In a wooded ravine tucked away from the water parks, restaurants and mega-resorts that dominate this tourist town, a piece of history is quietly dying.
After more than half a century of wowing tourists (and causing probably more than a few cases of nausea), the Wonder Spot, a mysterious cabin where people can’t stand up straight, water runs uphill and chairs balance on two legs, is no more.
Owner Bill Carney has sold the iconic attraction to the village of Lake Delton for $300,000. The village wants to build a road through the crevice where the Wonder Spot has stood since the 1950s.
Now, the Wonder Spot, one of more than a dozen sites around the nation dubbed “gravity vortexes” and a throwback to postwar, family-oriented tourist attractions, has a date with a bulldozer.
“We’re kind of wondering how the town is going to deal with the gravitational forces under the road. That might be an issue with driving and how you bank a curve,” joked Doug Kirby, publisher of RoadsideAmerica.com, which catalogs odd tourist attractions.
Kirby’s site lists the Wonder Spot as one of 21 so-called “mystery spots.” Lake Wales, Fla., has Spook Hill. Irish Hills, Mich., has the Mystery Hill. California has the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz.
The story behind each one is similar — gravity doesn’t work in them. People seem to grow smaller, can’t stand up straight and can barely walk.
Promotions boast that strange forces in the spots trump the laws of physics. Others say they’re just elaborate hoaxes.
“It seems like to spend a lot of scientific effort to debunk these places you’re just sucking the fun out of a tourist attraction a lot of people enjoy,” Kirby said.
The Wonder Spot lies just off U.S. Highway 12, the main drag between Lake Delton and Wisconsin Dells in south-central Wisconsin. Together, the two cities constitute Wisconsin’s answer to Las Vegas. The corridor between them is packed with water parks, giant resorts, museums, hotels and restaurants. The area convention bureau boasts the region is the water park capital of the world.
In many ways, the Wonder Spot is the antithesis of those giant parks.
Louis Dauterman of Fond Du Lac took out the first permit for the spot in 1952, making it the longest-permitted attraction in the area, said Romy Snyder, executive director of the Wisconsin Dells Visitors and Convention Bureau.
The spot itself is a plain, worn gift shop at the top of a ravine and a crooked cabin built into the slope.
A review on CitySearch.com calls the Wonder Spot “wonderfully goofy.” The Yahoo! travel site describes the spot as a “scientific conundrum — where the laws of nature have gone awry.”
According to a sign proudly placed at the base of the ravine, the Wonder Spot was discovered June 16, 1948. People who enter the spot, the sign warns, won’t see correctly, stand erect “or feel quite normal ... in fact, on the cabin site the laws of natural gravity seem to be repealed.”
Kirby called the Wonder Spot one of the top five most-visited mystery spots.
Generations of people have stopped to see it. Children who visited would return grown up, their own children in tow, Carney said. During the mid-1990s, he saw up to 50,000 people per summer.
Snyder, who grew up in the Dells, visited the Wonder Spot when she was a girl.
“We thought it was very cool. We always tried to figure out how they did that and never could. We did it all. We sat on a chair and it was only suspended by its back two legs, the ball rolling uphill, hanging from a doorway and your body slanted,” Snyder said.
Carney, who bought the Wonder Spot from his sister in 1988, said he loved watching people’s reactions.
“I don’t know how many times I heard, ’Do you sell Dramamine?”’ he said.
One woman, after stumbling through the cabin, sprinkled her mother’s ashes on the ground.
“She just said, ’This was mom’s favorite place and she wanted to be here,”’ Carney said.
When people asked what caused the Wonder Spot, Carney’s guides blamed it on igneous rock or simply replied they didn’t know. He’s seen people at the spot studying it with instruments who declared a force was at work. When pressed, though, Carney said it’s all an optical illusion.
“We said don’t try to figure it out,” Carney said. “Just have fun.”
Carney, a high school history teacher and baseball coach, said the road wasn’t going to go directly through the Wonder Spot, but it would come within yards. With the mega-parks dominating tourism in the Dells and the spot’s nostalgia compromised — “it’s hard to run water uphill when a car is driving right by the fence,” he said — he decided to get out.
“This town has changed,” he said.
Joseph Kapler, the Wisconsin Historical Society’s domestic life curator, plans to salvage as many souvenirs from the spot as he can before it’s razed so he can create an exhibit. The Wonder Spot represents a bygone era, he said.
“We need to look back and see where it came from,” Kapler said.
It isn’t easy to say goodbye, Carney said. The most heartbreaking moment came a few weeks ago, when his 6-year-old daughter, Cassie, came to him, echoing a generation of Wisconsin children who visited the Wonder Spot before her:
“Daddy, can we go down there one more time?”