On Sept. 18, Chris Brookes gave a superb presentation at the Geneva Lake Museum’s “Tuesdays @ Two” program about 10 women who were members of prominent (and, of course, very rich) families who had summer estates on Geneva Lake. Each of these women had contributed significantly to enriching the culture of their times.
After Chris’s session, several people who like my columns in the Lake Geneva Regional News asked me why I mainly write about significant men in Lake Geneva’s history. They were, of course, right in observing that my columns tend to focus on significant men. I rather feebly replied that it is quite difficult to track down information about significant women who made a difference in Lake Geneva. While this, of course, is true, it is largely due to the patriarchal culture that predominated in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The comments of these readers of my columns prompted me to make a greater effort to locate information relating to women who made a difference in Lake Geneva.
I am less interested in the lives of the wealthy people from Chicago who had summer homes on their estates on the shores of Geneva Lake than I am in the lives of people who lived and worked within the boundaries of the village of Geneva and city of Lake Geneva. To my delight, I managed to locate information relating to 12 women in Lake Geneva who made a difference in the village and the city. I was even more delighted after I realized that I knew 11 of these women.
I have summarized the lives of the 12 women in this column and my next column. Only one of these women lived most of her life in Geneva/Lake Geneva during the 19th century. She was Katherine “Katie” McCotter Simmons, the wife of the author of “Annals of Lake Geneva,” James Simmons.
Probably the two most important women in Lake Geneva during the 19th century were Anna Moody, the founder of the Geneva Seminary for Young Ladies, about whom I have written in earlier columns, and Mary Delafield Sturges, about whom Chris Brookes has written extensively. But little has been written about Katherine “Katie” McCotter Simmons.
Katie McCotter was born in Orwell, Vermont, on Nov. 29, 1822, the daughter of James and Jannet McCotter. She was educated at the Female Seminary in Middlebury, Vermont, and at the Academy in Mendon, New York. She came to the Geneva area in 1844 where she taught in area public and private schools. She married James Simmons, who was also from Middlebury, Vermont, on Nov. 12, 1848. They had seven children, of whom only three grew into adulthood. She joined the Presbyterian (later the First Congregational) Church in 1858. She died on Feb. 14, 1895, at the age of 72. The house at 234 Warren Street, in which she and her husband James Simmons lived, still exists. It is at the southwest corner of Geneva and Warren Streets.
Helen Wardingle Quinn was born in Chicago on Oct. 14, 1910. In 1912 at the age of 2, she was brought from Chicago with her two siblings, Tom (aged 6) and Frances (aged 4) to Lake Geneva on the railway by her parents, Thomas and Lillie Wardingle. She attended Central School and graduated from Lake Geneva High School in 1928. She had been a star women’s basketball player at LGHS. Immediately upon graduation from high school, she took a job as the secretary to the attorney Lewis Brown, the chairman of the Walworth County Democratic Party. She quickly worked her way up to becoming what we call today a paralegal. Because Lewis Brown was quite elderly, she soon was doing virtually all of his legal work. Lewis Brown’s office was located at 915 Main St. across the street from the Lake Geneva Public Library. (Mary Tanner lives there today.) Helen worked for Lewis Brown from 1928 until Oct. 11, 1941, when she married Bernard F. Quinn. They had one son, who was born on Aug. 22, 1942. Sadly, she died of pneumonia in Madison on Nov. 13, 1945, at the age of 35. She was my mother.
Mary Cattin was the assistant librarian at the Lake Geneva Public Library from 1919 until she retired in 1958. She was born on Jan. 17, 1891, in Linn Township, the daughter of John and Kathryn Ruchti. She moved with her parents to Lake Geneva in 1898 at the age of 7. She began working at the Lake Geneva Public Library in 1901 at the age of 10. During her years at Lake Geneva High School, she was doing increasingly more responsible work at the Lake Geneva Public Library. She married Marcel Cattin on June 18, 1912. Marcel Cattin fought in France during World War I and was severely wounded. In 1919, at the age of 28, Mary Cattin became a full time member of the staff at the public library and eventually the assistant librarian. She was a charter member of the Town and Country Garden Club, a member of the Red Cross, a member of the First Congregational Church, and the past president of the American Legion Auxiliary. At the library, she specialized in selecting books about horticulture and donated many horticultural books to the library. Mary Cattin was a close friend of my grandmother. She died in Lakeland Hospital on May 6, 1960, at the age of 69.
