The Golden Era: A Brief History of Lake Geneva, WI

The Golden Era: A Brief History of Lake Geneva, WI

From Prohibition Gangsters to the Newport of the MidWest

Nestled on the shores of Wisconsin’s second deepest spring-fed lake, Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana each have a local charisma that is uniquely their own.

Just an hour’s drive southwest of Milwaukee and an hour and a half from the bustling center of Chicago, these quaint vacation towns have offered visitors a peaceful respite from their busy lives for hundreds of years. Lake Geneva, the most well-known vacation destination in southeast Wisconsin, is named after the pristine body of water it sits on. It’s home to world-class golf courses, beautiful lakeside dining and water activities such as boat rentals, beach going and kayaking.


Legends of Lake Geneva’s Storied Past

Legend has it that Lake Geneva was a prime destination for the likes of Al Capone, Bugs Moran and other disreputable players from Chicago during the prohibition era. Truth be told, the area was a haven for millionaire moguls, adventurists and native tribes for centuries before that.

Originally named Kish-Way-Kee-Tow by the Potawatamie Indians who first inhabited the region in the 1600s, “Kishwauketoe” loosely translated means Lake of the Sparkling Water . The natives built effigy mounds and fished and hunted the lands. They deftly took advantage of the natural abundance of wildlife and teaming forests that flourished in the lands surrounding what we know today as Lake Geneva.

In 1834 a government surveyor by the name of John Brink, settled in Lake Geneva. Seeing similarities between a lake near his hometown of Geneva, New York , Brink named the pristine enclave Geneva. The lakeside town was later and more accurately renamed for its greatest natural asset, Lake Geneva.

Chief Big Foot and his tribe moved on after the Blackhawk War of 1831-32, Lake Geneva officially was incorporated in 1937. Today Big Foot Park carries on the great Chief’s name. Occupying Lake Geneva’s most eastern shores, it is unquestionably the best place to enjoy a lakeside sunset. Ceylon Lagoon inside the camping and recreational park continues to be a local favorite for shoreline fishing in the area.

After the Civil War and especially following the Chicago fire of 1871, the Lake Geneva area began a period of rapid change. As Chicagoans branched North to rebuild or establish summer homes in a quiet town, elaborate mansions were erected earning Lake Geneva the nickname of the Newport of the MidWest.

The newly-accessible Chicago & Northwestern railroad line made it easy for thousands of summer-dwellers and vacationers to reach Lake Geneva from the Chicago area. With the original depot located at the intersection of Broad and North, the line was quickly extended to Williams Bay and the far west side of the lake in Fontana. From these depots travelers set out for picnics and beach excursions, staying at country homes or at the areas first hotel, the Whiting House.

While many wealthy Chicagoans began to realize the charms of the Lake Geneva shoreline, it was the grain elevator heir, Shelton Sturgis, who first showcased his wealth by building a massive estate on the Lake.

Maple Lawn, as it came to be known, was erected between 1870 and 1871. As the first grand mansion on the lake, it features Victorian architecture and sweeping views of the lake. It inspired many additional summer homes and mansions constructed over the next few decades.

Around the turn of the century, Tracy C. Drake of the famed hotelier family gave renowned architect Howard Van Duran Shaw his first commission in Lake Geneva when he asked him to erect the Aloha Lodge on Lake Geneva’s south shore. The home, inspired by a trip Drake and his family took to Hawaii is surrounded by a lanai running the full length of the house. Supported by 25-foot southern colonial type ionic columns, with Chippendale detail on the second-story balcony, the overall effect is Neo-classical and designed to entertain hundreds of guests.

Following the Lodge, in 1905 Adolphus and Abbey Barlett, the founder of True-Value hardware tools and his wife also commissioned Shaw to build what is known as the ‘House in the Woods’. Perched on the northern side of Geneva Bay, this house is known for its dramatic three arch entrance way as well as introducing the arts and crafts movement into Shaw’s lake house architecture. All five of Shaw’s original Lake Geneva mansions are standing today. Although under private ownership, historic Lake Geneva mansion boat tours can offer visitors additional insights into these dwellings and unclipped views of their sprawling estates from the lake.

