In 1915 Edgar Lee Master’s magnificent book “Spoon River Anthology” was published. It was widely hailed as a literary masterpiece. Over the past century, it became one of the classics of American literature. Spoon River Anthology was a collection of 209 poems that serve as epitaphs for deceased residents of the small towns of Petersburg and Lewistown, Illinois, towns where Edgar Lee Masters lived as a youth. In the second (1916) edition, Masters added 35 poems. The poems are “delivered” by the deceased residents of the towns whose epitaphs are depicted in the poems. Taken together, the poems provide a social and cultural portrait of small town life.
I know Petersburg very well. It is located approximately 20 miles northwest of Springfield, Illinois. My great grandfather, John Wilkinson, Jr., a friend of Abraham Lincoln, is buried in the Petersburg cemetery, which is called Oak Hill Cemetery, the same name as Lake Geneva’s prestigious cemetery.
John Wilkinson owned a hotel and tavern located between Petersburg and Greenview, Illinois, which Abraham Lincoln frequently visited. Most of the people whose lives are depicted in the poems that comprise Spoon River Anthology are buried in Petersburg’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
Alas, but Lake Geneva does not have an Edgar Lee Masters to write a “White River Anthology” based on the lives of Lake Geneva residents. Therefore, a collective portrait of small town life in Lake Geneva during the 20th century does not exist. Fortunately, we have James Simmons’ “Annals of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin,” 1835-1897, which includes brief biographical sketches of prominent residents of Lake Geneva in the 19th century. Simmons’ Annals, combined with Albert Beckwith’s “History of Walworth County” (1912), offer a partial portrait of life in Lake Geneva during the 19th century, but neither book extends into the 20th century.
What is needed is research that will shed light on the lives of 20th-century Lake Genevans. During the past few years, two prominent 20th century residents of the city, Joe Payne and Sturg Taggart, Jr., passed away, taking with them invaluable knowledge of what life in Lake Geneva was like during their lifetimes. Today residents of Lake Geneva over the age of 75, who have lived here all of their lives, fortunately have memories of Lake Genevans who were prominent during the decades following World War II. But as we get deeper into the 21st century, such memories are fading.
Since a James Simmons for the 20th century does not appear to be on the horizon, it is imperative that persons who have significance in Lake Geneva during the second half of the 20th century be rescued from the mists of passing time before they are completely forgotten.
In my previous columns, I have focused on bringing back to life individuals who played significant roles in Lake Geneva during the 19th century. The balance of this column will be devoted to illuminating the lives of six individuals who played significant roles in Lake Geneva during the last half of the 20th century. There were, of course, many individuals who played significant roles in Lake Geneva during the second half of the 20th century, but I have selected these six as emblematic of their times. Future columns, hopefully, will highlight the lives of additional persons who played significant roles in Lake Geneva during the second half of the 20th century.
The sketches of the six individuals that follow below are scarcely of the same revelatory nature as are those of the individuals depicted in the poems of Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. These sketches are essentially biographical summaries of the public lives of these six individuals.
Edward P. Dunn
The first person that this column will focus upon in Edward P. Dunn, who not only played an important role in Lake Geneva, but was a member of a Lake Geneva family that is still prominent in the city as the owner of one of Lake Geneva’s most long-standing businesses, the Dunn Lumber Company. Edward P. Dunn was the son of a former Lake Geneva mayor, Edward F. Dunn, for whom Dunn Field was named. Edward P. Dunn was born in Lake Geneva on Aug. 26, 1898.
After graduating from Lake Geneva High School, he attended the University of Notre Dame. During World War I, he served in France in Battery “F” of the 120th Field Artillery regiment of the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division, which had been recruited in Lake Geneva as “Troop F” of the First Wisconsin Cavalry. When he returned to Lake Geneva after the war he was associated with the Dunn Lumber Company and was in the real estate and insurance businesses.
