WILLIAMS BAY — While it may not be as recognizable as some of the names of other historic lakeshore residents, the Chapin name is one that is associated with a legacy of giving.
Simeon Brooks (S.B.) Chapin felt it was his civic duty to do things to improve the communities he called home. Chapin’s philanthropy continues today through the works of The Chapin Foundation of Wisconsin, which he established in 1943. To date, the foundation has awarded nearly $2.5 million to organizations around Geneva Lake.
Since the beginning of The Chapin Foundation of Wisconsin, its focus has been supporting the work of area churches, the Lake Geneva YMCA, public libraries, George Williams College Camp, and the Water Safety Patrol, to name just a few of the organizations that have received grants from the foundation.
One area family has had a close connection with the foundation since it was formed. Robert Everett McNally, who along with S.B. Chapin was instrumental in the founding of the Lake Geneva YMCA, was the foundation’s first secretary — a position he held until his death in 1974. Succeeding her husband as secretary, Myra McNally held the position until her passing in 1993. The foundation’s third secretary was the McNallys’ daughter Betty McNally Harnett. Mrs. Harnett held the position until her retirement in 2016.
Board members of The Chapin Foundation of Wisconsin recently got together to celebrate Betty Harnett’s 103rd birthday.
Board member Derek D’Auria stated, “Betty Harnett was a careful steward of foundation records, and still follows its progress with keen interest. She has an acute memory of the history of the lake area, and is an inspiration to all she meets.”
S.B. Chapin began life in Milwaukee on May 31, 1865, the son of Emory David and Marietta (Armour) Chapin. In 1872, Emory Chapin moved his family to Chicago, when he engaged in the business of pork packing with John Cudahy under the firm name Chapin and Cudahy. After sustaining substantial losses on the Chicago Board of Trade, of which he was a member, Emory sold his half of the partnership to John Cudahy in 1881. His sudden death on May 7, 1883, left his family owing a debt of about $40,000. Some of the debt was forgiven upon his death, and the rest was paid by S.B. Chapin, with the debt being paid in full in 1900.
Chapin was almost 18 when his father died. To help support his mother, he moved to Kansas City to work for his uncles at the Armour Brothers Banking Co. The following year, he moved back to Chicago, working in the office of Armour and Co. for the next eight years.
With the business knowledge he gained working for his uncles, Chapin opened his own banking and brokerage firm in 1892. His firm would historically be listed as the second oldest firm on the Chicago Stock Exchange. That same year, Chapin met and married Elizabeth Maddocks of Chicago, with whom he would have four children.
In 1898, Chapin purchased a large tract of land from Levi Z. Leiter for his summer home known as Flowerside Inn. At one time, it is said Chapin owned 538 feet of lake frontage. By 1930, his land holdings had expanded to include five farms that extended from the north shore of Geneva Lake to the south shore of Lake Como. His farms, each with a separate purpose, were named Flowerside Farms.
Chapin’s next business endeavor was S.B. Chapin & Co. This was one of the first trading houses with offices in both Chicago and in New York. The business thrived, and within a few years, Chapin decided to move the main office to New York City, and his family took up residence at 930 Fifth Avenue in New York City. Chapin felt such a strong connection to Wisconsin and the area around Geneva Lake that the family continued to summer at Flowerside Inn for more than 50 years.
One of Chapin’s early donations to the community occurred in 1911 when he purchased a prime location in downtown Lake Geneva with the express purpose of donating it to the newly formed Lake Geneva Horticultural Society to erect a meeting and exhibition hall. Horticultural Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The drowning death of a young man visiting George Williams College Camp in 1920 prompted Chapin to bring together a group of like-minded area residents to promote water safety. At first, the group focused on safety awareness through posters and bulletins that were posted at select piers and beaches around the lake. Through the efforts of this group, the Water Safety Committee of the Red Cross was formed. By 1925, the group had purchased the first patrol boat and hired lifeguards for several of the beaches around the lake.
Serving as the longest serving member of the Board of Trustees of George Williams College from 1901 until his death in 1945, Chapin was instrumental in establishment of the golf course at George Williams College Camp, the construction of the clubhouse dedicated in 1929, and the addition of a stone wall around the course in the 1930s.
Chapin’s generous altruism extended beyond Horticultural Hall, the Water Safety Patrol, and George Williams College Camp. He was also an officer of the Lake Geneva Historical Society; had the stone fence built around Wood School to protect children on the playground; joined the Geneva Lake Civic Association; and organized an archaeological survey of Geneva, Como, and Delavan lakes.
Working with the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, Chapin hired experts to survey the land, create records of the Potawatomi campsites, and excavate Indian burial sites. Significant historical information might have been lost without these contributions.
Simeon Brooks Chapin died on Jan. 6, 1945. He and other members of his family are buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery, Lake Geneva. He was one of several Chicago/Geneva Lake residents who helped hire Horace W. S. Cleveland to design that cemetery. Cleveland was a protégé of Frederick Law Olmsted.
S.B. Chapin’s vision, philanthropy and community commitment helped to improve the communities where he lived.
Elizabeth Chapin was also very active in her communities. She was president of the Lake Geneva Garden Club for the years 1921 to 1925, and actively supported the Lake Geneva Fresh Air Association, which founded Holiday Home Camp.
Through The Chapin Foundation of Wisconsin, their legacy will continue into the future.
Michelle Bie Love is a member of the Williams Bay Historical Society and co-author of “A Pictorial History of Williams Bay, Wisconsin On Beautiful Geneva Lake.”