May Powers served as postmaster in Lake Geneva from 1933 until her retirement in 1952. She was born on May 20, 1882, in Lyons Township, the daughter of Richard and Bridget Cassin Powers. She attended Lake Geneva public schools and graduated from Lake Geneva High School. Prior to becoming the postmaster in Lake Geneva, she worked at the Southern Wisconsin Electric Co. and at the First National Bank. She was a member of the St. Francis des Sales Catholic Church, the Catholic Daughters of America, and the St. Francis de Sales Alter Society. She died on Dec. 21, 1966, at the age of 84. As the postmaster from 1933 until 1952, May Powers was perhaps the most well known woman in Lake Geneva.
Ethel Brann was born Dec. 21, 1896, in Gilboa, Ohio, the daughter of Robert Pratt Maidlow and his wife. She received a B.S. in education from the Ohio State University and did graduate work at Ohio State and at the University of Arizona. In 1931, following the death of her husband, Andrew J. Brann, she moved to Lake Geneva, where she taught French, English, and Latin at the Lake Geneva High School and served as the school’s librarian. In 1936, she was appointed as the librarian at the Lake Geneva Public Library, a position she held until her death 32 years later.
During 1944-1945, Ethel Brann taught at the University of Wisconsin’s Library School. She also taught at the UW Library School’s Summer Session for several years. During her long tenure as head of the Lake Geneva Public Library, the library received numerous awards. The LGPL became the co-ordinating library for the Walworth County Library Service Project. Ethel Brann also promoted adult education and established a Great Books Study Course at the public library in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin Extension. She presided over the library’s transition from being housed in the old wooden library building to the new modern public library building that opened in 1954. In 1955, she was named librarian of the year by the Wisconsin Library Association. She was a member of the American Library Association, the Wisconsin Library Association (of which she was president in 1958), the American Association of University Women, a charter member of the Walworth County AAUW, the Governor’s Commission for the United Nations, the Walworth County United Nations Association, the Wisconsin Business and Professional Women’s Society, the Southern Wisconsin Planning Commission, the Women’s Society for Christian Service, the Lake Geneva Methodist Church and the Methodist Church’s Miriam Circle. She died in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Sept. 14, 1968, at the age of 71. I recall Ethel Brann teaching Latin at both Lake Geneva High School and Badger High School.
Ruth O’Brien Nussbaum was born on Aug. 30, 1896, in Lake Geneva as the daughter of James W. and Elizabeth Gaffney O’Brien. The Gaffney family was a pioneer family in Linn Township. They came to Linn Township from upstate New York before 1843. They brought with them locust tree seeds, which they planted at the intersection of Highway 120 and Willow Road. The school that was located there was named the Locust Grove School (now a church) after the locust trees that the Gaffney family planted. Ruth O’Brien grew up in a house that was located where the Mill Creek condos are today.
She graduated from the Pestalozzi Froebel College in Chicago and began her teaching career in Mayville, Wisconsin, in 1918. In 1920 she returned to Lake Geneva, where she taught kindergarten at Central School, Third Ward School, and Eastview School for the next 42 years. During the summers, she was the secretary of the Lake Geneva Chamber of Commerce. For more than 25 years, she presided at the window of the small chamber of commerce building, then located in Library Park at the intersection of Main Street and Wrigley Drive, dispensing advice and counsel to tourists. She loved to travel and traveled all over the world. On Dec. 18, 1947, at the age of 51, she married Edward T. Nussbaum, who had been the Lake Geneva municipal judge and part owner of the famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Geneva Hotel. He died in 1956.
Ruth O’Brien Nussbaum retired in 1962. Following her retirement, she continued to travel around the world. She died at the Lakeland Nursing home on Nov. 23, 1978. She was 82 years old. Ruth O’Brien was my kindergarten teacher, as well as the kindergarten teacher of my aunt, uncle, and parents.
Thus concludes the biographical sketches of the first six of 12 women who have made a difference in Lake Geneva. My next column will review the lives of six more women who made a difference in Lake Geneva.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.