But he became better known for his political activities and civic duties. He was the head of the Walworth County Democratic Party, served as postmaster in Lake Geneva during 1952 and 1953, and served as Lake Geneva’s Municipal Justice from 1954 to 1959. He was also the President and Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and was a member of the Knights of Columbus, the Lions Club, the American Legion and the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church.
By the time I got to know Mr. Dunn, he was living in the “old” Y.M.C.A. A short, rotund man, he was frequently seen walking around the downtown business district invariably smoking a cigar. In fact, the odor of his cigar often permeated the “old” Y.M.C.A. Edward P. Dunn passed away in the Woods (now Zablocki) Veterans Hospital in Milwaukee on Feb. 17, 1961, at the age of 62.
Ralph E. Williams
Ralph E. Williams was born in Lake Geneva on June 28, 1894. He attended Lake Geneva schools. He ran a trucking business in Lake Geneva for 30 years from 1922 until his retirement in 1952. He began his endeavors as a public servant in 1942 when he was elected as an alderman from the Third Ward. In January 1949, he became the mayor of Lake Geneva when Mayor Lloyd Best died of a heart attack just prior to a meeting of the City Council in City Hall. Williams was elected Mayor in a special election held in April 1949.
Ralph Williams was a very colorful and often-controversial mayor. He strongly supported the Venetian Festival, the city’s acquisition of the Denison property (east of Center Street along the lake’s outlet), the construction of the modern Lake Geneva Public Library, and at first opposed, but later supported the fluoridation of the city’s water. He also supported locating of the Air Force Academy near Lake Geneva, moving Carthage College from Carthage, Illinois to Lake Geneva (Carthage eventually moved to Kenosha), and the establishment of Badger High School.
Williams was a 32nd degree Mason, a member of the Zor Shrine, the Knights of Pythias, and the First Baptist Church. After he retired, he captained the excursion boat, the “Walworth,” on Geneva Lake. He died on Aug. 14, 1957 at the age of 63. He was the father-in-law of current Lake Geneva resident Peg Williams.
Lyle M. Traver
Lyle M. Traver was born in Linn Township on July 27, 1894. He grew up in Lake Geneva and attended Lake Geneva schools. In 1912, he began working as a mechanic for his father who owned the Ford dealership in Lake Geneva until his father sold the dealership in 1917. In 1918, he acquired the Firestone tire dealership, which he owned until 1948. In 1920, he obtained the Dodge-Plymouth dealership, located on the east side of the 200 block of Broad Street, which he ran until 1948 when he built the Lincoln-Mercury dealership on the south side of the 700 block of Geneva Street.
Traver first entered politics in 1942, when he was elected Mayor to succeed Walter Ledger. He was re-elected Mayor in 1944 and 1946, but chose not to run again in 1948 when he was succeeded by Lloyd Best.
Prior to being elected Mayor, Traver was a two-term President of the Chamber of Commerce. It was during his presidency that the chamber adopted the slogan the “Switzerland of America” for advertising Lake Geneva (despite the fact that Lake Geneva was named after Geneva, New York, not Geneva, Switzerland). As president of the Chamber of Commerce, he was instrumental in bringing the John L. Cheney Instrument Company and the Belvidere Pottery firm to Lake Geneva. He strongly supported the Venetian Festival.
Traver was a member of the Lions Club, the Zor Shrine, the Masons, and the Methodist Church. He was also an ardent bowler. He died on April 27, 1958 at the age of 60. His half brother Edwin A. Traver, also a prominent Lake Geneva businessman, was associated with the Traver Hotel. The Traver School in Linn Township is named after the Traver family.
Sturges P. Taggart, Sr.
Sturges P. Taggart, Sr. was the father of the recently deceased Sturges Taggart, Jr. The senior Taggart was born in Lake Geneva on June 14, 1893.
His father Louis Taggart was the founder of the Taggart Lumber Company. Sturges P. Taggart, Sr., attended Lake Geneva schools and graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1922, following his service in France during World War I.
