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Northwestern Military and Naval Academy



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May 27, 2014 | 12:08 PM
Many of the iconic structures on the shores of Geneva Lake are long gone, including, most notably, Ceylon Court, but perhaps foremost among the once prominent, but now gone, icons was the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy. Its legacy still survives, but in Delafield, Wisconsin, west of Milwaukee, where it is a component of the St. Johns Northwestern Military Academy.

The Northwestern Military and Naval Academy was founded not on the shores of Geneva Lake, but instead in a north shore suburb of Chicago, Highland Park, in 1888. Its founder was Harlan Page Davidson (1838-1913), who had been born in New Hampshire. As a young adult he had been a farmer and stone mason, but he eventually graduated from Norwich University. From 1866 to 1892, he was involved in education as a school teacher and later as a school administrator in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Vermont and Illinois. During this time he became an ardent prohibitionist.

In the autumn of 1888, Davidson purchased Highland Hall in Highland Park, Ill., renovated it, and opened the Northwestern Military Academy in it. Highland Hall, however, was soon destroyed in a disastrous fire and Davidson had to rebuild it. In 1890, he became a Colonel in the Illinois National Guard. In 1892, his son Royal Page Davidson became the Commandant of the Northwestern Military Academy. By the turn of the century, the institution had become one of the most highly regarded military academies in the United States. Harlan Page Davidson died in 1913. In 1915 his son Royal Page Davidson decided to move the academy to the shores of Geneva Lake in Wisconsin. He purchased the grounds of what had been Kaye’s Park, the famous amusement park that had been opened in 1873 on Geneva Lake’s south shore east of Fontana, and had a large building constructed on the grounds to house the Northwestern Military Academy. He slightly changed the name of his institution to the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy. For the next 80 years, from 1915 to 1995, the NMNA was one of the premiere military high schools in the country. Among its many well-known students were the famous actor Spencer Tracy and Curtis Roosevelt, the eldest grandson of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. A current resident of Lake Geneva, Carl Mancini, spent his freshman year, 1959-1960, at the NMNA. Other one-time residents of Lake Geneva also attended the NMNA, including Bruce Peck and David Harmon.

Royal Page Davidson died at the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy in 1943. He is best remembered as the founder of the military Bicycle Corps and is regarded as the “father” of U.S. military armored cars. Subsequent headmasters of the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy included James Howard Jacobson, the father of Lake Geneva actress Chris Brookes (Christine Jacobson), Walter S. Hahn, and Daniel P. Snow.

In 1995, the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy was merged with the St. Johns Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin, to form the St. Johns Northwestern Military Academy. The NMNA grounds were sold to a real estate developer. Davidson Hall, which housed the NMNA, was torn down and numerous luxurious houses were built on the former NMNA grounds. What had been an icon on the shores of Geneva Lake for 80 years was no more.

Because the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy was a high school as well as a military and naval academy, it fielded athletic teams, including football, basketball, and baseball teams. Being a small high school, it was not in the same athletic conference as Lake Geneva High School or Badger High School, and was instead a member of an athletic conference of smaller high schools, including Williams Bay, Genoa City, Walworth, Sharon, Darien, the Wisconsin School for the Deaf (Delavan), Rochester A & M, Hebron, Clinton, and Whitewater College High. This writer, as a varsity football player at Lake Geneva High School, recalls his LGHS football team scrimmaging the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy football team. The NMNA football was tough and some members of the team were regarded as “dirty” players. This writer also played on the Lake Geneva High School baseball team and recalls hitting a home run against the NMNA baseball team which landed in Geneva Lake, since the NMNA baseball diamond was located on the lake’s shore. This writer was also a member of the Badger High School varsity tennis team and recalls that he and his doubles partner, beat a NMNA doubles team 6-0, 6-0 on a lake shore tennis court north of Fontana. This easy victory came as a real surprise because members of the NMNA tennis team, being from rich backgrounds, were supposed to be superb tennis players.

It must not have been pleasant being a student cadet at NMNA. It was an all-male environment until just prior to its demise. The students were under military discipline and of course had to wear military uniforms. The NMNA corps of cadets marched in Lake Geneva’s Memorial Day parades, led by their famous bagpipe band. The NMNA student-cadets were given leave on Sunday afternoons to go into Lake Geneva. But there were always considerable tensions between NMNA student-cadets and Lake Geneva “townies,” who would surround a group of cadets, harass them, seize their uniform hats and drop them into mailboxes where they could not be retrieved until Monday. Tensions were exacerbated by NMNA cadets frequently dating prestigious Lake Geneva girls.

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The Northwestern Military and Naval Academy has been gone from Geneva Lake’s shores for almost two decades. Most residents of Lake Geneva under the age of 40 barely remember it. Indeed, driving past the luxurious homes on its former grounds, one scarcely imagines that the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy once existed here. But it did. And for 80 years, it was one of Geneva Lake’s most notable icons.

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