The month of May in Lake Geneva has been an especially welcome month over the past 180 years. It marks the transition from spring to summer, which is Lake Geneva’s premier season.
Senior students look forward to their impending graduation from high school. Young people look forward to the coming availability of summer jobs in the city, or to the blissful advent of the summer vacation from school. And children look forward to the lake becoming warm enough to swim in at the Riviera beach.
The high school spring sports schedule for baseball, tennis, track, cross country, and golf teams is wrapping up. The season for the Chicago Cubs, the Milwaukee Braves (and, today, the Milwaukee Brewers) is in full swing. Belfry Theater will soon be open.
Throughout the city during the early sun-lit evenings, people are planting their gardens, which have lain dormant over the long winter. On the farms in the surrounding area, tractors traverse the land, plowing up the soil and beginning to plant the seeds of this year’s crops. If the weather is warm enough, people will be sitting on their front porches after dinner, marveling at the sight of trees beginning to leaf and the forsythia and wisteria bushes in colorful bloom, or they will be cranking up their lawn mowers and getting ready to mow the once-again green grass of their lawns.
The excursion boats moored at the Riviera docks have begun their journeys up and down the lake. Wealthy Chicagoans have returned to their summer estates on the lake’s shore, and grounds keepers and others employed by them once again have jobs.
May 1st, May Day, begins the month. May Day has its origins in the pagan pre-medieval days when Europeans celebrated the advent of spring with dances around the May Pole and other festivities. During the 19th century, May Day became a workers holiday, especially after the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886. In Europe today, May Day is still celebrated as a workers holiday. I have marched with hundreds of thousands of working people down the boulevards of Paris on May Day. However, during the McCarthy era in Wisconsin, residents of nearby Burlington tried to take May Day away from working people by designating it as Law Day. After flourishing for a few years, Law Day faded into oblivion.
The next holiday in May after May Day is Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of the month. Mothers are honored with cards, boxes of candy, bouquets of flowers, or by being taken out to dinner by their children. (Ironically, the founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, abhorred the commercialization of the day. She preferred that children give their mothers handmade cards.)
For fans of horse racing, the first Saturday in May is special. It is the day of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, the second race in the Triple Crown of horse racing, the Preakness, is run in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Pimlico race track. The third race in the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes on Long Island, New York, will not be run until June.
May 21st is a special day for me. It will be the 53rd birthday of my older daughter, Abra, who was born in Madison, Wisconsin. She is a schoolteacher in San Leandro, California, just south of Oakland.
And the last Monday of May will be Memorial Day, marking the advent of summer in Lake Geneva. Memorial Day has been celebrated in Lake Geneva since the late 19th century. Originally called Decoration Day, it was the day on which flowers were placed on the graves of Civil War veterans in the Pioneer and Oak Hill cemeteries. Memorial Day eventually came to feature a parade down Broad Street from Maple Park to the lakefront in Library Park, where speeches were given and young girls placed flowers around the cenotaph in honor of war dead.
My mother, Helen Wardingle (Quinn) and my aunt, Frances Wardingle (Malsch) were among the young girls who placed flowers around the cenotaph during the years that followed World War I. I recall watching the Memorial Day parade for the first time in 1946. During the late 1940s and ‘50s as a Cub Scout and as a Boy Scout, I marched in the parade. During the ‘50s, the marchers in the parade included the Lake Geneva High School band, the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy Corps of Cadets, members of the U.S. Air Force stationed at the radar base north of Williams Bay on the southeast corner of Highway 67 and Palmer Road, the Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the Brownies, and the Girl Scouts, as well as Lake Geneva’s fire trucks.
The Memorial Day ceremonies were later moved to the steps of the Riviera, and eventually to the Brunk Pavilion in Flat Iron Park. Unfortunately, the late Colonel James Hanny will not be the master of ceremonies, as he passed away last year.
On the Sunday before Memorial Day, the Indianapolis 500 auto race will be held. This long-standing American tradition began in 1911.
When I was a boy, during the weeks following Memorial Day, at the beginning of of June, Protestant children in Lake Geneva attended Vacation Bible School, which was jointly sponsored by the Congregational, Methodist, and Baptist churches. Vacation Bible School marked the beginning of the children’s summer vacation from school.
On Memorial Day weekend, the American Legion Canteen in Library Park (where I worked every summer from 1950 to 1960), opened for the summer season and began dispensing hot dogs, popcorn, ice cream, and frozen candy bars to thousands of tourists and local residents. After Memorial Day, Lake Geneva was once again transformed from a garden-variety small Midwestern town into one of the premier summer resort cities in the United States.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.