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The origins of Lake Geneva's parks

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April 09, 2013 | 02:43 PM
Many visitors to Lake Geneva marvel at the beauty and extent of Lake Geneva's parks, especially the magnificent Library Park along the shore of Geneva Lake.

But only two of the parks were planned by Lake Geneva's founder — Maple Park and Seminary Park — and neither, of course, is on Geneva Lake's shore. Thomas McKaig, who surveyed and laid out the village of Geneva's gridiron pattern of streets, blocks and lots for Geneva's seven founders in 1837-38 and filed and recorded the village plat on May 23, 1840, designated two blocks as public squares.

These blocks became Maple and Seminary parks. Geneva's seven founders were Dr. Philip Maxwell, Col. James Maxwell, Robert Wells Warren, Greenleaf Warren, Andrew Ferguson, Lewis Goodsell and George Campbell.

The concept of a "public square" had originated in New England, particularly in Boston, Mass., in the 1600s, and had quickly been adopted by newly-founded villages throughout New England and later in upstate New York. The famed Boston Commons is one of the first such public spaces.

Sheep and other livestock grazed on this commonly owned land that had been cleared of trees. Public meetings and celebrations were held on village commons or squares and militia companies drilled on them. If a village's land was flat, it was surveyed and laid out in square blocks. Hence, the term "public square" came into use. In county seats, the county courthouse was usually built on a centrally located public square, as was originally the case in Elkhorn.

In Lake Geneva some of the village's most impressive early homes were built near Seminary Park. Two have survived: Dr. Philip Maxwell's mansion on Baker Street and Emily Baker's home, now the Baker House on Wrigley Drive. Emily Baker's father-in-law, Charles M. Baker, had a large home that was located where the Bella Vista Suites is today. Charles M. Baker was a prominent early Geneva attorney and the legal mentor of James Simmons, the author of Annals of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, 1835-1897.

In 1867, the Lake Geneva Seminary for Young Ladies, founded by Anna W. Moody, was built in Seminary Park. It served as a preparatory school for young women for the following three decades. In 1895, it was purchased by the city of Lake Geneva and used as the Lake Geneva High School. It was demolished in 1906.

By the 1860s Maple Park had become the leading park in Geneva. The militia company that during the Civil War became Company K of the 4th Wisconsin Infantry drilled there. The original Central School was built on Wisconsin Street just to the north of Maple Park. Central School was destroyed by fire in 1901. The present Central School building was constructed in 1903.

It was not until wealthy Chicagoans began to build summer mansions on their estates on the shores of Geneva Lake — especially after the great Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871 — that the citizens of Geneva began to fully realize how beautiful Geneva Lake was. Prior to that most residents viewed the power that ran grain and saw mills generated by the fast-flowing water of the lake's outlet as Geneva Lake's most significant asset.

In 1873 the village of Geneva contested Robert Wells Warren's ownership of the property along Geneva Lake's shore. The village's trustees eventually filed suit against Warren (for whom Warren Street is named, and who was one of the village of Geneva's seven founders), challenging Warren's ownership of the property.

Warren died in 1875 just after the lawsuit was resolved in favor of the village of Geneva. In March 1877, the village obtained title to the land along Geneva Lake's shore from Broad Street to Maxwell Street and designated it as a park.

In 1894, Mary D. Sturges donated her home (and the land surrounding it) in block 32 on the south side of Main Street between Madison and Lake streets (today Wrigley Drive) to Lake Geneva as a public library on the condition that the city purchase the remainder of the property in block 32, the street (an extension of Lake Street) that ran along the lake shore to Madison Street be removed, and that the land would forever be a public park. This writer believes that James Simmons played a key role in persuading Mary Sturges to donate her house and land to the city. Simmons became the first chairperson of the Lake Geneva Public Library board and donated the first books to the library. The land along Geneva Lake's shore that was legally pried away from Robert Wells Warren and his heirs, the land donated by Mary D. Sturges, the land in block 32 purchased by the city of Lake Geneva and a small plot of land along the lake's shore southwest of the intersection of Maxwell and Main streets that was later purchased by the city, ultimately became Library Park. It was beautified as part of a Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) project during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

In 1882, J.C. Walter donated to the village of Geneva one third of his interest in the triangular parcel of land south of Geneva Lake's outlet between Wrigley Drive and Center Street. The other two owners sold their shares in the parcel to the village of Geneva for $1,334. The triangular parcel today is Flat Iron Park.

Only one of Lake Geneva's parks, Maple Park, has its original name. In February 1887, the Lake Geneva City Council named the parks after trees. Library Park was originally named Elm Park, Flat Iron Park was originally named Willow Park (its name was eventually changed because its shape resembled a flat iron) and Seminary Park was originally named Oak Park.

In the 20th century, Lake Geneva developed three additional parks. During the Great Depression, Dunn Field, on Sage Street at its intersection with Dodge Street, was constructed as a W.P.A. project. Named after Lake Geneva's mayor, Edward F. Dunn Sr., the founder of the Dunn Lumber Company, it served as the field upon which Lake Geneva High School and later Badger High School football games were played for a quarter of a century. LGHS and BHS also played baseball games on the diamond at Dunn Field. Prior to the construction of Dunn Field, which was built on a swampy lowland west of the White River, Lake Geneva High School football games were played at Maple Park, at Columbia Field (where the Immanuel Lutheran Church is now located) and behind the Blackwood/Host greenhouses on Madison Street, just east of its intersection with Wheeler Street.

The other two 20th century parks in Lake Geneva are Cobb Park on McDonald Road on the city's far west side just west of Marshall Lane (which, alas, is little used) and Veteran's Park — with its baseball and softball diamonds, tennis courts and playing fields — on Townline Road east of Edwards Boulevard.

Lake Geneva's residents and its thousands of annual visitors are indeed fortunate the city's leaders had the vision and commitment to establish and develop the city's beautiful and useful parks. One need only to stroll through these parks to appreciate the thoughtfulness and foresight of earlier leaders of the city. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.

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