There is no better place in Lake Geneva to watch tourists from Chicago and its suburbs during the summers than from inside the American Legion Canteen in Library Park overlooking Geneva Lake. How do I know that? Because I worked at the American Legion Canteen during the summers from 1950 to 1960.
The American Legion Canteen had been built by my uncle, William Malsch, a mason, bricklayer, and plasterer, after he had returned to Lake Geneva following his services in the U.S. Army in France during World War I. The Canteen was originally located in front of where the Riviera is today, but it was moved one block west to its current location after the Riviera was built in 1932.
I got the job working at the American Legion Canteen in 1950 when I had just turned 8 years old, because the Canteen was then run by Fuller Boutelle, who was a letter carrier for the U.S. Post Office. Fuller’s friend and fellow letter carrier, Tom Wardingle, was raising me, together with his parents, Thomas and Lillie Wardingle, who were my grandparents. My mother, Helen Wardingle, had passed away five years earlier in 1945. Fuller Boutelle was also a member of the Lake Geneva Fire Department and a member of the Lake Geneva School Board.
Fuller’s son, Clyde Boutelle, who had been a football and basketball star at Lake Geneva High School, also worked at the American Legion Canteen during the summers. Clyde was then a student and star football and basketball player at Beloit College. He played for Beloit when the team made it to the post-season National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City. In those days, the NIT post-season tournament was far more important than the NCAA post-season tournament. Clyde later became the adult adviser to the Pilgrim Fellowship youth group at the First Congregational Church in Lake Geneva, of which I was a member. He also became a history teacher at Lake Geneva High School, and I had the good fortune to be in his world history class. Clyde lives in Beloit today.
My first job at the American Legion Canteen was to wander all around Library Park looking for discarded pop bottles to return to the Canteen. In those days, there was a one-cent deposit on a bottle of pop (which cost five cents) to ensure that bottles would be returned to the bottling companies. However, few customers returned the bottles and simply “ate” the one-cent deposit.
As the 1950s rolled on, Fuller Boutelle retired from the Post Office and from running the Canteen. He was replaced at the Canteen by Howard “Bunky” Bent, who had been a star football player for Lake Geneva High School during the 1930s and was a World War II Navy veteran whose day job was being the head of the Lake Geneva office of the Wisconsin Southern Gas Company, located on the east side of the 200 block of Broad Street. Bunky later worked as a car salesman for the Chevrolet dealership on Center Street. Bunky worked at the Canteen on the weekends, and hired his wife, Gen, his daughter Janet, and his niece, Jayne Hoekstra, who lived in East Troy and rode her bike from East Troy to Lake Geneva every day.
In those days, the Canteen was completely open on three of its four sides, and the view of the Lake was superb as we served the tourists who lined up at the counters to order pop or food. When I became a teenager, Bunky gave me the responsibility of running the Canteen during the week. I rode my bike to the Canteen and opened it every morning at 9 a.m., made coffee in the large electric coffee pot, popped fresh popcorn, and put hot dogs on the grill. I worked all day. If there was enough business, we would stay open until 9 p.m.
I ordered all of the candy that the Canteen sold from Patsy De Marco, whose store was on the east side of the 500 block of Broad Street, just north of Hanny’s restaurant (where the Medusa Restaurant is today). Patsy would deliver boxes of candy to the Canteen once a week. Our biggest seller was frozen Snickers candy bars.
I would also order cases of pop from the Sheridan Springs Bottling plant once a week. We sold Coke, Orange, Root Beer, and 76 (the Coke version of 7-Up). Jerry Ledger, whose family owned the Sheridan Springs Bottling plant, would deliver many cases of pop once a week, which we stored in the Canteen’s basement. Business was booming, so Bunky hired Jerri Powell, the mother of Mary and Elizabeth Powell, to work in the Canteen.
During a summer in the mid-1950s, the cases of pop were replaced by pressurized canisters of pop, which were placed in the basement by the staff of the Sheridan Springs Bottling plant. From that point forward, we poured pop from the spigots that had been installed.
The Canteen was a gathering place for many local residents of Lake Geneva as well as many tourists from Illinois. My high school buddies would stop by the Canteen to chat with me before they went swimming. I have to confess that I envied them for not having to work during the summers. Among the local denizens of the Canteen was the parking meter cop, Erwin “Corby” Giese, who came into the Canteen many times a day to grab handfuls of popcorn from the popcorn machine. Bunky hired my cousin, Bill Malsch, to work in the Canteen. The American Legion opened a second Canteen in the Big Foot Beach State Park during the mid-1950s, which Bunky ran and his wife, Gen, daughter Janet, niece Jayne Hoekstra, and I worked during that summer.
The next summer we were all back at the American Legion Canteen in Library Park. Over the course of the summers that I worked at the Canteen, I learned that there were both good and bad people among the Illinois tourists who patronized the Canteen. The good people were very friendly and chatted easily with me and the other members of the staff. The bad people tried to pull off scams by claiming that they had given me a $20 bill instead of $5 bill to pay for what they had bought, and demanded that I give them back change from a twenty. Bunky taught me to put the bills that they gave me on the cash register in plain sight as I rang up their purchases.
During the summer of 1960, after I had graduated from high school and was preparing to enter college, I realized that I needed to make more money than the 25 cents an hour that I had been making at the Canteen, so I resigned my position at the Canteen and took a new job washing dishes on the night shift (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.) at the Hickory House restaurant (where Popeye’s is located today). The Hickory House was run by Rick and Earl Parsons. I made $49 a week working 51 hours a week at the Hickory House. One meal a day was provided free, but the meal could not include either ice cream or steaks.
Working at the American Legion Canteen in Library Park for 10 summers during the 1950s was a very good learning experience for me. I learned the delights and drawbacks of serving the public. I am very pleased that the American Legion Canteen still exists today, a century after it was built. Its location overlooking Geneva Lake remains one of the premier venues in the city.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.