In my last column, I wrote about the life of John E. Burton who was, without a doubt, the most extraordinary person to ever have lived in Lake Geneva. I focused on Burton’s life as a teacher and school principal, as the editor of the Geneva Herald newspaper, as a real estate agent in Geneva, as an insurance agent for the Equitable Life Insurance Co., and primarily as a swash-buckling investor in copper, iron, gold, silver, and crystal mines in Wisconsin, the northern peninsula of Michigan, Alaska, Colorado, California, and Mexico.
In Part II of this essay, I focus on other parts of his life.
John E. Burton was a person who was, in many respects, “larger than life.” Two columns devoted to an account of Burton’s life barely scratch its surface.
Another of John E. Burton’s major financial disasters involved his investment in the Wisconsin Central Railroad, which was supposed to run on the railroad tracks from Chicago to Lake Geneva and then northwest from Lake Geneva through Elkhorn, Whitewater, and Jefferson, all the way to Lake Superior. The Wisconsin Central railroad collapsed financially and became bankrupt. Burton sold his shares in it in 1886. Residents of Lake Geneva who had bought shares of the railroad’s stock from him lost all of their money. But before the Wisconsin Central became bankrupt, it had built a road bed from Lake Geneva northwest along the eastern shore of Lake Como as far as what is today County Road H (formerly U.S. Highway 12). Remnants of the road bed are still visible today.
John E. Burton, however, was much more than a wheeling and dealing financial investment wizard. He was an extremely well-read intellectual. By the time the 19th century turned into the 20th century, he had accumulated a library of more than 32,000 books, which filled many shelves on the second floor of his mansion at the northwest corner of Madison and Wisconsin streets. His library was reputed to be one of the largest private libraries in the United States.
Among the 32,000 volumes that Burton owned were more than 2,500 books about Abraham Lincoln. Burton also owned many manuscripts written by or about Lincoln. Burton’s collection of “Lincolniana” was considered to be the largest and best such collection in the United States. Burton was not only a collector of “Lincolniana,” he became an expert on Abraham Lincoln, wrote extensively about him and gave many public lectures about him at various venues in cities throughout the United States. This included two lectures that he gave at the Ford Opera House in Geneva, which had been built in 1876 as Centennial Hall on the site of the present Geneva Theater.
Burton considered Abraham Lincoln to be one of the greatest people to have ever lived on this planet. As a 13-year-old boy, Burton had seen Lincoln speak in Utica, New York, in 1861 as Lincoln was making his way east from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. to become the president of the United States. Seeing Lincoln in person began Burton’s life-long fascination with him.
In addition to owning an extensive library and a large collection of “Lincolniana,” Burton had another obsession. He possessed an extensive coin collection, which was considered by many numismatists to be the largest and most valuable coin collection in the United States. Burton had begun collecting coins in 1854 when he was only seven years old, and he continued to collect coins, most of which were rare and valuable, throughout his working life.
Unfortunately, at the onset of the 20th century, Burton was forced to sell all of the books in his impressive library, his substantial collection of Lincolniana, and his superb coin collection in order to cover the devastating financial losses that he had incurred as an investor. Fortunately for posterity’s sake, some of Burton’s collection of Lincolniana was eventually purchased by the University of Chicago. Today it can be found in the Special Collections Department of the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library.
Ironically, although his financial investments had made him a multi-millionaire many times over, at the end of his career, he was destitute and virtually penniless. He and his wife, Lucretia, were compelled to move from their mansion at the northwest corner of Madison and Wisconsin streets a block west to 224 Warren St., the home of their daughter, Bonnie Burton Denison, and her husband, the renowned educator, E.D. Denison.
It was in the Denisons’ home that John E. Burton spent the last two decades of his life before dying at the age of 82 in 1930. He was buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery. John E. Burton’s wife, Lucretia, died eight years later in 1938.
As I was growing up in Lake Geneva during the 1940s and early ‘50s, I used to walk by the corner of Madison and Wisconsin streets every week day during the school year on my way to Central School. At the corner was a vacant lot covered with weeds. Surrounded by weeds was a very large and deep depression that had obviously been the basement of a structure that had once existed there. I asked many people what had been located there, but no one could answer my question.
It was only after I returned to Lake Geneva following my retirement from Northwestern University and was doing research on Lake Geneva’s history at the Lake Geneva Public Library that I finally learned the answer to my 60-year-old question. I came across a newspaper photograph of a mansion at the northwest corner of Madison and Wisconsin streets — a mansion that had been demolished in 1939. The mansion had been the home of the most extraordinary person to ever have lived in Lake Geneva.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.