Many noteworthy pioneers remain in Lake Geneva cemetery
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Many noteworthy pioneers remain in Lake Geneva cemetery

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Because I am an historian who writes a column in the Lake Geneva Regional News and because I live across the street from the Pioneer Cemetery, quite a few people, many of whom read my column every week, ask me: “Who the heck is buried in that cemetery?” Accordingly, I decided to devote a column to answering that question.

Perhaps the best way to begin is to note that many of the people buried in the Pioneer Cemetery played key roles in shaping the history of the village of Geneva during the first five decades of its existence, particularly between 1837 and the early 1880s.

Some who are buried in the Pioneer Cemetery were prominent residents of the village, but the majority of those buried there were ordinary residents of the village. They nonetheless collectively helped to forge the village’s growth from a tiny settlement of log houses into what, by 1886, would be the thriving small city of Lake Geneva.

I have selected 20 of the people who are buried in the Pioneer Cemetery and will summarize their lives.

Standing at the entrance to the cemetery on Dodge Street, one immediately sees the sign erected by the Lake Geneva Historic Preservation Commission that lists the names, regiments, and companies of 25 veterans of the Civil War, three veterans of the War of 1812, one veteran of the Seminole Wars, and two veterans of World War I who are buried there.

As one enters the cemetery and walks west along the black wrought-iron fence that surrounds it, he or she will encounter the grave of O.T. LaSalle (1827-1892), the Quebec-born carpenter who built many of the houses in Geneva before and after the Civil War. LaSalle also built the first bath house on Geneva Lake, which was located just to the east of where the Riviera is today.

LaSalle Street in Lake Geneva is named after him. Unfortunately, while building a house on Willow Street, O.T. LaSalle fell off a scaffold to his death. His son, C.O. LaSalle, was also a carpenter and contractor. Among the many buildings that he constructed was the Central School on the north side of the 900 block of Wisconsin Street across from Maple Park.

As one walks back east from O.T. LaSalle’s grave to the central north-south passageway in the cemetery, one will encounter the grave of John Powers, who was a veteran of both the Civil War and the War of 1812. To the north of John Powers’ grave, one will encounter the grave of Major Ira Buell (1791-1874), a veteran of the War of 1812 who was a prominent resident of Geneva during the years before and after the Civil War. His son, C.E. Buell, a well-known veteran of the Civil War, is buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery.

Of the seven people who founded the village of Geneva in 1837, two are buried in the Pioneer Cemetery — Lewis Goodsell and Dr. Philip Maxwell. Lewis Goodsell died in Chicago of a heart attack in 1852 while running to catch a boat to Southport (now Kenosha). He is buried to the west of Major Ira Buell.

Lewis Goodsell’s tombstone is next to the tombstone of Ann Ferguson (1828-1866), a member of the family of Goodsell’s brother-in-law, Andrew Ferguson (who is not buried in the Pioneer Cemetery). Ann Street in Lake Geneva is named after her, and Henry Street is named after Andrew Ferguson’s son Henry (1840-1918). Like Lewis Goodsell, Andrew Ferguson was one of the seven founders of Geneva.

As one walks north on the main pathway of the cemetery, he or she will encounter the largest tombstone in the cemetery, looming over the graves of two of the most prominent people buried in the cemetery, Dr. Philip Maxwell (1799-1859) and his wife Jerusha (1804-1875).

Dr. Philip Maxwell was born in Guilford, Vermont. He studied medicine and became a physician. He was elected as a member of the New York state legislature. In 1833, he joined the U.S. Army and was posted to Fort Dearborn at the site of what is today the center of the city of Chicago. He served as the fort’s assistant surgeon. In 1838, he was promoted to be a surgeon and served in the second of the three wars against the Seminole Indians in Florida.

After he retired from the army, he moved to Chicago where he became a very wealthy real estate speculator while carrying on his medical practice. He was also elected to the Illinois state legislature, in which he served from 1848 to 1852. In 1855, he retired from practicing medicine and buying and selling real estate in Chicago.

In 1856, he moved to Geneva where he built the first mansion overlooking Geneva Lake. The Maxwell Mansion still exists. It is located on the north side of Baker Street just west of Wells Street. Dr. Maxwell was very familiar with the village of Geneva before he moved there because, in 1837, he was one of the village’s seven founders who purchased the land upon which the village of Geneva would arise. Dr. Philip Maxwell probably moved to Geneva in 1856, because the railroad from Chicago reached Geneva in that year.

Unfortunately, Dr. Maxwell died in 1859, only three years after his mansion had been built. Following her husband’s death, his widow Jerusha lived for 25 more years.

Also buried in the Pioneer Cemetery are the founding ministers of three of the four original Protestant churches in Geneva: the Reverend Lemuel Hall of the Presbyterian Church (which later became the First Congregational/United Church of Christ), the Reverend John McNamara (1824-1895) of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, and the Reverend Noah Barrell (1794-1876) of the First Baptist Church which, sadly, no longer exists.

