Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Childhood memories of Lake Geneva fires

by Patrick Quinn

January 03, 2013

It is hard to believe that color television did not always exist. It is even harder to believe that not everyone owned a black and white television, but instead listened to the radio, and only to AM radio as FM radio did not yet exist. For those who did not have a color television set or even a black and white television set, few will forget when color television was first made available to the general public in Lake Geneva.

The time was the mid-1950s and the venue was Leonard's TV store on the east side of the 500 block of Broad Street, where Amy's Shipping Emporium is today. In the early evening a crowd began to gather in front of Leonard's plate glass window. At 8 p.m. the large, rectangular box behind the window was turned on and a colored television program, much like a cinemascope movie, magically appeared. A murmur rose from the crowd assembled in front of Leonard's window. They were watching a TV program in color for the first time. It was "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," the TV version of Mark Twain's popular novel. For many nights thereafter, a crowd gathered in front of the window of Leonard's TV store to watch other television programs in color.

The unsolved robbery

It was 1955 or 1956. An announcement came over the loudspeakers in the classrooms of Central School that the First National Bank in Lake Geneva had been robbed. Students, abruptly awakened from whatever day dreams they were having, listened attentively to the announcement. The bank had been robbed! No one had ever heard of the bank in Lake Geneva being robbed before. The classrooms were abuzz with excitement. As the day wore on, more details of the robbery wafted their way into the classrooms. How much money was stolen? The figure of $100,000 was bandied about. Weber Smith and George Allen, the president and vice president of the bank, are long gone. Perhaps only Muriel Malsch, who worked as a teller in the bank, knows how much was stolen.

During the ensuing days, rumors about the bank robbery spread throughout Lake Geneva. The bank robber supposedly had fled by automobile to the Lake Lawn air strip where he jumped into a Piper Cub airplane and flew away. One rumor actually identified the name of the alleged bank robber, a prominent resident of Lake Geneva. But no one was ever arrested for committing the robbery. The rumors eventually faded into the mists of time.

Gypsy parade

"The Gypsies are coming. The Gypsies are coming." Word of the arrival of the gypsies (known in Europe as "Romani" or "travelers") quickly spread throughout Lake Geneva on that sunny summer day in about 1954 or 1955. Residents of the city quickly lined the intersection of Broad and Main streets to await the arrival of the "Gypsies."

No one had ever seen a Gypsy before. Fear of the unknown permeated the assembled crowd. The small Lake Geneva police force had also turned out en masse, supplemented by many Walworth County Sheriff's deputies. The police and the deputies, armed with shotguns, blocked off the intersection. Soon the flashing red "gumball" of a sheriff's car appeared on Lake Street to the west of Flat Iron Park, leading a long caravan of cars, each pulling an Airstream trailer (a small mobile home).

As the long caravan passed through the intersection heading north on Broad Street, awestruck people in the assembled crowd strained to get a look at the Gypsies. The slow-moving caravan, followed by a Walworth County Sheriff's car, soon disappeared. Most of the crowd still did not know what a "Gypsy" looked like.

A young on-looker in the crowd tugged at Lake Geneva Chief of Police Rowe "Hoppy" Hopkins' pants leg and asked him where the Gypsies had come from and where they were going.

"I don't know," the chief replied. "They came from somewhere in the south, maybe from Louisiana. And I don't know where they are going. Maybe all the way to the North Pole, for all I care. All I know is that we got word from the McHenry County Sheriff's department that they were coming and that we should wait for them at the Illinois state line and not let them out of their cars in Walworth County. Sheriff's deputies in Jefferson County will escort them as soon as they cross the Walworth County line at Whitewater. And sheriff's deputies in the next county will escort them after they leave Jefferson County. They ain't gonna be allowed out of their cars anywhere in the state of Wisconsin. They are just too dangerous to be allowed to get out of their cars."

The young on-looker somehow sensed that there was an injustice in the way that the Gypsies were being treated, but he did not know what the nature of that injustice was.

Mob parade

It was serendipitous that he saw them. He had been walking east on Main Street past Arnold's Rexall drugstore on that hot summer afternoon in the early 1950s. He was on his way to the post office to buy new stamps to add to his growing stamp collection. He spotted a long line of black Cadillacs driving slowly west on Main Street. They passed right in front of where he was standing. He counted them. There were five Cadillacs. From the open windows of each Cadillac protruded submachine guns. They were "Tommy" guns, which he had seen in the movies.

Other people on the sidewalk, awestruck, stared at the Cadillacs, their mouths open in amazement. He realized that his mouth too was open. To his left he saw one of the city's police officers also standing there, staring at the line of black Cadillacs, but the officer did nothing. The boy had heard his grandparents say that they had seen these Cadillacs before and that they belonged to gangsters — members of the mob — from Chicago.

He had also heard his grandparents say that the tall, bald, emaciated man who tended bar in the basement of the Geneva Hotel was the brother of the famous gangster "Bugsy" Moran. The boy had never personally seen a gangster before or a real "Tommy" gun. As the line of Cadillacs faded into the distance as they drove west on Main Street, the boy wondered if he had been dreaming or had actually seen what he had just seen. When he got home, his uncle told him that the gangsters were probably on their way to Hermansen's Lake Como Hotel (where the French Country Inn is now located).

