As someone who frequently writes columns about Lake Geneva’s history, I have to be careful not to repeat myself. Repetition of historical facts and anecdotes can generate tedium and boredom-a “ho hum,” “so what” response on the part of readers. Accordingly, this column will attempt to avoid repetitions of previously noted aspects of Lake Geneva’s history. Like several earlier columns, it will focus on historical “nuggets” not previously addressed.
I also wish to thank all of those acute readers who have called to my attention errors or omissions in columns that I have written. For example, in my column on the Pioneer Cemetery I mentioned that the last person buried in the cemetery was Evelyn Rich Mahoney in the 1970s. Not so. Helen Johnson (1895-1986) was buried there in 1986.
Much of what I have written about Lake Geneva in the late 1940s, 1950s and the early 1960s is based upon my personal experiences and my memory of growing up in Lake Geneva. What I have written about Lake Geneva 1835-1945 is grounded in historical research. However, I do not have personal experiences to rely upon from the mid-1960s to 2008 because I was living elsewhere. It was during those four decades that Lake Geneva underwent an enormous transformation as it evolved into the city that it is today. Consequently the historical “tidbits” that follow will focus on what Lake Geneva was like during the two decades that followed the end of World War II.
Trostel’s factory, much of which was recently demolished to make way for a new Trostel’s research center, had not yet arrived in Lake Geneva from its previous “home” in Milwaukee. The building which Trostel’s occupied was the Belvidere Pottery factory. The arrival of Trostel’s in Lake Geneva would make for a significant change in the city by creating hundreds of new jobs. Prior to Trostel’s arrival, graduates of Lake Geneva High School in quest of jobs basically had two options, if they were to remain living in Lake Geneva-they could drive 30 miles east to work at the Nash (later American Motors) auto plant in Kenosha or drive 30 miles west to work at the GMC auto plant or the Parker Pen Plant in Janesville. Today, of course, these plants no longer exist.
To be sure, some people drove to Harvard to work at the Admiral TV plant or took the train to Chicago every week day to work in Chicago’s Loop. After Trostel’s moved to Lake Geneva, the United Autoworkers Union launched a campaign to organize the workers into a union, but the campaign, which was marked by several dynamite explosions, was unsuccessful.
During the post World War II years, there were many more gardens, both vegetable and flower, in Lake Geneva than there are today. Many gardens were maintained by the wives of retired farmers who had moved into town after they passed their farms on to their children or sold them. Among the flower gardens in Lake Geneva, Louis Kimball’s was considered the best. He lived on the northeast corner of Geneva and Maxwell Streets. Louis Kimball and Frank Bullock operated Moore’s hardware store on the north side of the 700 block of Main street. And the best gladiolas in town grew in Dewey Sleezer’s garden on the east side of Clover Street just north of Pleasant Street.
Many residents raised chickens or had rabbit hutches in their back yard.
Hillmoor Heights, the subdivision built in Lyons Township just east of Lake Geneva across Highway 50 from the Hillmoor Golf Course, was originally called “Golf Hills.”
The tiny town of Linton south of Geneva Lake was called “Slopville,” ostensibly because of the pigs who once slopped in the area.
The Lyons Firemen’s Picnic, was held every summer in Walbrandt’s Grove on the west bank of the White River just south of Sheridan Springs Road. Among other amusements, it featured professional wrestling matches. Some of the best-known professional wrestlers in the country wrestled at the Lyons Firemen’s Picnic.
Trick-or-treating was always done on the night of Halloween.
The area where the Sturwood subdivision would be built was in those days a cow pasture.
When fires occurred, the city blew a fire siren indicating the location of the fire.
There were about 12 locations in the city and the fire siren would use short and long blasts to tell firefighters and residents the location number that was nearest the fire.
The building where the Geneva Lake Museum is now located was the Wisconsin Power and Light Company’s garage.
There were two lumberyards in Lake Geneva, Dunn’s and Taggart’s. Taggart’s lumber yard was located where the Talmer Bank is today.
Both lumber yards sold feed and coal as well as lumber. Most people still heated their homes with coal. The transition to oil and gas heat had just begun.
Many children looked forward to the annual Vacation Bible School sponsored by the First Congregational, United Methodist, and Baptist churches.
It began right after the public school year concluded and lasted one or two weeks.
Big Foot Beach State Park did not exist. The area at the eastern end of Geneva Lake was called the “Sand Beach.”
Four highways ran through Lake Geneva: U. S. Highway 12 and state highways 36, 50 and 120. In the days before the Interstate Highway System was built, U.S. 12 was one of the major east-west highways in the United States.
Semitrailers drove through Lake Geneva 24 hours a day. One could hear them downshifting all night long as they slowed down and turned east on George Street just after its intersection with Maxwell Street.
One could still see outhouses in the city even as they were being replaced by indoor plumbing.
The American Legion, the Boy Scouts and the Cub Scouts met in the city hall, which was located on the second floor of the fire station on the north side of Main Street just west of its intersection with Mill Street.
The police station was located in a small building connected to the fire station.
Eastview School had not yet been built. Children who lived on the northeast side of the city attended the Third Ward School, which is now the American Legion Frank Kresen Post #24’s hall.
Habecker and Derrick’s funeral home was located on the west side of Center Street kitty korner from where Starbuck’s (then a Standard Oil gas station) is now located.
There were three large hotels in Lake Geneva-the Hotel Geneva (where the Geneva condominiums tower is today), the Surf Hotel (where Popeye’s parking lot is today), and the Luzern Hotel (where the Cove’s parking lot is today).
There were still “telephone operators” working in the Wisconsin Telephone Company building (today’s AT&T building), plugging all incoming and outgoing telephone calls into large switchboards. Area codes (262) and seven digit phone numbers 248 (Chestnut)-XXXX did not exist. My telephone number was WJ9. Most people had “party lines,” which meant that anyone on the “party line” would pick up their phone and listen to their neighbor’s conversations.
Lake Geneva only had three police officers, including the chief of police.
Dick Hurdis’ bar on the northeast side of the city (today’s Next Door Pub) was known as a “road house.”
There were many more ice fishing shanties on the ice-covered lake in the winter than there are today. Very few people drove their cars onto the ice.
Houses were still being moved to new locations instead of being torn down.
Power and light and telephone company workers took down the overhead electric and phone lines so that the houses could be pulled up the streets, initially by horses, from the downtown area to their new locations, primarily on the northwest side of the city.
Unions were still strong, especially in the building trades. The unions met at the “Labor Temple” on the northwest corner of Park Row and Warren Street, which previously had been the original Immanuel Lutheran Church.
Each evening male teenagers driving their ‘55 Chevies, Pontiacs, and Fords regularly made the “circuit” between the Jo-Vel’s grill (at the west end of Grant Street, where a Mexican grocery store is today) and the Dairy Queen, keeping a sharp eye out for attractive girls along the route.
There were always buses pulling into the bus depot which had various locations.
For many years it was located on south Broad Street, just north of Georgia Pappas’s International Café. One could take a bus to Chicago or Milwaukee or to Burlington, Elkhorn, or Delavan.
Lake Geneva’s five “social centers” were the YMCA (at Main Street and Wrigley Drive), the Lake Geneva Public Library, the “show” (the Geneva Theater), the bowling alley (in the basement of today’s Landmark Center) and the railroad depot (at North and Broad streets).
South Lake Shore Drive (from Highway 50 to Big Foot Beach State Park) was then called Willow Street; Wrigley Drive was called Lake Street.
Given all the changes in Lake Geneva that have occurred over the past seven decades, perhaps the old adage “the more things change, the more they remain the same” no longer applies.
Patrick Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.