Lake Geneva Gangsters and Prohibition

During the 1920s and throughout the early 30s, Lake Geneva enjoyed its share of gangster intrigue. Local rumors of tunnels that ran under buildings led to speculation of the area playing a large part in the Chicago-based bootlegger trade. Gangsters who profited from distributing illegal alcohol in the years of prohibition were well known to escape the city and FBI raids, sometimes fleeing to the far northern backwaters of Wisconsin.

One gangster, in particular, Bugs Moran, was a local star player during prohibition. Bugs often frequented nearby Lake Como, bringing with him renowned bootleggers Baby Face Nelson and Jimmy Murray. At the Lake Como Hotel, Bugs sought refuge and formed a friendship with one of the three brothers who were the Inn’s owners. Herbert Hermansen, like most of Bug’s cohorts, was not a fan of prohibition. He turned the basement of the hotel into a Speakeasy, stocking it with beer and nicknaming it the ‘Sewer’. Hermansen allowed illegal gambling and developed a fondness for Bug’s wife, Lucille whom ironically he married after the Moran’s divorced in the early 30s.

Today, you can find remnants of the original hotel at Lake Como’s French Country Inn.
Gangsters on a Boat offers stories of some of Prohibition’s most notorious gangsters during a three-hour tour of Lake Como.

Lake Geneva Resort and Entertainment Expansion

The 1930s through the 60s heralded growth in entertainment venues, country clubs and resorts in Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana. Most famously, The Riviera which perches on its own pier in downtown Lake Geneva was erected by architect James Roy Allen in 1932. This lively music venue and dance hall boasts of past performances by Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.

Later, the Abbey in Fontana opened in 1963. Named after European abbeys which gave rooms to weary travelers, the private investment group of Project Fontana purchased land on the far western shore of Lake Geneva. Swamps were dredged to create the Abbey Marina and the 225 room hotel, then the largest in the MidWest.

In 1968 an ambitious young man from Chicago named Hugh Heffner opened up his second Playboy Club, (the first was in Chicago,) just a few miles from the pristine shores of the lake. The development included an airstrip, golf course, pools, fitness center and racquet club, and a lodge consisting of 350 rooms, a dance club, salon and three bar/restaurants. Staffed with attractive women in the famed bunny apparel, the Lake Geneva Playboy Club hosted live performances by Bob Hope and Sonny and Cher. Guests of the Club could arrive by private plane onto the runway that lies at the tip of the ears of the bunny shaped lake.

Uncover the History of the Lake Today

Today, Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana have a variety of entertainment venues and intriguing historical experiences to offer. The history is varied and travelers can take their pick among lake tours, walking expeditions or tours of individual estates. The Lake Geneva Museum is chock full of memorabilia and insights into the past.

Make the most of your Lake Geneva, WI vacation. Shop All for groceries and special occasion packages delivered to your vacation rental home before you arrive. We’ll do all we can to make your Lake Geneva vacation experience a truly tailored stay!

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The Rise & Fall Of Lake Geneva’s Railroad

The Rise & Fall Of Lake Geneva’s Railroad

Lake Geneva’s Railroad History

Railroads played an important role in the early growth of Lake Geneva, allowing it to develop into the resort destination it is today. Beginning in the mid-1800s, wealthy Chicago families such as the Wrigleys, Maytags and Schwins began enjoying visits to Summer homes around the Lake. Prior to the railroad, the 83-mile trip could take several days. That began to change when the first train from Chicago, carrying 600 passengers, arrived on June 11, 1856, and was greeted with a celebration and marching band. Although an economic depression halted rail service just one year later, by July of 1871 regular service was reestablished, with daily trains in operation by the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. The new rail service allowed a 5-hour travel time outbound to Lake Geneva, with a shorter 4-hour return to Chicago with fewer stops on the way back.

Just three months after regular passenger rail service was established, the great Chicago Fire roared through the city between October 8 and 10, 1871. Following the fire, many families with the means to leave town did – and thereby rediscovered Lake Geneva as a rural retreat. Families who could rebuild often built Summer homes around the lake, and the elaborate brick and stone exteriors were made possible through freight train service from Chicago and surrounding areas.