"But why didn't the policeman do anything about them?"

"There was nothing that he could do. He was afraid of them. Everybody is. But if we don't bother them, they won't bother us."

That night the boy again saw "Tommy" guns sticking out of the windows of black Cadillacs as he fell asleep.

Continued from last week.

Fire! Fire!

It was a below-zero day in the winter of 1957. In the Lake Geneva High School, the speech teacher, Robert Wiese, had dragooned three freshmen and told them to burn the sets of the just completed high school musical (it was either "South Pacific" or "Oklahoma") in the fireplace in the basement of the old high school building, which was between the "new," (ca. 1930s) high school building and Central School. (The old high school was demolished long ago and replaced by the modern middle component of the Central-Denison School complex.)

The three freshmen began shoving the cardboard sets as fast as they could into a roaring fire that they had started in the fireplace. The blazing inferno literally sucked the very flammable sets from their hands.

Other students recruited by Mr. Wiese brought more and more of the musical's sets down to the basement which the three freshmen quickly threw into the fire. As the fire grew larger and hotter, the fire alarm bells in the school suddenly began to ring. The ringing alarms meant that the entire school had to be immediately evacuated.

The three freshmen, however, did not leave the building, but continued to shove pieces of the sets into the fire. They wanted to complete their task before having to go into the brutal cold.

The fire alarm bells kept ringing. One of the freshmen told the other two that this was just a fire drill and would soon be over, but another of the freshmen, a more cautious sort, insisted that they leave the building, which they finally did.

Standing coatless with hundreds of other students in Maple Park across Wisconsin Street from the school, shivering in the brutal sub-zero cold, the three freshmen watched the Lake Geneva fire trucks arrive and saw the firefighters stream into the building. The more cautious freshman, his teeth chattering, told his two buddies that it was too damn cold to be standing out in the snow.

So he followed the firefighters into the building where at least it was warm. He went up the stairs to the second floor to get a better view from the windows facing Maple Park. He arrived just in time to see a Lake Geneva firefighter smash one of the windows with his fire axe. Another firefighter standing next to him then opened the glassless window. It had not been locked.

As the cautious freshman gazed out the opened window, he saw that the mass of students huddled in the cold across the street had begun to stream back toward the school. The crisis apparently was over. He glanced at his watch. It was almost time for his English class to begin. He went to his English classroom, arriving just as the bell rang.

The English teacher, Mr. Blakeley, told the students what had happened. One of the school's janitors had discovered a fire in a closet on the third floor which had a chimney running through it.

Apparently the heat from the chimney had set on fire a pile of oily rags used to clean the school's floors.

Firefighters had quickly put the fire out. The cautious freshman, knowing that the overheated chimney that had caused the fire originated in the basement fireplace, did not, however, share his knowledge with the rest of the class as they chattered excitedly about the near-disastrous fire.

Fire! Fire! Part 2!

The boy had just gone to bed. It was another hot summer night in the late 1940s. The screened window of his bedroom was open so that if a breeze came up it would cool him off. But the breeze did not come.

Just as he was about to enter dreamland, he heard the fire whistle blow loud and clear on the still night. It blew one short and two long blasts. Number 12.

The boy had memorized the numbers that the fire whistle blew. The numbers gave the location of a fire. Number 12 was the railroad depot.

He jumped out of bed, pulled on his pants and joined his grandparents and his uncle on the front porch of the house.

A blast of hot air seemed to sear his face. Across the street above the cemetery, the sky seemed to be on fire. It had become almost as bright as day. He heard the sirens of the fire trucks as they raced toward the fire.

By now everybody in the neighborhood had come out of their houses and were watching the bright sky awash with flame. A hot wind began blowing from the east and sweat began running down the boy's face. Small flaming cinders were falling all around them. The boy asked his grandparents and uncle what was on fire. Was it the railroad depot?

"No," his uncle replied. "It is too big a fire to be just the railroad depot. It has to be either the Dunn Lumber Co. or the Taggert Lumber Co. Let's just hope that the wind doesn't blow the fire in this direction."

After what seemed to be an hour watching the sky aflame to the east, seeing the burning cinders falling everywhere, and feeling the heat on his face. The boy's grandmother finally made him go inside and go back to bed. In the morning he and his uncle walked two blocks east to the scene of the fire.

The boy could smell the still-smoldering fire. When they arrived at the Dunn Lumber Co., the boy saw that it had been completely destroyed except for the large brick building with the advertisement for Pillsbury flour painted on its side.

All of the Dunn's lumber sheds had burned to the ground and the coal and feed in the storage bins had burned up.

The boy's uncle talked to a couple of men standing on the platform at the railroad depot who told him that the fire had been so hot that it had melted the telegraph wires strung on poles along the railroad tracks.

They also told him that no one knew what had started the fire, but they speculated the cinders from the railroad's steam locomotives had been the culprit.

Not very long afterward the fire scenario at the Dunn Lumber Co. was repeated when the Taggert Lumber Co. across Broad Street from the railroad depot (where the Talmer Bank is today) caught fire and burned to the ground.

Cinders from the steam locomotives were blamed for the fire, although many of the city's residents were convinced that "spontaneous combustion" had caused both of the disastrous fires.