I wrote about the Hermansen family in one of my columns some time ago. However, recently a reader contacted me and wanted to know more about the Hermansens. Rather than republish the original column about the Hermansens that I wrote, I thought that it would be better to write a new, expanded column about the family.
The Hermansen family was well-known in Lake Geneva during the 1950s, and, in fact, has been well-known since 1912. The now-legendary Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) was held in Chicago in 1893 along the Midway Plaisance just south of the new University of Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary (one year late) of Columbus’s “discovery” of the “new world” in 1492. Many hundreds of residents of Lake Geneva took the train to Chicago to attend the Columbian Exposition.
In honor of the Columbian Exposition, a new addition to Lake Geneva north and northwest of the Pioneer Cemetery was named the Columbian Addition. It included Park Row, Pleasant and Clover streets. Park Row was modeled after the Midway Plaisance in Chicago where the Columbian Exposition was held. A field on the north side of the 1200 block of Park Row between Clover and Maxwell streets—where the Anchor Covenant Church is today —was called Columbia Field. The Lake Geneva High School football team played its games on Columbia Field before Dunn Field was established on Sage Street at the eastern end of Dodge Street.
The Idaho building
After the Columbian Exposition closed in 1893, four of its buildings were disassembled and moved on railroad cars to Lake Geneva. The “Idaho building” was reassembled on the shore of Geneva Lake where the Big Foot Beach State Park is today. It was demolished more than eight decades ago.
The Ceylon building
Prompted by his wife Anna, Frank Chandler, who owned the estate which later became known as Ceylon Court overlooking the lake just north of where the Big Foot Beach State Park is today, purchased the “Ceylon building,” had it moved to Lake Geneva on the train, and reassembled on his estate. The building was well-known to Lake Geneva residents because it had the first elevator in Lake Geneva and was constructed using no nails. It was later owned by John J. Mitchell and then by Fredrick Maytag of “washing machine” fame. It was torn down in 1958 after the Lake Geneva Fire Department set it on fire in a training exercise.
The Norwegian building
The third Columbian Exposition building to be brought to Lake Geneva was the Norwegian building, which resembled a medieval Norwegian church. It was reassembled on the north shore of Geneva Lake on the C.K.G. Billings estate, “Green Gables.”
William Wrigley, Jr. bought the “Green Gable” estate (which included the Norwegian building) from C.K.G. Billings in 1911. P.K.Wrigley sold the Norwegian building in 1937 and it was moved to a site near Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, where it became the center piece of the “Little Norway” tourist attraction there until “Little Norway” closed in 2014. The grandson of a craftsman who had constructed the Norwegian building in Orkdal, Norway for the Columbian Expedition tracked it down and arranged for it to be shipped “back home” to Orkdal.
The Danish Pavilion
The fourth Columbian Exposition building brought on the train to Lake Geneva was the Danish Pavilion after it had had been purchased in 1912 by a Danish-born carpenter, Christian (Crist) Hermansen, who had worked on building the Danish Pavilion at the Columbian Exposition.
Hermansen had the Danish Pavilion reassembled on the south shore of Lake Como and opened it as the Lake Como Hotel in 1921. In a modified form, it is known today as the French Country Inn.
Ties to gangsters
By the beginning of the 1930s, the Lake Como Hotel had become a favorite “hangout” for gangsters, including, among others, “Baby Face” Nelson and George “Bugs” Moran. “Bugs” Moran was the notorious head of the “north side” gang of criminals in Chicago when the famous “Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre” occurred on February 14, 1929.
Seven members of Moran’s gang were killed in a garage on the west side of Clark Street in Chicago by thugs hired by Al Capone, the boss of the “south side” criminal gang in Chicago. Fortunately for him, “Bugs” Moran was not in the garage when the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred.
In 1929, the Lake Como Hotel was still being run by Crist Hermansen, assisted by his three sons, Hobart (“Hobie”), Einer (sometimes spelled “Inar”), and Harry Hermansen. “Bugs” Moran and his wife Lucille were divorced in 1930.
Lucille had a son, John Moran, from a previous marriage and “Bugs” and Lucille had been raising her son John. After divorcing “Bugs” Moran, Lucille married Hobart Hermansen.
The Geneva Hotel
During the early 1930s , Hobart Hermansen purchased the famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Geneva Hotel, which was located where the Geneva Towers Condominium is today.
After prohibition ended in 1933, Hobie Hermansen hired his stepson, John Moran, as a bartemder in the Geneva Hotel’s basement bar. I got to know John Moran when I, as an under-aged teenager, began drinking in the Geneva Hotel’s basement bar during the mid-1950s.
John Moran never asked me to show him any identification to prove that I was of legal drinking age. He rarely spoke and spent much of his time polishing the bar’s counter top with a dirty rag. John died in 1959 and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery adjacent to the plot where the Hermansens are buried.
More on the Hermansen family
During the early 1950s two of my youthful heroes shared the quarterback position on the Lake Geneva High School football team. They were Bob Hermansen, the son of Harry Hermansen, and his close buddy, Carl Dahlin. Tragically, Bob Hermansen, 23, Carl Dahlin, 24, and two girls with them, Ruth Roth, 20, of New Glarus, Wisconsin, and Coreen Stainhopfer, 20, of Bloomington, Wisconsin, were killed when their car went off the road and hit a tree at 2:50 am on Saturday, July 16, 1960 on Illinois Highway 173 near Antioch, Illinois.
Carl Dahlin has been studying law at Marquette University and Bob Hermansen had been attending the Spencerian Business College in Milwaukee after having attended Michigan State University and spending four years in the U.S. Army. Carl Dahlin’s sister, Dolleen Dahlin Brenton, still lives in Lake Geneva in the Dahlin family home on Main Street overlooking Geneva Lake. Bob Hermansen’s brother, Allen Hermansen, lives in California, but returns to Lake Geneva every summer.
Christ Hermansen passed away on January 1, 1950, Harry Hermansen passed away on September 1, 1952, Einar (Inar) Hermansen passed away on August 8, 1978, and Hobart Hermansen passed away on November 20, 1984. They are all buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery.
The history of the infamous Lake Como Hotel is chronicled in an Appendix to the novel Murder at the French Country Inn written by a later owner of the hotel, Anthony Navilio, using the pseudonym Clyde Deighton.
The Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the Hermansen family are both integral components of Lake Geneva’s history.