Everybody who lives in Lake Geneva knows how wonderful the spring is, with the grass getting greener, the yellow daffodils waving in a gentle breeze, and the ice gone from the lake. And all who live in the city are aware of the delights of the fall, with the leaves turning orange, red and yellow, pumpkins adorning people’s porches, and football prevailing on the weekends. Likewise, everyone agrees that summer is the magical season in Lake Geneva, when hordes of tourists descend on the city, the excursion boats ply the water of Geneva Lake, and the Venetian Festival carnival lights cheer up the evenings in Flat Iron Park.
But what of that other season, winter?
A glance at the newspapers that document Lake Geneva’s history reveals that for the past 184 years of Lake Geneva’s existence, residents have been concerned with the question of how best to cope with and survive the long winter. Depending upon how much snow falls during the winter, residents had to struggle getting around in the city. Depending upon how cold the winter was, a resident had to calculate how much wood or coal they would need to heat their homes. And employment in Lake Geneva diminished considerably during the winter after wealthy Chicagoans closed up their summer homes and retreated to the warmth of their primary residences in Chicago.
Cutting ice blocks on the frozen Geneva Lake and shipping them to Chicago on the railroad provided some employment, but not nearly enough. Residents with sufficient funds to do so escaped to Florida for the winter, but the vast majority of residents did not have this good fortune. So what did residents do to survive the winter?
The fact that most residents have access to a warm car today provides them with considerable refuge from the winter. Employment during the winter today is not as dependent on wealthy Chicagoans as it was during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The 1940s and ‘50s were transitional years in Lake Geneva. It may be interesting to review how residents managed to cope with and survive the winter during those decades.
One means of surviving the winter was to stay indoors as much as possible. For young people, the city’s schools provided a warm haven during the weekdays. Central School, Third Ward School, and Lake Geneva High School were particularly warm weekday havens (before Eastview, St. Francis de Sales School, and, of course, Badger High School existed). During the evenings, the Lake Geneva High School’s auditorium facing its gym was filled to capacity with residents watching high school basketball games, plays, and musical events. And male residents of the city would fill the city’s eight taverns on weekday nights as well as weekends. Residents, young and old alike, considered the old wooden Lake Geneva Public Library a welcome refuge from the winter, much as they did the bowling alley beneath the Metropolitan Building (known then as the Clair Hotel).
Old-timers gathered around the huge pot-bellied stove in the railroad depot, their lazer-like expectorated streams of tobacco juice sparkling and crackling as they struck the sides of the pot-bellied stove. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and members of the American Legion spent many an evening in the American Legion Hall above the fire station on the north side of the 600 block of Main Street. The Geneva Theater was always filled with movie goers, the Saturday afternoon matinees being a favorite of young people. The counter and booths of Frediani’s ice cream parlor just north of the Geneva Theater were always filled with teenagers who dropped their nickels into Frediani’s wonderful jukebox and listened to Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day,” and Elvis’ “Don’t Be Cruel.” The counters at Arnold’s and Hammersley’s drug stores on the north side of the 700 block of Main Street were always occupied by teenagers drinking Cherry Cokes and Green Rivers.
Other havens from the cold and snow of winter were the “dime stores” —Schultz Brothers on the south side of the 700 block of Main Street and the Ben Franklin on the north side of the street. Male residents who were Masons would gather in the Masonic Hall above Bucknall’s Dry Goods store just south of the Geneva Theater, and members of the Knights of Pythias would frequent their hall upstairs of Hammerley’s drugstore. Residents would spend hours sipping their cups of coffee at the counter or in the booths of Hanny’s Restaurant at the northeast corner of Dodge and Broad streets.
On Sunday morning, all of the city’s churches were filled with parishioners. For young people, the YMCA at the southeast corner of Main and Cook streets was a haven from the winter. In the Y’s gym, basketball games were always being played in the evenings and on the weekends. On Friday nights, teenage dances in the YMCA’s gym helped young people survive the winter as did Jack Huntress’s “Bandstand” dances at the Horticultural Hall. Female residents escaped the winter by shopping at Montgomery Ward’s, east of the YMCA.
For many young people, however, being indoors was not the only means of surviving the winter. They embraced the winter head-on by riding sleds and toboggans down Stanford’s Hill on Franklin Avenue, or down Devil’s Hill and Beginner’s Hill where the Edgewood subdivision is located today or down the hills of the Hillmoor Golf Course. Many skated on the rink on the ice in front of the Riviera Beach from which the city had scraped off the snow. Teenage males, mainly high school football players, created their own snow-banked ice rink where the Maxwell Street pier was located during the summer months. The hockey games they played were rough and unencumbered by pads or helmets.
Hearty adults took to the ice on Geneva Bay, hauling ice shanties out to where they cut holes in the ice and fished for ciscoes, perch, and other fish. The cluster of ice shanties was known as the “Fourth Ward.” (Lake Geneva had only three wards in those days.) Young people whose parents owned cars could escape Lake Geneva if their parents drove them to Delavan Inlet where they roller skated at the indoor roller rink, or to Twin Lakes where they skated at the roller rink there. Their parents could also take them to Lake Lawn Lodge, just east of Delavan, where they rode their sleds and toboggans down the high toboggan slide all the way to ice-covered Delavan Lake.
Perhaps today the ubiquitous presence of televisions in homes has replaced many of the activities mentioned above as a means of surviving the winter. Or perhaps being perpetually glued to a cellphone today provides a means of escaping the winter. Winterfest probably helps residents to survive, and even enjoy, the winter. But one thing is certain. As was the case during the 1940s and ‘50s, just about everyone is looking forward to the arrival of spring.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.