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Opinion: When Lake Geneva summers were like a Hollywood movie
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Opinion: When Lake Geneva summers were like a Hollywood movie

Lake Geneva canteen

From its perch on the Lake Geneva lakefront, the American Legion Canteen has served generations of tourists and other summer beach goers.

Summers in Lake Geneva during the 1940s and ‘50s when I was growing up were magical times.

The summer traditionally began on Memorial Day with the Memorial Day parade and ceremony on the lakefront in Library Park, which featured an address by the city’s mayor, a speech by the high school valedictorian, a reading of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” a reading of General John A. Logan’s Order of the Day initiating Memorial Day, and the placing of flowers on the Cenotaph by young girls who were growing up in Lake Geneva.

The summer in Lake Geneva was relatively quiet during the first few weeks of June. Early in June, I took swimming lessons at the Riviera Beach provided by the Water Safety Patrol. But when the Chicago school year ended and the schools released students for the summer vacation at the beginning of the third week of June, the situation in Lake Geneva changed dramatically.

Thousands of tourists from Chicago arrived in Lake Geneva, mainly on the train or on Greyhound buses. Many tourists stayed for an entire week, most in rented rooms in houses in the Maple Park neighborhood. Others stayed in one of the city’s four hotels: the famed Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Geneva Hotel, the Surf Hotel, the Luzern Hotel, and the Traver Hotel.

The highlights of the summer included four major events: the arrival on the train from Chicago of the circus, which set up its tents on Dunn Field; the two carnivals held in Flat Iron Park, one sponsored by the American Legion and the other by the Lions Club; and the Venetian Festival with its signature feature being a parade of excursion boats based at the Riviera piers. The boats included the original Walworth, the Marietta, the Tilford S, the Tula, the Louise, the Polaris, the Jackie, and the Billie, as well as the private boats of wealthy summer residents who owned lakeshore estates, such as P.K. Wrigley.

All of the boats in the Venetian boat parade were festooned with large, colored Christmas tree-type lights, unlike today when the boats in the parade are decorated with rather sterile white lights.

On the Fourth of July — much to my disappointment — Lake Geneva did not have a fireworks show. The fireworks show in the Geneva Lake area was always at Fontana, which we in Lake Geneva could hear but not see.

I had begun working at the American Legion Canteen in Library Park in 1950 when I was just eight years old. The Legion Canteen was run by Fuller Boutelle, a Lake Geneva letter carrier and close friend of my Uncle Tom Wardingle, who was also a Lake Geneva letter carrier. Their friendship was why I got a job working at the Legion Canteen.

For the first five summers that I worked at the canteen, my job was quite simple. I roamed all over Library Park picking up discarded soda pop bottles which I returned to the canteen. Members of the Ledger family, who owned the Sheridan Springs Coca Cola Bottling Plant, which provided coke, root beer, and orange soda to the canteen, came to the canteen to retrieve the bottles that I had collected.

When I turned 13, I began working inside the canteen as a member of its staff selling hot dogs, frozen candy bars, pop, peanuts, and popcorn. Howard “Bunky” Bent had taken over running the canteen from Fuller Boutelle. Bunky had been a star halfback on the Lake Geneva High School football team during the 1930s, and was a World War II U.S. Navy veteran. He was the manager of the Wisconsin Southern Gas Co., whose office was on the east side of the 200 block of Broad Street.

When I entered high school, Bunky anointed me as the assistant manager of the canteen, and I was in charge of it during the weekdays. Bunky ran it on the weekends. In 1960, I began working at the U.S. Post Office during the summers.

The 10 summers that I worked at the American Legion Canteen were very formative times for me as I grew up. There was no better place to observe the happenings of the summer in Lake Geneva than from behind the counter of the Legion Canteen. which was then open on all sides, unlike it is today.

Another of the highlights of the summer was the Lyons Firemen’s Picnic, which was held in Walbrandt’s Grove on the White River just southeast of Lyons. I would ride my bike along Sheridan Springs Road to the Lyons Firemen’s Picnic.

Among the many events that the picnic included were wrestling matches held in a ring erected on the banks of the White River. Many famous professional wrestlers participated in the matches, including Verne Gagne (1926-2015), Angelo Poffo (1925-2010), Dick “The Bruiser” Afflis (1929-1991), Billy Goelz (1918-2002), and the “Mighty Atlas” (Morris Shapiro) (1914-1999).

The Lyons Fireman’s Picnic also featured a large beer tent where long-neck, 12-ounce bottles of Blatz, Schlitz, and Pabst beer were sold for a quarter a bottle. I recall banging back a bottle of Blatz when I was only 14 years old. The guy drinking a beer next to me turned toward me and opined that a cold beer sure goes down well on a hot summer’s day. I was mortified when I saw that the guy was Mel Swance, the chief of police of Lake Geneva, who no doubt was aware that I was just 14 years old. (The drinking age at this time was 21.)

The Lyons Firemen’s Picnic always reminded me of the “Neewollah” festival featured in the great 1955 movie, “Picnic,” starring William Holden and Kim Novak, which was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1953 play by the Kansas-born playwright, William Inge (1913-1973).

The summers in Lake Geneva during the 1940s and ‘50s for me always began when the school year at Lake Geneva’s Central School ended on the day after Memorial Day. The annual two-week “Vacation Bible School,” co-sponsored by the Congregational, Baptist, and Methodist churches, began then, and I always attended the Vacation Bible School each summer.

The summers ended on the night of Labor Day. The tourists from Chicago had all returned home, and the streets and parks in Lake Geneva were deserted. The magical excitement of the summer in Lake Geneva simply disappeared on the evening of Labor Day and would not return for another year.

With sadness, I walked to Central School on the morning of the day after Labor Day, knowing that I had to endure nine long months before I could again enjoy the elixir of another glorious summer in Lake Geneva.

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

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