills, most of which were surrounded by neighborhoods where workers could conveniently live close to work.
But mills make noise and smell. Subsequently, homes nearby were cheaper. The same was true living near one of the spider webs of rail lines and highways that served the heavily industrialized area. It was no secret why. The air was smelly, the yard was noisy and the neighborhoods were more condensed. But it also provided a way for people with less income to buy into a starter home, and hopefully eventually move up and out.
I had to chuckle reading the recent State Journal article revealing that the city was using a big federal grant to provide a real-time information system about air pollution at the neighborhood level. What makes the program unnecessary is that the air quality in Madison is much cleaner now than before.”
More on the Lake
Lake Winnebago is 10 miles wide and 30 miles long — with over 80 miles of shoreline. It is considered a shallow lake — thus the algae buildup — which also makes it a great fishing lake. It’s deepest point is 21 feet deep.
Fox and Wolf Rivers Feed Lake Winnebago
The Wolf River and the Fox River feed Lake Winnebago. The Wolf River feeds into Lake Poygan, which then feeds into Lake Winneconne, which then feeds, still via Wolf River, Lake Butte des Mortes, which then feeds, via Fox River, Lake Winnebago (see map below).
This system of rivers and lakes is called the Winnebago Pool and it is said to have endless miles of fantastic fishing. It is also known for being a very busy inland waterway for boats of all kinds.
Lake Winnebago then feeds into Lake Michigan up by Green Bay (see map above).
Access to the Water
After work was done I drove around the lake on Route 45. Although the road is right next to the lake, there are very few if any public access places — it is all private land. Here is a live Periscope I did while there:
Lakeside Park & Roosevelt Park Offer Public Access to Lake
At the Southern base of the lake, at Fond du Lac, there is public access at two different parks — Lakeside Park and Roosevelt Park. I was not able to get down to this part of the lake during my half-day visit — but it seems to be The place to hit for tourists.
According to Fond du Lac’s website, www.fdl.com, Lakehouse Park includes a “lighthouse, picnic area, shelters, pavilion, playground, splash pad, zip line, petting zoo, ball diamonds, marina, rides, boat launch ramps, handicapped-accessible fishing platforms, a new boat dock on Oven Island.”
According to the State of Wisconsin’s website, “Roosevelt Park offers about 900 feet of Lake Winnebago shoreline. Facilities at the park include parking, windsurfing launch, toilets, and picnic tables and grills.”
3. Swimming in Lake Winnebago
You can swim in Lake Winnebago. According to the State of Wisconsin’s website, “Roosevelt Park provides access for swimmers at two specific step locations within the park. Due to the wave action from Lake Winnebago Roosevelt Park’s shoreline is covered with large stone rip-rap which makes all other access difficult. The park is a popular spot during the summer months for sunning, and for unsupervised swimming and wading in Lake Winnebago. Boaters often anchor offshore and wade to the park for picnics. Windsurfing has become a popular activity off the park, because of its location on the windward shore.”
Winnebago County regularly tests for eColi levels in the lake to tell if it is safe for swimming or not — one should check their website for latest readings.
Renting a boat
There are several places to rent a boat or waverunner in Fond du Loc. Prices start at $100 an hour at this writing.
4. Camping by Lake Winnebago
The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear Lake Winnebago is camping by it in a Winnebago. There are numerous places to camp by the lake — High Cliff State Park on the lake’s northeast shore offers camping (and hiking trails etc).
Fond du Lac also offers camping sites at nearby Calumet County Park and Columbia County Park.
5. Fishing in Lake Winnebago
Fishing in the Lake
Lake Winnebago is considered one of the best places in the US to catch walleye. It is also known for bluegill, largemouth bass, muskellunge, northern pike, perch, burbot, white bass, crappie, freshwater drum, channel catfish, flathead catfish, and smallmouth bass.
Ice Fishing on the Lake
Ice fishing is popular on Lake Winnebago. People catch walleye, perch, and lake sturgeon. Prime ice fishing areas include the primary break along the east shore, reefs and rock humps.
According to Wikipedia, “it is not uncommon for 10,000 cars to park on Lake Winnebago during the ice fishing season.”
A spearfishing season for lake sturgeon opens in February. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Winnebago has the largest population of Lake Sturgeon in the US, according to a study they did in 2003.
6. Winnebago RV Is Named After Winnebago, Iowa
With all of that said — the famed Winnebago motor home, or recreational vehicle (RV) was named after Winnebago, Iowa — the place where John K. Hanson founded Winnebago Industries in February 1958. You can read more about that on Wikipedia. In 2018, Winnebago Industries bought Chris-Craft Corporation, makers of some of the most iconic pleasure boats of all time. This is an article for another time.
And so after driving by the lake, finding a spot to access the lake and go over and put my hand in the water — I then drove up to the town of Oshkosh. I only had a few hours of exploration before I needed to make it back to the airport.
I stopped in an eatery called Gyros and More and had a gyro in downtown Oshkosh.
Oshkosh is a town of 68,000 people. You wouldn’t know it if you were sitting on main street having a gyro at 1pm on a Thursday — but these days most of the activity in every town in the nation is in the mini malls outside of main street, and Oshkosh is no exception.
Oshkosh is named for Menominee Chief Oshkosh, whose name meant “the claw.”
8. Oshkosh the ‘Overalls’ & Clothes Company
The OshKosh B’gosh clothes company — known for their overalls — was actually founded in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1895 by Frank E. Grove, J. Howard Jenkins, and James Clark.
The company was briefly called the Grove Manufacturing Company but Jenkins and Clark bought Grove out the very first year, and renamed the company Oshkosh Clothing and Manufacturing Co in 1896.
According to Wikipedia, the term “B’gosh” began being used in 1911, after general manager William Pollock heard the tagline “Oshkosh B’Gosh” in a vaudeville routine in New York City. The company formally adopted the name OshKosh B’gosh in 1937.
In recent years — since the 1980’s — Oshkosh has become more of a children’s clothes company.
9. Oshkosh the Trucks & Systems Company
The Oshkosh company that I visited is the one that makes trucks and all kinds of systems. It is a publicly traded company that is also located in Oshkosh and named after Oshkosh. The company was founded in 1917 as the Wisconsin Duplex Auto Company, and made a Rugged, heavy-duty truck that is today called “Old Betsy.” The company renamed itself to Oshkosh Corporation in 1920. Click here for an interesting article in MotorTrend on the “Old Betsy.”
10. Appleton and Lawrence University
At the northern tip of Lake Winnebago sits the town of Appleton, and Lawrence University — whose campus sits on the lake.
11. Where to Stay
The lake is 30 miles long so where you stay depends on what you aim to do. If you are on vacation looking to have fun in the lake — then a hotel at the southern end of the lake in or by the town of Fond du Lac would be the thing to do.
If you are visiting Lawrence University, then a hotel in Appleton at the northern tip of the lake might make sense.
If you are at the lake to fish, then a hotel in Oshkosh which puts you right next to the Lake Winnebago pool of lakes would be the place. I stayed at a Quality Inn and it was terrific; the people at the front desk very friendly with their Wisconsin accent and the air outside so fresh.