In my previous column, I sketched a portrait of what Lake Geneva was like during the mid-20th century decade of the 1950s, with an emphasis on what wove the community together during that decade. After my column appeared, quite a few readers contacted me telling me how much they appreciated the portrait that I had sketched. Many of them also asked whether the fabric of the community of Lake Geneva is being woven together today, given that so much has changed in Lake Geneva over the years that have elapsed between the ‘50s and today.
I have to admit that I don’t know the answer to that question. The best I can do is identify some of the factors that exist today that are substantially different from those that prevailed in this city six decades ago — factors that may have contributed to a diminishment of the cohesion of the community in this city.
The first five decades of the 20th century in Lake Geneva were marked by what can be characterized as a generational continuity in the city, where generation after generation of residents passed the culture that informed their generation on to the succeeding generation. The prevailing culture in the city was augmented by second and third generations of residents of German origin whose forebears had migrated from Germany primarily to Lyons Township. During the 1920s and ‘30s, the children and grandchildren of these German immigrants had moved from Lyons Township into Lake Geneva and became fully assimilated into the prevailing culture.
Following the end of World War II, a second wave of new residents moved to Lake Geneva, primarily from Chicago and its suburbs, and quickly became assimilated in their new community. As the second half of the 20th century unfolded, the generational continuity of the residents continued. But toward the end of the century, the continuity began to unravel.
Many of the late-20th-century generation of the city’s residents moved into new homes on the periphery of the city or just beyond the city’s limits. Residents who were in the working class began to move to homes in Como in Geneva Township, because houses in Como were less expensive than houses in Lake Geneva.
After the turn of the century in 2000, a new phenomenon developed. People primarily from the Chicago suburbs began purchasing second homes in Lake Geneva where they lived during the weekends, especially during the summer. Since their main homes were located elsewhere, they became only partially integrated into the community.
And over the past three or four decades, another change in the city occurred. More and more houses in the city were becoming rentals, and there was a relatively high turnover of the people who rented these houses. During the first six decades of the 20th century, Lake Geneva had a high percentage of owner-occupied homes. To be sure, residents who owned their homes rarely owned them outright, but instead paid long-standing mortgages or land contracts to banks and others who actually owned the homes. It took my grandparents 50 years to complete the purchase of the house that I grew up in. Nonetheless, despite their long-term mortgages and land contracts, homeowners psychologically considered themselves to be the owners of the houses in which they lived, which played a role in weaving the fabric of the community together.
Another change in Lake Geneva over the past few decades has been an evolution of the ethnic composition of the residents of the city. Over the course of its history, Lake Geneva has seen only three changes in its ethnic composition following the “removal” of the Potawatomi in the 1830s. Geneva had originally been settled by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants from upstate New York and Vermont in the late 1830s and early 1840s. The only exception to this pattern had come twice, when the laborers of Irish origin who had built the railroad from Chicago to Geneva were dumped in Geneva after they had completed building the railroad line in 1859 and again in 1871 when Irish laborers had rebuilt the railroad line restoring rail service between Chicago and Geneva. These Irish laborers were able to purchase land in the woods west of Geneva, later known as the Irish Woods and built homes on the lands that they had purchased. Over the course of the next few decades, their descendants had moved into Geneva/Lake Geneva, becoming fully assimilated in the community and comprising the core of the membership of the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church.
A second wave of ethnically origined residents of the city were the descendants of the German immigrants referred to above who had moved into the city during the early 20th century.
A third wave of ethnic immigrants arrived in Lake Geneva during the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st century. They were of Mexican origin. It is estimated that they now comprise about 17 percent of the city’s population, although the number is probably higher. The precise number of residents of Mexican origin won’t be known until the 2020 census.
Whenever the ethnic composition of a community changes, difficulties exist for a period of time while the new ethnic group is assimilated into the community and their descendants become fully integrated.
In addition to the factors identified above, other changes in Lake Geneva have also had an impact. Badger High School on the city’s south side is about five times larger than Lake Geneva High School was when I attended it. During 1956-1958, LGHS had only 300 students.
Lake Geneva’s downtown business district no longer plays the central role that it once did for residents of Lake Geneva. Today people spend more time in their cars than they spend walking about the city. Young people appear to spend more time glued to their smart phones and other devices than they spend playing with their friends. The Baptist Church no longer exists, although its building still stands and has been re-purposed. Attendance at the First Congregational Church is not nearly as high as it was during the 1950s. The largest Protestant church in the city is the Immanuel Lutheran Church at the far southeastern edge of the city.
Dunn Field does not attract city residents on Friday nights in the fall or during the summers as it once did. A new football stadium was built across the street from Badger High. Wal-Mart has replaced the Schultz Brothers and Ben Franklin dime stores and Montgomery Ward’s as the city’s main shopping center. The bowling alley in Lake Geneva is no longer located at its very center in the basement of the Landmark building. There is no longer a rail connection between Lake Geneva and Chicago.
All of these factors have had an impact upon the lives of current residents of Lake Geneva.
What I have reviewed above is no doubt subjective and impressionistic, but I believe that it is essentially accurate. Whether the fabric of the community of Lake Geneva is being woven together in the same manner that it was during the 1950s is a very difficult question to answer. I will leave it to readers to make their own determination.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.