As readers walked by 915 W. Main Street (across Main Street from the Lake Geneva Public Library), they may have noticed a small house with two plaques on it.
The first one is an oval plaque stating that the house dates back to 1847. It is the second oldest surviving house in Lake Geneva, a house on the west side of the 300 block of Sage Street being the oldest. On the other plaque is a history of the house noting that it is indeed an historic house. Both plaques were erected by the Lake Geneva Historic Preservation Commission, of which I am a member.
The house belongs to Mary Tanner, an emeritus member of the Lake Geneva Historic Preservation Commission. During the 1930s, the house was the office of the Lake Geneva lawyer Lewis G. Brown (1876-1948). Brown’s assistant was my mother, Helen Wardingle, who did much of Brown’s legal work for him, as he was quite elderly.
In addition to the house being the second oldest house in Lake Geneva, it is historically important because, for seven years (1871 to 1878), it was owned by the famous Chicago newspaper editor Charles L. Wilson, who lived in it during the summers. Wilson edited one of the leading 19th century newspapers in Chicago, the Chicago Daily Journal. Its primary rival was the Chicago Tribune. Today’s Chicago Sun-Times traces its lineage back to the Chicago Daily Journal.
What is historically important about the house is that its owner, Charles L. Wilson, invited many of his prominent friends and acquaintances in Chicago to spend time with him during the summers of the early 1870s at his Geneva home. His guests included Mary Todd Lincoln (the widow of Abraham Lincoln), and the famous Union generals U.S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan (after whom Sheridan Springs Road is named as is the well-known Geneva Lake sailing trophy). By that time, U.S. Grant was the president of the United States.
Who was Charles L. Wilson? He had been born on Oct. 10, 1818 in Fairfield County Connecticut, the son of John Quinford Wilson and Maria Lush Wilson. His ancestor, John Wilson, had arrived in Massachusetts aboard the famous ship Mayflower in 1620. The John Q. Wilson family moved from Connecticut to Albany, New York, where Charles L. Wilson grew up and attended local schools. Wilson moved from Albany to the new village of Chicago in 1835 at the age of 17.
On April 23, 1844, he joined with his older brother, Richard Wilson, in founding the Chicago Daily Journal newspaper. Originally a supporter of the Whig Party, the Chicago Daily Journal became one of the first newspapers to support the brand new Republican Party, which had been founded in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854. After his older brother Richard became incapacitated by a terrible accident, Charles L. Wilson took over the Chicago Daily Journal, assisted by his younger brother, John R. Wilson. During this period, Charles L. Wilson became a close personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. My own great-great-grandfather, John Wilkinson, who owned a tavern in Greenview, Illinois, a few miles away from Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of New Salem, Illinois, was also a close friend of Abraham Lincoln.
In 1856, Charles L. Wilson joined with Abraham Lincoln and others in founding the Republican Party in Illinois. In the 1856 election, the new Republican Party ran its first candidate for president, John C. Fremont, for whom Fremont Street in Lake Geneva is named. Prior to the election of 1858, Wilson persuaded Lincoln to engage in the famous series of debates with U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas. During the decade before the Civil War, Charles L. Wilson was a staunch anti-slavery advocate. Accordingly, his paper, the Chicago Daily Journal, was a firm supporter of the anti-slavery cause.
Growing up in New York state, Wilson had supported the well-known politician William Henry Seward, and later became a close friend of Seward’s. Before the 1860 election, Wilson supported the nomination of Seward rather than Abraham Lincoln as the Republican Party’s candidate for the presidency. After Abraham Lincoln defeated Seward for the nomination at the Republican National Convention, Wilson switched his support to Lincoln and helped persuade Seward to come to the Midwest and campaign for Lincoln during the months leading up to the 1860 election.
After Lincoln became president in March 1861, he appointed Seward as secretary of state. Seward and Lincoln then appointed Charles L. Wilson as the secretary of the U.S. Legation (Embassy) in London. Charles Francis Adams (the father of the famed writer Henry Adams) was appointed the U.S. ambassador to England. Wilson served as the secretary of the U.S. Legation in London for three years during the Civil War.
After completing his service in London, Wilson returned to Chicago where he resumed his editorship of the Daily Journal, which had become a prosperous newspaper.
In July 1868, Charles L. Wilson married Catherine F. Farrar of Cambridge, Massachusetts. They had two children, a boy and a girl; however, the boy died in infancy. In 1872 Wilson had a five-story building erected in downtown Chicago to house the Chicago Daily Journal after its building was destroyed during the Great Chicago Fire of Oct. 8, 1871.
In 1871, Charles L. Wilson played an important role in facilitating the restoration of rail service between Chicago and Geneva. Shortly afterwards, he purchased as his summer home the house at 915 W. Main Street. It was the great Chicago Fire, combined with the restoration of rail service between Chicago and Geneva on July 28, 1871, that prompted many wealthy Chicagoans to purchase land on the shores of Geneva Lake and build “summer cottages” on the land that they had purchased. Among the first to do so were the three Sturges brothers, George, Sheldon, and Buckingham Sturges. Charles L. Wilson was as prominent and distinguished in Chicago as the Sturges brothers.
George Sturges initially lived in a house across Main Street from Wilson’s house. Sturges’ house had been built in 1859 by the Geneva lawyer Asa W. Farr. As an officer in the Union Army, Farr had been murdered in cold blood by Quantrill’s Confederate “guerillas” in Baxter Springs, Kansas on Oct. 6, 1863. In June 1894, George Sturges’ widow, Mary Delafield Sturges, donated their house on Main Street to house the new Lake Geneva Public Library. It was during the summers of 1871 to 1874 that Charles L. Wilson invited Mary Todd Lincoln and Generals U.S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan to spend time with him as guests at his summer home in Geneva.
In 1875, however, Wilson fell ill and became an invalid. Wilson’s younger brother, John R. Wilson, succeeded him as editor of the Chicago Daily Journal. John R. Wilson lived during the summers at a house at the northeast corner of Main and Madison streets, three houses west of Charles L. Wilson’s home.
Charles L. Wilson was ill and an invalid between 1875 and 1878. He went to San Antonio, Texas, in 1878 in the hope that the warmer Texas climate would improve his health. Unfortunately, it did not. He died in San Antonio on March 9, 1878, at the age of 59. For all-too-brief a time, 1871 to 1878, Charles L. Wilson was one of Geneva’s most prominent summer residents. And during the preceding quarter century, he had been one of Chicago’s most well known and distinguished citizens.
Were it not for the two plaques on the house at 915 W. Main Street, current residents of Lake Geneva would have never heard of him. Knowledge of his impressive life would have simply dissolved into oblivion.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.