His first law partner in Lake Geneva was the well-known attorney Charles S. French. His office was at 743 Main Street. He practiced law in Lake Geneva for 39 years and was eventually elected Mayor of Lake Geneva.
During his long career as an attorney and as Mayor, he played a particularly important leadership role in Lake Geneva. His brother Frederick H. Taggart, who ran the Taggart Lumber Company, was also a prominent businessman in Lake Geneva. Sturges P. Taggart, Sr., died in Lakeland Hospital on Nov. 8, 1961 at the age of 63.
Clarke B. Habecker
Clarke B. Habecker was born in Danvers, Illinois on Dec. 18, 1895. After service with the U.S. Navy during World War I, he came to Lake Geneva in May 1921 and, with Tom Derrick, Sr., founded the Habecker-Derrick Funeral Home at 252 Center Street, now the home of Geneva Java Coffee.
He also operated a furniture store on the south side of the 700 block of Main Street from 1921 to 1949. In the mosaic tile at the front door of the store, one can today still see the name “Habecker.” During his long career as a public servant in Lake Geneva, he was a member of the School Board, a member of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors, a member of the Lake Geneva Cemetery Commission, and a member of the original Police and Fire Commission.
He was also a member of the Lions Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Masons, the Knights of Pythias, the American Legion, and the First Congregational Church. But it is as a real estate developer that Clarke Habecker will be remembered.
Most notably he developed the Sturwood subdivision, which was Lake Geneva’s second “suburb” after the “Manor.” Clarke Habecker died in Lakeland Hospital on May 25, 1957 at the age of 61. His granddaughter Linda Bailey Bolini, after whom Linda Lane in Sturwood is named, still lives in the Lake Geneva area.
William F. Trinke
William F. Trinke was born on Jan. 25, 1897, in Lyons Township. He was orphaned at the age of 14, and, with only six years of formal education, Bill Trinke’s life was a classic “Horatio Alger” story of “rags to riches.”
After service in the famed 32nd “Red Arrow” Division in France during World War I, he returned to Lake Geneva. Without a high school diploma, he entered the University of Wisconsin Law School from which he graduated with a law degree in 1937.
He opened a law office with his partner John Raup on the south side of the 700 block of Main Street in the former Farmers National Bank (which went bankrupt during the Depression). It was during the Great Depression that Trinke got his start as a real estate developer. He purchased the former Levi Leiter estate (which had been bought by H. H. Porter) at a sheriff’s sale for $10,000. Levi Leiter had been the co-founder with Marshall Field of Marshall Field’s famous department store on State Street in Chicago’s Loop.
Trinke developed the Leiter estate into the “Manor” subdivision, Lake Geneva’s first suburb. He then went on to develop 11 subdivisions in the Lake Geneva area, including the Geneva Bay Estates, and the one that bears his name-the Trinke Estates-on the south shore of Geneva Lake.
He was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate in 1949 and served as a state Senator until 1961. He was the Commander of the Wisconsin State American Legion and was a president of Frank Kresen Post #24 of the American Legion in Lake Geneva. He was also a 32nd degree Mason, a director for 25 years and chairman of the Board of the First National Bank in Lake Geneva, and a member of the First Congregational Church.
It was as a member of the First Congregational Church that I first got to know Senator Trinke. He was my “godfather” in the church. His wife Altha was the daughter of William Hooker, who taught my grandfather, Thomas Wardingle, the plumbing trade in 1912. William Trinke was one of the most extraordinary persons that I have had the good fortune to know. He died on Sept. 25, 1982 at the age of 85.
Were any of the individuals described above the scandalous types that Masters depicted in “Spoon River Anthology”? Probably not. But did such people as Spoon River Anthology illuminated in Masters’ poems live in Lake Geneva? Probably so. But it is not the purpose of this column to bring them to residents’ attention.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.