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An analysis of Lake Geneva's early history



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January 28, 2014 | 01:02 PM
For the past three years, the articles that I have written on Lake Geneva’s history for the Regional News have, in the main, recounted historical facts about Lake Geneva or have been based upon my personal memories of what Lake Geneva was like in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.

This article will attempt to analyze Lake Geneva’s history.

The first questions that need to be answered include why Lake Geneva was originally settled by whites in the 1830s and 1840s and why these initial settlers mainly came from Vermont and upstate New York.

After Lake Geneva was first “discovered” by whites in the early 1830s, its initial settlement was due to a combination of factors. The most important of these factors was the establishment in 1833 of a small settlement adjacent to the U.S. military fort — Fort Dearborn — where the Chicago River enters Lake Michigan. The tiny new village of Chicago stimulated the settlement of the “northwest.”

The area that later became known as the midwest was the northwest section of the United States before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Wisconsin had not yet become a territory, let alone a state. It would become a territory in 1836 and a state in 1848.

The area that eventually became Lake Geneva was then in Michigan Territory. The settlement of Geneva began only two decades after the end of the War of 1812 (three veterans of the War of 1812 are buried in the Pioneer Cemetery) while Andrew Jackson was president.

The U.S. Army and state militias defeated the Sac and Fox Native American leader Black Hawk in 1832.

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The U.S. Army had chased Black Hawk and his band up the Rock River from where it enters the Mississippi to its northern reaches and then west to the Mississippi at Bad Axe (south of La Crosse), where it massacred many of the women and children in Black Hawk’s band. The chief of the Potawatomi in the Geneva Lake area, Big Foot, had refused to support Black Hawk.

Ironically, the U.S. government rewarded Big Foot for his refusal to support Black Hawk by exiling him and his entire tribe to eastern Kansas where his descendents now live on a reservation near St. Mary’s. Native American ownership of the land surrounding Geneva Lake was extinguished.

In 1835, three years after the defeat of Black Hawk, John Brink surveyed the land where Lake Geneva is now located for the U.S. government.

He named the beautiful lake in the area that he surveyed after his home town, Geneva, in upstate New York on the shore of Seneca Lake, one of the Finger Lakes.

The U.S. government established a land office in Milwaukee, which sold the former Potawatomi lands to whites. In 1837 a major recession hit the United States, a recession much more severe than the Great Recession of 2008.

The recession forced many people to move from settled eastern portions of the United States, including Vermont and upstate New York, to the newly opened “northwest,” where cheap land was available upon which they could establish farms, escape the ravages of the recession and start their lives anew.

Why did so many of those who originally settled the Lake Geneva area come from Vermont and upstate New York?

The answer is two-fold. Vermont had only become a state in 1791. It was not one of the original 13 states. One of the reasons for its late settlement was that much of its soil was very rocky.

After Vermont became a state, it had quickly become “overpopulated,” given the lack of land suitable for farming. The prevailing legal concept of “primogeniture” meant that only the eldest son could inherit a farm or other property.

The second, third, fourth and other younger sons were compelled to move elsewhere if they were to make their living by farming. They had no choice, therefore, but to move to the northwest frontier where land was available, including the area surrounding Geneva Lake.

The modes of transportation extant during the 1830s and 1840s also determined where the economic refugees from Vermont and upstate New York could go.

The Erie Canal, which ran from Albany to Buffalo, N.Y., had been opened in 1825. It was the interstate highway of its time. A network of railroads did not yet exist.

People who had been living in upstate New York boarded boats on the Erie Canal, which took them to Buffalo, where they transferred to lake schooners that sailed through lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan to the new towns of Milwaukee and Southport (the original name of Kenosha).

They then walked or rode wagons southwest 45 miles or due west 30 miles to the Geneva Lake area. People from Vermont boarded boats on Lake Champlain and sailed to the southern end of the lake, where they transferred to boats on the recently dug canal that connected Lake Champlain to the Hudson River.

They took boats south on the Hudson River to Albany, where they boarded boats on the Erie Canal, which carried them to Buffalo, where they transferred to lake schooners which took them to Milwaukee or Southport.

The settlers of what would become the southern counties of Wisconsin, who came from upstate New York, brought with them the names of the towns.

A glance at today’s map of upstate New York reveals their origins. Among the towns in upstate New York, one finds not only Geneva, but also Walworth, Delavan, Darien, Sharon, Clinton, Genoa, Palmyra, Eagle, Rochester, Bristol and Silver Lake, among others.

They also brought to the Geneva area their values, which included a commitment to temperance, which eschewed the use of intoxicating liquor, and a staunch opposition to slavery.

So too did they bring their religious predilections, including those of the Congregational Church. Although the first Congregational Church in Geneva was originally a Presbyterian Church, most of its members were Congregationalists.

