For me, the autumns in Lake Geneva were always magical times.
On the Labor Day weekend, the attention of residents in Lake Geneva invariably focused nine miles to the northwest in Elkhorn, where the Walworth County Fair was held. My uncle, Howard Vincent, who lived in Elkhorn, would drive down to Lake Geneva and pick me up to bring me to the fair. My cousin, Bill Vincent, a student at Elkhorn High School, worked at the fair. As a very young person in the late 1940s, I was immensely proud of my cousin Bill because he worked at the fair.
In the summer of 1950 when I first worked at the American Legion Canteen in Lake Geneva’s Library Park, I remember that the summers in Lake Geneva came to an end on the early evening of Labor Day when we closed up the Canteen for the season. All of the tourists from Chicago had departed Lake Geneva and the city seemed deadly quiet. Locals used to insist that on Labor Day night, the sidewalks were “taken up” in Lake Geneva, since next summer was nine long months away.
Unlike today, when many schools begin operation in mid-August, the first day of the new school year in Lake Geneva (and elsewhere) was always the day after Labor Day. The Labor Day weekend and the first day of school in Lake Geneva are perhaps best depicted in the movie, “Picnic,” which was written as a stage play by William Inge. “Picnic” occurred in a small Kansas town during the Labor Day weekend just before the first day of school. Kim Novak, William Holden, Susan Strasberg, and Rosalind Russell were among the superb actors who appeared in “Picnic.”
I vividly recall my first day of school on the day after Labor Day in 1947. My grandmother walked me to the Central School, where I began kindergarten in the same semi-circular room that my Uncle Tom, Aunt Frances, and my mother had begun kindergarten in 1912, 1913, and 1915, respectively. My kindergarten teacher was Ruth O’Brien (later Ruth Nussbaum). During the summers, Miss O’Brien worked as the secretary of the Lake Geneva Chamber of Commerce in a small wooden hut in Library Park at the southwest corner of Main and Lake streets, where she dispensed information to tourists all day long.
Several of my kindergarten classmates still live in Lake Geneva, including John Brandley and Mary Lynn Schryver Brennan. Miss O’Brien made us lie down on the small rugs that each of us had brought to kindergarten so that we could take our naps.
September in Lake Geneva marked the beginning of the football season. I recall listening to University of Wisconsin and Green Bay Packers football games on the radio with my Uncle Tom. And on Friday nights during the years 1947 to 1955, my Uncle Tom and my grandfather would take me to Dunn Field where we would watch the Lake Geneva High School Resorters football team play Elkhorn, Delavan, Burlington, McHenry, Woodstock, Harvard, and other nearby teams. The members of the LGHS football teams were my heroes, especially the great Jackie Gibbs, who later played semi-pro football for the Delavan Red Devils.
In September 1956, I began my own career as a member of the Lake Geneva High School football team. The coach of the LGHS football team was Walter Jonas, who was a very tough coach. Jonas had coached LGHS football teams since 1930. He had been my father’s high school football team’s coach during the early 1930s.
I commenced my football career as a third-string quarterback on the LGHS “B” squad (as junior varsity teams were called in those days). I will never forget one afternoon in the fall of 1956 when the team was practicing at Dunn Field. I was playing safety, and the offense ran a sweep run around the end. John Hanak, a senior fullback who was one of my neighbors on Maxwell Street, carried the ball around the end and right at me. I went to tackle him, but he gave me a stiff-arm and ran for a touchdown. The next thing I remember was lying on the ground and seeing stars. I eventually got up and wandered off the field, dazed. Coach Jonas saw me standing on the sideline.
“Hey you,” he shouted. “Never do that again. Never leave the field of play.”
Coach Jonas made me take 25 laps around the field despite my still being dazed. Only after I became an adult did I realize that I had suffered a concussion.
In Lake Geneva, as September turned into October, the attention of residents turned to the city’s automobile dealerships. At the Ford, Chevy, Buick, and other dealerships, the newest models of cars were unveiled. On an evening in October at the automobile dealers’ showrooms (which were all then located in the downtown business district), tarps were pulled off the new models, to the delight of residents crowded in front of the showrooms’ windows. The auto dealers served coffee, cider, and donuts to the residents as they examined the new models. War-surplus spotlights that had been placed in front of the dealerships cast their beacons high into the night sky. It was indeed a magical time.
Throughout October, the city’s oaks, maples, and elms shed their red and yellow leaves, which soon covered the ground. Residents raked the leaves that had fallen in their yards into piles at the curbs. In the evenings, they set the piles of leaves on fire. It seemed like every resident of the city was burning leaves that had been piled in the street next to the curbs. A smoky haze enveloped the city. Burning piles of leaves lit up the night sky. I stood with my grandfather, rake in hand, next to a pile of burning leaves in front of our house on Maxwell Street, delighting in the dancing light of the burning leaves. Despite the smoky haze, piles of burning leaves were visible in the neighborhood as far as the eye could see.
The end of October brought Halloween. When I was a youngster, my grandmother and my Aunt Frances would take me and my two cousins trick-or-treating on the evening of Halloween. We would go up to the front door of virtually every house in the Maple Park neighborhood and, clutching the paper bags that held the treats that we had collected, we said to the person who opened the door, “Trick or treat.”
Today trick-or-treating is only done during the daylight hours, usually on a weekend near Halloween. The burning of leaves is no longer allowed.
The weather began to get colder in November after the election and Armistice Day (which is what Veterans Day used to be called). By Thanksgiving, the ground was often covered with snow.
The magic of autumn had run its course, not to return for another year.