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March 11, 2014 | 04:34 PMSt. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, is almost upon us.
Hence, it seems especially appropriate to take a look at the history of the Irish in Lake Geneva. The first substantial number of Irish arrived in Geneva in 1856.
They had built the road bed of the railroad from Chicago (Elgin, actually) to Geneva. But when they had finished their endeavor, they were unceremoniously discharged from their jobs and left stranded in Geneva.
The Irish workers quickly learned that cheap land was available in a woody area about three miles west of Geneva. With what was left of their pay, they made down payments on the wooded land and settled there. The area is known today as the “Irish Woods.” It is adjacent to the Woods School, which is named after the “Irish Woods,” and extends north of today’s Highway 50 to Kelly Road, which is named after one of the original Irish settlers.
The Irish had emigrated from Ireland to the United States and eventually to Chicago in the late 1840s because the infamous “potato famine” had destroyed the staple crop of Ireland, leaving hundreds of thousands of Irish no choice but to leave the Emerald Isle to avoid starvation. Most had made their way across the Irish Sea to the port of Liverpool in England, where they boarded sailing ships as steerage passengers.
The ships took them across the Atlantic to New York City. Many died of disease en route because of the terrible conditions in the holds of the ships.
The Irish railroad workers who arrived in Geneva in 1856, however, were not the first Irish to come to the Geneva area.
During the late 1840s William and Rose Quinn and their six sons and one daughter also fled the potato famine, made their way from their home in Tullamore, Offaly County, Ireland to Liverpool, and boarded a ship which took them to New York City.
After a brief stopover in Esopus, New York on the Hudson River, where they left behind one of their sons, William and Rose Quinn and their family traveled further west to Geneva Township, Wisconsin, where they placed a down payment on a small farm on the south side of today’s Palmer Road, just west of Petrie Road. William and Rose Quinn were my great great grandparents.
All historians doing research on the history of the Irish in Lake Geneva will encounter serious difficulties. That is because the Irish in Lake Geneva in the 19th Century are largely anonymous and invisible as far as the written record is concerned.
While the Irish, after 1856, became the largest ethnic minority in the Geneva area, the native “Yankees” from Vermont and upstate New York, who had originally settled the Geneva area, were the dominant group in Geneva, economically, politically, culturally, and religiously. They wrote the local newspapers.
One of them, the lawyer, James Simmons, who wrote the history of Geneva in the 19th Century, only mentions the Irish once in his history: “Among my most steady customers [in 1856] were the Irish people of the hill country west of the village. Their principal trouble was the unscrupulous action of three or four shrewd Yankees, who managed to control their school affairs.”
In 1871 a second wave of Irish arrived in Geneva from Chicago, many of whom had been born in the United States. They had worked to rebuild the railroad line from Chicago to Geneva.
The railroad had first arrived in Geneva in 1856, but the track had become so deteriorated by 1860 that it was abandoned until 1871 when Irish laborers rebuilt it and stayed in Geneva after they had completed the job.
During the Civil War, a number of Irish in the Geneva area joined the Union Army, including my great grandfather Michael Quinn’s younger brother, Thomas Quinn. Beginning in 1856, the Irish in the Geneva area became the most significant group of members and supporters of the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church.
If one wishes to gain a sense of the Irish in the Geneva area in the 19th Century, an excellent means of doing so would be to stroll among the tombstones in the St. Francis de Sales Cemetery on Highway 50, just east of Lake Geneva, and to observe the names and birth and death dates of the hundreds of Irish buried there.
Among those buried in the St. Frances cemetery are my great great grandparents, William and Rose Quinn, my great grandparents, Michael and Polly Quinn, my grandparents, Bernard Francis and Ellen (Nellie) Quinn, and my parents Bernard Foran and Helen Quinn.
Another very useful source of information about the Geneva Irish in the 19th century is the U.S. census, especially for the village of Geneva and Geneva Township. The occupation of most of the Irish listed in the census is simply “laborer.” The U.S. censuses from 1860 to 1940 yields the Irish surnames whose descendants became well-known residents of Lake Geneva, including, among others, the O’Neills, Powers, Chases, Bradys, Quincannons, Kellys, Allens, Currens, Quinns, and Pendergases.
By the time of World War I, the descendants of the original Irish had pretty much been assimilated into the larger social fabric of Lake Geneva despite many of them still being laborers.
Most of the children of the original Irish who had settled the “Irish Woods” moved to Lake Geneva.
William Quinn’s grandson, Bernard Francis Quinn, had become a constable in Lake Geneva in 1906 and part of his job was to keep the boisterous Irish in check after they had imbibed too many glasses of whiskey.
Some of the original Irish settlers had, of course, left the Geneva area, including William and Rose Quinn’s two sons, Bernard and Thomas, and their daughter Anna and son-in-law George Warren, who moved to Kansas in the early 1870s and homesteaded farms there.
But others of Irish descent began moving to Lake Geneva. My grandmother, Ellen (Nellie) Foran Quinn, was brought to Lake Geneva from Chicago as a maid for a wealthy lake shore resident. Nellie had been born in Ireland and had emigrated to Chicago during the 1890s.
By the mid-1930s, Lake Geneva had changed considerably. The descendants of the original Irish settlers, despite being Catholic, had become accepted members of the Lake Geneva community.
My father, Bernard Foran Quinn, Lake Geneva High School Class of 1935, was a star football and basketball player on the LGHS teams.
After the end of Prohibition in 1933, O’Brien’s tavern on the south side of the 700 block of Main Street became the favorite “watering hole” for residents of Irish ancestry. The Irish’s drink of choice was whiskey, as opposed to beer, which was the favorite drink of residents of German ancestry.
The upward mobility of Genevans of Irish ancestry can be illustrated by the opening of the Sturwood subdivision, where at least two of the families who occupied new houses on Elmwood Avenue in lower Sturwood were of Irish descent.
St. Patrick’s Day will no doubt be liberally celebrated by those of Irish ancestry (as well as by those of many other diverse ancestries) despite O’Brien’s tavern being long gone.
One suspects that across the street from where O’Brien’s tavern used to be located, the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day will be in fine form at Champ’s Sports Bar as well as in every other tavern in town. Of course, the celebrants will no doubt first stop at Fleming’s to avail themselves of some very fine Irish products.
Patrick Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.