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As a former Wausau resident and Wausau Pilot and Review subscriber, I was pleased to learn more about the Peoples Sports Complex and its many programs and benefits for Wausau residents. I then realized that probably few readers or residents really know the “backstory” of how this newest addition to the Wausau Parks System, actually came to be. Let me share that story with you.
In 1937, my grandparents, Joseph and Melia (Millie) Pils purchased a home at 507 Gaywood Street (now E. Kent St.) which was situated on 100 pristine acres fronting the Eau Claire River and directly across from the present sports complex property. My mother, her brother and sister absolutely loved their years there exploring the woods, fishing for bluegill and perch, canoeing and rowing on the river, birding, gardening and berry picking. And we grandchildren adored it too. For me, it was a “paradise” and I spent nearly every weekend there with my grandmother, well into my mid-teens. And for the extended family from Wausau to Chicago, it was THE gathering spot for picnics, music making and family festivities. So many wonderful memories were created there!
But in the early 1960’s all that began to change. The Swanson family who owned the sports complex property sold it to the Holtz-Krause firm who turned it into an enormous city landfill and a hideous, toxic nightmare. Soon, the blue herons were dying, fish were dying, the river turned a dark, rusty red and garbage, oil barrels, tires, and much more were tossed about everywhere.
My grandmother, by this time a widow, beseeched the Mayor and city Wausau City Council to intervene but to no avail. She sought out one lawyer after another who either were unable to help or dropped the case after they received threats to disbarment if they continued working on the case. Even appeals to state government and lawyers in Madison received the same response, raising suspicions of corruption at the highest levels.
In the meantime, my grandmother’s well and only water source became so contaminated that only smelly, black sludge came from the faucet. She pleaded with the city to extend city water pipes to her home but because she was just over the border in Weston, they could not and would not do so even though it was the city landfill that polluted her water table and well!
She stubbornly refused to give up and for 20+ years hauled huge bottles of water from her sister’s home so she could have water for cooking, cleaning and bathing. But then at age 86 she could no longer handle this enormous burden. So she sadly ceded her land to the city of Wausau with the stipulation that it never be developed but was to become parkland and revert to the wild. Later, the city transferred it to the Eau Claire River Conservancy so that it would be forever preserved and enjoyed by all.
In the meantime, legal proceedings began again but this time the Wisconsin DNR argued the case against Holtz-Krause Landfill at the State Supreme Court and finally won an injunction forcing them to cease operations (site closed in 1980 and operations ceased in 1995) plus a directive to “restore” the land. Since Holtz-Krause didn’t have the hundreds of millions of dollars needed, they declared bankruptcy and the site became an EPA Superfund Cleanup site. When that was unsuccessful, the DNR ultimately assumed responsibility and the site was finally deemed restored in 2011.
Thus began the transition and transformation of this toxic site to the very attractive sports complex completed in 2015 and enjoyed by many!
But had it not been for the persistent, unflagging activism and determination of Millie Pils, an early Wausau environmentalist, this transformation may never have happened. I am thankful to her for teaching me so many things: to “make some noise” then DO something and finally, never abandon your ideals. I think the residents of Wausau should know about and appreciate her efforts as well.
I am sure so many will enjoy this facility as they now enjoy the Eau Claire riverfront and hopefully, many happy memories be created there!