Upstate New York was then known as the “burned-over district” because of the fervent religiosity of its inhabitants. Among the original settlers of Geneva there were, in addition to Congregationalists and Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists, who also quickly established churches in Geneva. The “burned-over district” saw the birth of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), the Advent Christian Church and the Seventh Day Adventists.

The Catholic church in Geneva, which eventually became St. Francis de Sales, while established in 1847, did not experience significant growth until the arrival of large numbers of Irish laborers, who built the railroad from Chicago to Geneva in 1856.

The seven founders of Geneva, Dr. Philip Maxwell, his brother, Col. James Maxwell, Robert Wells Warren and his brother, Greenleaf Warren, Andrew Ferguson and his brother-in-law, Lewis B. Goodsell, and his business partner, George Campbell, were all from Vermont or upstate New York, but they had initially come to the new, rapidly growing village of Chicago, where they had made their fortunes speculating in real estate.

It was with such funds that they purchased the land upon which Lake Geneva is now situated. Charles M. Baker, the first attorney in Geneva, also came here from Vermont, as did a young person that he trained in the law, James Simmons.

The Civil War would transform Geneva from an ordinary village on the edge of the northwest frontier into a rather special place. The impetus for this transformation came from the large city 72 miles to the southeast.

Chicago had grown substantially during the Civil War and the decade preceding it from a small village into a burgeoning metropolis of 300,000 residents.

During the Civil War, many merchants in Chicago, some of whom had initially made their fortunes in real estate speculation, made even more money providing the Union Army with salt, meat, uniforms and many other necessities.

A substantial class of very wealthy Chicagoans had emerged during the war. Over the six years that followed the end of the war, several had “discovered” the beautiful lake 72 miles northwest of the metropolis, purchased land for estates on the shores of the lake and built large homes on those estates to which they would repair during the summers to escape the oppressive heat, congestion and noise of Chicago. The beautiful lake, of course, was Geneva Lake.

It was indeed a beautiful lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in the United States, but strangely enough, it had not been the beauty of the lake that had initially attracted many of the settlers from Vermont and upstate New York to Geneva; it had been the lake’s outlet, the White River, that had drawn them. In the days before electricity and the extensive use of steam power, the lake’s outlet, by virtue of its falling water, generated power — power to grind grain and saw logs into lumber.

The grain mill erected at the lake’s outlet, where the Geneva Lake Museum is located today, ground wheat grain into flour — grain grown by farmers living within a 30-mile radius of Geneva.

Wealthy Chicagoans’ “discovery” of the beauty of Geneva Lake during the half-decade that followed the Civil War would transform the village of Geneva, as some observers have said, into a feudal, medieval village whose inhabitants served the needs of the wealthy Chicagoans who had built stately summer homes on the shores of Geneva Lake. Carpenters, masons and other tradesmen moved to Geneva to build the lakeshore summer homes of the wealthy Chicagoans. Other residents served them as cooks, nannies, maids, gardeners and coachmen.

The wealthy Chicagoans, constituting the vanguard of a post-Civil War “nouveau bourgeoisie,” were anxious to emulate their eastern counterparts who had built massive summer homes on the oceanfront in places like Newport, R.I. Geneva Lake, and especially its pristine northern and eastern shores, seemed to them to ideally replicate Newport.

An examination of the 1870 census listing the residents of Geneva and their occupations illustrates the transformation of Geneva. A very large number of carpenters, masons, laborers and servants are listed, most of whom had not been born in either Vermont or upstate New York. Geneva had indeed been transformed by the economic consequences of the Civil War.

Not only had the composition of the village’s population changed dramatically, but the village was effectively transformed into two villages, not geographically, but seasonally.

During the summers, which roughly stretched from early May until mid- to late October, there was plenty of work available for residents of Geneva, but during the late fall, winter and early spring, Geneva reverted to its status as a small, midwestern village that served as an economic center for surrounding farmers. In 1871, however, two events occurred that would even further accelerate the village’s transformation. The first was the resumption of rail service from Geneva to Chicago.

The railroad from Chicago had first reached Geneva in 1856, but had been discontinued in 1860 because of bad track. The railroad served as the umbilical cord tying Geneva to Chicago and firmly placed Geneva within Chicago’s economic, social and cultural sphere of influence for the ensuing century.

The second event occurred on Oct. 8, 1871 — the great Chicago fire, which destroyed most of Chicago’s central business district and near north side. The devastation caused by the Chicago fire induced many more wealthy Chicagoans to build summer homes on the shores of Geneva Lake.

The reopening of the railroad in 1871 allowed them to travel to Geneva quickly and easily, many of them in their luxurious personal Pullman rail cars. The stage was set for the growth of the village of Geneva that would occur during the last three decades of the 19th century — a growth that will be addressed in Part II of this article which will appear in a subsequent issue of the Regional News.

Patrick Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.

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