With the seasons changing in Lake Geneva the colors are reflected in beautiful hues of red, gold and amber as lustrous leaves fall to the ground. There is an audible chill to the air as waves lap darkening shorelines. The dry snap of a twig on your walk to a bonfire,...
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.
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