While railroads enabled a boom in construction around the lake, and brought materials and consumer goods in large quantities, they also allowed the export of a key Lake Geneva product, ice. In the days before refrigeration, ice was harvested in winter then stockpiled for use in warm months. Lake Geneva ice was prized for its clarity and quality, cut from the lake in large blocks, and was shipped via freight trains to be used in iceboxes back in Chicago.

Over time as passenger and freight demand grew, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad attempted to develop a novel form of transportation connection – steam yacht service. Rather than just offload passengers in downtown Lake Geneva, the idea was to build a depot and piers adjacent to the lake, thereby allowing wealthy homeowners to board their personal yachts for the trip across the water and back to their estates. After civic leaders declined this proposal, a rail extension was built to Williams Bay on the north side of the lake, along with the much-anticipated yacht depot.

Growth in demand and economic expansion also led to several other rail lines providing services to Lake Geneva and the surrounding area. By 1899, steam and electric railroads carried passengers from the Chicago suburbs to the west side of Lake Geneva in Fontana and brought in visitors from the Milwaukee suburbs. In fact, total rail volumes continued to grow from 1899 through the end of World War Two. By the 1950s however, automobiles, road building, and the expansion of the Interstate highway system drove a corresponding decline in rail traffic. The Williams Bay extension shut down in 1965, and the last train pulled into the Lake Geneva Depot in August 1975. While few signs of railroad operations remain, rail provided an undisputed and invaluable role in the growth that forged Lake Geneva into the resort community it is today.

Visit the East Troy Rail Museum or the Geneva Lake Museum  for more history on the contribution of railroads to the Lake region.

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Vacation Like we Used To

Vacation Like we Used To

Summer Lake Vacations

Summers in Wisconsin are magical. Just ask any kid who’s grown up here or any adult who vacationed on a lake in Wisconsin in their youth. After a long dormant winter, everything becomes alive. From the paper birch trees to the hearty red pines, prairie warblers singing joyously and butterflies flitting across flower-strewn fields, there is an innocuous innocence teaming with the possibility of what the next day might bring.

You may remember the smell of boating fuel and the pattern that it makes on the shimmering surface of an aqua lake. Reimagine sitting at a weathered picnic table adorned with cigarette and ketchup stains, grains flanked by hand carved initials inside of rudimentary hearts. You may have even carved out those hearts yourself in the rapture of burgeoning summer love.

It’s easy to recall the simple tantalizing smell of hot dogs being roasted on a charcoal grill. Or the feeling of hot butter dripping down your chin from a salty piece of corn before your Aunt Veera handed you a napkin. You probably recall the campfires, the smores, the daring and boldness. In those days you relinquished breathing in freedom before school and the impending daily routine was inevitably due to set back in.

That, of course, was when you actually got a break from the city or the people you knew back home. It was before the days of SnapChat and Chipotle. More importantly, it was before every teen and pre-teen wanted to stay at the Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman because the celebrity they follow on Instagram did.

So, How Do You Compete With a Kylie Jenner Style Vacation?

The answer is simple. You don’t.

Get Tips on Traveling With Teens From Teens

Kids haven’t changed as much as we may sometimes think. I have this crazy theory that they use their phones when they want to be distracted, not when they actually are. Are your kids in sports? Do they willingly leave their phones on the sidelines because they are truly engaged? Do they then leave the field and go on House Party or a gaming system? Can you really blame them? Just like us, they crave a healthy sense of community and today, whether we like it or not, that’s the form that it takes.
So, let’s get to the point. Does your teen really believe that everything worthwhile happens on their phones? Of course not. Given the option of tubing or wakeboarding behind a boat or sitting in the shade on their phone, most teens would pick the former. The magic and the innocence of summer that we felt as teens aren’t gone. In fact, bonfires, boat rides, and picnics are just as Instagram worthy as they ever were.

As parents who were able to experience this summertime freedom, it’s high time that we draw a line in the sand. Instead of talking about what we experienced as kids, it’s time that we both show them and allow some room for our teens to roam and explore. Let them decide for themselves. A Wisconsin summer lake vacation may just be the next retro trend they are posting about.

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