A short distance northeast of Dr. Philip Maxwell’s large tombstone is the grave of Asa W. Farr. Farr, a lawyer, came to Geneva from Massachusetts in 1851, where he became the law partner of Charles Minton Baker, the first attorney in Geneva. Farr was elected to the Wisconsin state legislature in 1856. He briefly lived in Racine before returning to Geneva in 1859, where he had a house built on Main Street overlooking Geneva Lake, a house that was eventually purchased by George Sturges and later donated by George’s widow Mary Sturges to the city of Lake Geneva. It served as the Lake Geneva Public Library until 1954, when the current Lake Geneva Public Library was opened on the site of the original library.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Farr enlisted in the Union Army and became a lieutenant and quartermaster in the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry. Tragically, however, on Oct. 6, 1863, Farr, unarmed, was brutally murdered in cold blood by a band of Confederate guerillas led by William Quantrill that included Frank and Jesse James. Farr’s body was returned to Geneva and buried in Pioneer Cemetery.

Just to the east of Asa W. Farr’s grave is the grave of H.B. Conant, who like his fellow carpenter, O.T. LaSalle, built many of the houses in Geneva, before and after the Civil War, as well as building the first building of the Presbyterian Church in 1851. Conant Street in Lake Geneva is named after him.

Also buried in the Pioneer Cemetery is John Haskins (1811-1887), who came to Geneva from Massachusetts in 1842. In Geneva, he became a leading businessman, entrepreneur, and manufacturer both before and after the Civil War. Haskins Street in Lake Geneva is named after him. The large house that he had built and lived in on the south side of Haskins Street still exists.

Near Haskin’s grave is the grave of Martin Ross (1840-1863), a Civil War soldier and member of Company C, 22nd Wisconsin Infantry regiment, who died of illness in Danville, Kentucky on Jan. 31, 1863, at the age of 22.

Along the east fence of the cemetery on the Warren Street side are buried Harrison Rich (1812-1889), who developed one of the first two additions to the village of Geneva in the 1850s, and his descendant, Evelyn Rich Mahoney (1893-1977), who was the penultimate person to be buried in the Pioneer Cemetery.

The last person buried in the Pioneer Cemetery was Helen Johnson (1895-1986), whose grave is near the entrance to the cemetery on Dodge Street.

A person can still be buried in the Pioneer Cemetery if he or she owns a grave plot.

Near the Warren Street side of the cemetery is buried the third veteran of the War of 1812, Zacheus P. Gillette. Gillette was a drummer boy during the war.

In the northwest corner of the cemetery is the large tombstone of J.H. Moore (1821-1913), who moved from Walworth Township to Geneva in 1856, where he became a businessman. He had been born in Jefferson County, New York. During the Civil War, he commanded Company L of the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery.

Finally, in the southeast corner of Pioneer Cemetery are buried two other Civil War veterans, A.J. Weatherwax and his son, Monroe Weatherwax. A. J. Weatherwax had moved to Geneva in 1849, where he opened a store selling clothing. During the Civil War, both A.J. Weatherwax and his son, Monroe J. Weatherwax, served as members of the 4th Wisconsin Infantry regiment, A.J. was a 1st lieutenant, and Monroe as a private. Sadly, however, after the Civil War had ended, both A.J. Weatherwax and later, his son, Monroe, committed suicide by taking overdoses of the drug laudanum.

During the 1940s and 1950s when I was growing up in our house on Maxwell Street across the street from Pioneer Cemetery, there were many more gravestones in the cemetery than there are today. By 1880, the cemetery was declared full, and Oak Hill Cemetery was developed to replace it as the village’s cemetery. Many people who had been buried in Pioneer Cemetery were disinterred and their remains and tombstones were moved to the new Oak Hill Cemetery.

Among those disinterred was Robert Wells Warren, another of the seven founders of the village of Geneva.

As one walks around in the Oak Hill Cemetery, one can easily discern which tombstones had once been in Pioneer Cemetery.

During the 1940s and 1950s, many of the gravestones in Pioneer Cemetery made of sandstone began breaking off and falling to the ground. These gravestones were from 50 to 100 years old, and the brutal Wisconsin winters had hastened their deterioration. The broken gravestones were piled up along the north fence of the cemetery. Eventually there were many piles of gravestones along the north fence.

One day I noticed that they were all gone. I asked a cemetery worker what had happened to them. “Oh, them? We took all of them to the city dump,” he replied. The city dump was then located on the east side of Highway 12 (today Highway H) south of Lake Geneva. It is now the “Four Seasons Nature Preserve.” A goodly portion of the visual evidence of the individuals who forged Lake Geneva’s 19th-century history now reposes not in Pioneer Cemetery, but under the ground at the “Four Seasons Nature Preserve.”

Fortunately, most of Pioneer Cemetery’s marble and granite tombstones have survived. Alas, but Pioneer Cemetery is today not nearly the iconic locale that it was over the years since the Irish-born surveyor Thomas McKaig created it in 1837.

Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.

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