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Lake Geneva or Geneva Lake?

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October 14, 2014 | 02:54 PM
It has been a matter of contention for the past two decades what to call the beautiful lake upon which the city of Lake Geneva is situated. The name Geneva Lake appears to have won, at least for the moment. But that was not always the case.

When I was growing up in Lake Geneva in the 1940s and 1950s, the lake was always called Lake Geneva and for all we knew it had always been called Lake Geneva at least since John Brink named it for his home town of Geneva, N.Y., in 1835.

Of course, the Potawatomi Native Americans who lived on the magnificent lake’s shores did not call it Lake Geneva. They called it Kishwauketoe, which means “clear water” in their language.

Contrary to mythical recounting, John Brink, who surveyed the area for the U.S. government after the Black Hawk War ended in 1832, did not name the lake after Geneva Lake or Lake Geneva in his home state of New York because there is no lake called Geneva in New York state.

Rather, Brink named the lake after his home town of Geneva, N.Y., which sits at the head of Seneca (not Geneva) Lake, one of the “Finger Lakes.”

From 1835 to 1882, the beautiful lake was generally referred to as Lake Geneva.

The township which at its founding included most of what is now the city of Lake Geneva was called the town of Geneva.

Likewise, when it was incorporated in 1844, the small collection of stores and houses within the town of Geneva was called the village of Geneva.

But in 1882 the U.S. Post Office, tired of having mail intended for Geneva, Wis., miss-delivered to Geneva, Ill., and vice versa, arbitrarily changed the name of the local post office from Geneva to Lake Geneva.

Just four years later in 1886, the village of Geneva was “upgraded” to the city of Lake Geneva. Both of these developments reinforced calling the splendid lake upon which the newly incorporated city of Lake Geneva was located Lake Geneva.

Thus the name of the lake, Lake Geneva, would prevail for the next century. Indeed, most Chicagoans who summered here, be they the wealthy owners of lake shore estates or weekend tourists, referred to the lake as Lake Geneva.

Many people who lived in the area, but not within the city of Lake Geneva’s limits, used Lake Geneva as their postal address rather than Geneva, Linn, Lyons, or Bloomfield townships because their mail was delivered by Lake Geneva post office rural route mail carriers.

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But in the late 20th century things began to change as far as the name of the lake was concerned.

Some people began insisting that the lake be called Geneva Lake instead of Lake Geneva. In fact an informal movement got underway to call the lake Geneva Lake instead of Lake Geneva. Why?

The explanation for this development remains murky.

Some people (supporters of calling the lake Lake Geneva) maintain that it was because of an inferiority complex on the part of people who resided in Williams Bay, Fontana and Linn who resented playing “second fiddle” to people who lived in the city of Lake Geneva. Others attribute the emergence of the movement to call the lake Geneva Lake to the local chamber of commerce, which represented or wished to represent, businesses located on the lake’s shores outside of the city of Lake Geneva.

Some people blamed the Lake Geneva Regional News and even the Geneva Lake Museum for fueling the movement to change the name of the lake.

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No matter what the reasons were for the name change or who comprised the forces behind the name change, the change of the lake’s name prevailed, and the lake is now generally called Geneva Lake.

But most people from outside the Lake Geneva area who have seen the lake or are at least aware of it, when asked what they call the lake almost without exception, respond Lake Geneva.

It seems that the name Geneva Lake will never prevail outside of the immediate Lake Geneva area.

“It would be like calling Lake Michigan, Michigan Lake,” one outsider remarked.

So the contentious debate continues. Indeed, contemporary nomenclature today employs the term Geneva Lakes to include Lake Como and Delavan Lake and sometimes even Pell Lake and Lake Ivanhoe. Geneva Lakes, indeed?

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Cynics maintain that the use of this term simply capitalizes on the popularity of Lake Geneva.

But prospects for changing the name of the lake back to Lake Geneva seem remote at the moment.

Most “old timers” in Lake Geneva still, of course, refer to the lake as Lake Geneva, myself included, but more recent residents of the area no doubt call it Geneva Lake, as do at least some of the residents of Williams Bay, Fontana and Linn. I, for one, will continue to call the lake Lake Geneva, as it always had been called, not Geneva Lake, Lake Geneva now, Lake Geneva forever. But of course in my writing, I will conform to prevailing sentiment and refer to the lake as Geneva Lake.

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