La Crosse YMCA: The First 140 Years

Posted by Scott on June 6, 2023

(written by Scott Brouwer, Archives staff)

Earlier this year, the LPLA Archives celebrated the 140th anniversary of St. Francis hospital by recounting its history from the late 1883 opening of its first modest building through the new Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare hospital building set to open next year.   Another cornerstone La Crosse institution traces its history back to 1883 as well – the local chapter of the YMCA. 


From the 1883 Constitution and By-Laws of the La Crosse Chapter of the YMCA, found in Young Men's Christian Association of La Crosse Records collection (MSS 023) at the La Crosse Public Library Archives

The YMCA, originally founded in London in 1844, opened its first American chapter in Boston in 1851.  The La Crosse chapter began in April of 1883, with banker E.E. Bentley serving as its first board president and twenty-six charter members signing the state-sponsored preamble, a portion of which indicated the main purpose of the new association: “…to promote the mental, moral, social, and physical good of the young men” of La Crosse and its vicinity.  The influential men of La Crosse who constituted the majority of its charter members included E.B. Magill, George Burton, John M. Holley, George McMillan, H.I. Bliss, and Henry Salzer.


La Crosse YMCA baseball team, 1901

Meetings of the general membership and board of directors were held quarterly in various churches around the city and the association also rented the third floor of the building on the SW corner of 3rd and Main Streets, which still stands today, for $10 a month. 


1887 view of the 100 block of 3rd Street South, looking south from Main Street.  Third floor of the building on the right was the first home of the La Crosse YMCA.


After just one year, membership had grown to over 300, necessitating a newsletter and its first hired staff, a general secretary, to oversee the daily operations.  Rooms were rented as recreation/gymnasium space in various buildings around town, a patchwork operation that lasted into the mid-1890s.  In 1895, the La Crosse YMCA purchased the Scandia building, a large beautiful building across King Street from Cameron Park.  The space was remodeled to provide a gym, bowling alleys, a large auditorium, baths, a reading room, and club/game rooms. 


La Crosse YMCA, 423-425 King Street, ca. 1900


From YMCA promotional brochure and manual, ca. 1900, found in Young Men's Christian Association of La Crosse Records collection (MSS 023) at the La Crosse Public Library Archives


The organization grew over the next decade, enough that it needed to build a new facility.  Made possible by substantial monetary donations from W.W. Cargill, the Hixon family, and a successful fundraising drive, the new YMCA building on the NW corner of 7th and Main Streets was dedicated in 1909.


Fundraising brochure for a new YCMA building, early 1900s - click image for PDF of floor plans


Postcard featuring new YMCA building, ca. 1911

At the dedication, President William Howard Taft gave the keynote address, at the invitation of charter member, building committee chairman, and former Yale University classmate George Burton.  Reports say between 13,000 and 15,000 people were within viewing/hearing distance of the platform on the 7th Street side of the building, most of which were in Burns Park.  The building served the YMCA from 1909-1970 and now serves as Administrative Center of Western Technical College.


Group photo taken inside YMCA; from left - F.G. Tiffany, Congressman (MN) James A. Tawney, Congressman (WI) John J. Esch, Captain A.W. Butt (military aid to the President), President William Howard Taft, YMCA secretary Abner C. Gran, George W. Burton, John Holley Jr., W.W. Cargill, and F.H. Schofield.

55 years of growth led to a need for new facility in the mid-1960s.  Meanwhile, the YWCA’s facility, a large mansion known as Pasadena on the SW corner of West Ave. and Main St., was also no longer tenable for modern needs.  At the urging of the United Way (then called the United Fund), a joint YM-YWCA facility was suggested for easier fundraising.  In 1966, a building fund campaign was launched for a shared physical space that would maintain separate programs and identities.  The YWCA site at West Ave. and Main St. was selected and the mansion was razed to make room. 


Fundraising brochcure for new YMCA-YWCA joint facility, ca. 1967


La Crosse Tribune 1 December 1967

The new joint facility opened in late 1969 at a cost of $1.7 million and included a double-court gym, an Olympic-size swimming pool, locker rooms, showers, three handball courts, workout rooms, “women’s health club”, “men’s athletic club”, game room, multi-purpose room, four meeting rooms, a play-school, nursery, hobby room, and offices.

The new 70,000-square-foot facility helped increase membership dramatically, leading to an 11,000-square-foot addition less than 10 years later.  Despite a long-range planning task force recommending a joint board govern the YMCA and YWCA and control all money and property in the early 1980s, the collegiality of the two organizations eventually fell apart when the YMCA opened its membership to women and girls in 1987, a decade after the national YMCA governing body began encouraging a family membership structure.  In 1992, the YWCA moved out of the joint facility, selling its half of the building and equipment to the YMCA to pursue other goals than physical fitness. 

Growth of the local YMCA chapter continued into the 21st century with new programs and partnerships, further building expansions, a new facility in Onalaska, and re-dedication/re-naming of the two facilities to recognize major donors, all burnishing the already stellar reputation of the organization that has served the La Crosse area for 140 years.