The Town of Geneva is located in Walworth County in Southeast Wisconsin, approximately 35 miles southwest of Milwaukee and 90 miles northwest of Chicago.
This history of the Town of Geneva is based on the recollections and historical research which Charlotte Best Peterson, a lifelong resident of the area has recorded. Charlotte served the town as a town board member, chairperson of the town planning commission and member of the Walworth County Board of supervisors. Charlotte was also a local teacher and president of the Lake Geneva Joint 1 School Board. Charlotte Best Peterson devoted most of her adult life to being a local school teacher and private tutor, a civic and social worker, and a public official in both elected and appointed offices in Lake Geneva and Geneva Township, died June 22, 2008. She was 80.
• About 900 years ago there were people who traveled into this area. We refer to them as Mound Builders and they were the earliest inhabitants of this area. One mound, near Highway 50 past the Williams Bay entrance, was a bow and arrow mound. The meaning and use are not understood. Many animal type mounds were also found in the area.
• The Mound Builders were also known as part of the Aztalan culture with their headquarters in Cahokia, Illinois. A wonderful place to study this group who had many similarities with those in central Mexico, is the Aztalan State Park in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. Much of that park has yet to be excavated. We do know that the Mississippian Culture wove cloth, sculpted statues, planted corn, ate venison and traded goods hundreds of miles away.
• Potawatomi Indians were the next inhabitants. Their main camp was at Fontana and their summer camp was near Camp Augustana which is today’s Chapel on the Hill site. The Indians were moved to Lawrence, Kansas by the government in the 1830’s.
• Christopher Payne was the first settler of Geneva in 1836. There was a major dispute over ownership and Payne was run out of the area. He went to the Lake Como (Duck Lake) area and built the dam and a mill at the east end of Como. The original dam was washed away in the 1850’s by a terrible storm and has been rebuilt several times to it's current state. Payne sold the Duck Lake mill site to his brother-in-law, George Trimbull, and moved on to Sugar Creek and built another dam.
• The damming of Lake Como raised the lake level to about six feet. The lake was probably originally a wetland as Geneva Lake was formed during two glacial periods; the first formed the shape of the lake and the second formed the hills surrounding the lake.
• Farmers moved into the area buying land from the government for $1.25 an acre. The farmers did not want the lake shore area as it was too rocky and there were too many trees to make it suitable for farming, thus leaving it for Chicagoans to discover after the 1871 Chicago fire.
• The first train service came into Lake Geneva in the 1850’s from Elgin, Illinois and lasted for four years. The Irish laid the train tracks and stayed in the area buying land along today’s Highway 50 West, which is known as Irish Woods. Later, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad provided train service to the area.
• Many tourists came by Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. The Chicago Northwestern Railroad spur between Lake Geneva and Williams Bay came in the 1880’s. Later, when that track was torn up, the Lakeland Audubon Society received permission to establish a nature trail named Walworth County Warbler Walkway. Later the town allowed people to buy the train track land that abutted their property, but the rest became Duck Lake Nature Trail. This is a very popular trail for families and friends of nature.
• The Como train station, which was previously a boxcar, was placed adjacent to the Chicago and Northwestern track, fitted with a small platform and located across the street from present-day Mar’s Resort. When a passenger got on the train in Chicago, they had to sit in a designated car, as the train would stop with that car at the narrow platform to drop passengers off at the Lake Como stop. If a passenger failed to get on the proper car, they would fall into a ditch as they stepped off the car.
• The Irish immigrants also built the Catholic Church in Lake Geneva. Its location was determined due to the Irish wives wanting to have Sunday as a "day off" for the Lord and if the church was too close, they would be home too soon!
• Woods School, still in operation today, was built for the Irish children. Lizzie Watson was the well-known and respected teacher for years at this school. The city schools loved receiving these Irish students as they had such a good educational foundation.
• A very large diamond was found near today’s Foley’s Bar on Highway 50. It was believed that a glacier from the James Bay area brought it down to this area. Today it is housed in the Smithsonian Institute.
• The Town of Geneva farm community did their shopping in Lake Geneva, Elkhorn, and Delavan. The 700-block in Lake Geneva is an historic block on the National Trust and this was typical of the shopping area in the late 1870’s with its Italianate architecture. Visit the Lake Geneva area museum for depictions of the past.
• In 1871, the Chicago fire changed this area forever. As the lakeshore land was not desirable to farmers because it was too rocky, it was available for Chicagoans to purchase. Not only did they purchase the lakeshore for their estates, but they also built farms in conjunction. The first farm was the acreage between Highway 50 and McDonald Road from Forest Street west toward Williams Bay. It belonged to the Shelton Sturges’ of Maple Lawn. These farms provided many area people with employment.
• Horses have a wonderful history in this area. On the C.K.G. Billings estate (the Wrigley farm) was the world-champion trotter “Lou Delbon” that in Cleveland broke the world record of 2:06 ¼ seconds against some of Billings’ other horses’ world records. Other famous horses, like the world champion Dan Patch, were at the John J. Mitchell farm on the South Shore of Lake Geneva.
• A. G. Harris, the son of Norman W. Harris (today’s Driehaus Estate), raised horses at Kemah Farms. Kemah Farms together with the R.T. Crane Farm form much of today’s Geneva National development. Mr. A.G. Harris was so protective of his horses that he left a provision that stipulated that his buried horses must be left in perpetuity in their cemetery on his farm. When they were excavating to build the Geneva National Golf Course they uprooted the cemetery and, as was stated in their deeds, had to rebury Mr. Harris’ horses.
• The 1893 Columbian Exhibition brought to Lake Geneva many artifacts such as Ceylon Court, C.K.G. Billings’ Norwegian Chapel that was later transported to Little Norway, Wisconsin, the Idaho Building, and several workmen’s houses. The first Arabian horses were brought here for the 1893 Exhibition. After the fair, they were not shipped back to Arabia, but were purchased by Albert Harris and brought to the Kemah Farms in 1910. Albert Harris then established the Arabian Horse Registry in America and became its first president. The registry is located today in Colorado.
• “Ibn Julip”, a white stallion, was valued at more than one million dollars and was housed at Kemah Farms, now part of Geneva National, Kishwauketoe Nature conservancy, Calvary Community Church and Chippewa Resort in Williams Bay. Legend has it that Albert W. Harris owned and used the last horse-drawn carriage in Chicago, even though automobiles were in popular use.
• Automobiles changed our landscaping again, although most of the roads were built on Indian trails. Today’s Highway 50 West was Highway 36 beginning in Walworth, winding through downtown Lake Geneva east to Springfield corners and continuing toward Burlington. It is now Highway 36 to Milwaukee. The other main highway was Highway 12 from Chicago through Lake Geneva to what is now County Trunk H through the Lake Como area and Elkhorn north to Madison.
• In the early 1920’s, 20’ x 100’ lots were sold for $50 and a subscription to a Chicago newspaper. Summer cottages sprang up on those lots in the Como Beach Subdivision, built mainly by Chicago people. As time passed, many of these cottages became year-round homes. With the advent of sewer and water, the size of the lots changed again for the third time. Presently over 1000 homes are in the Como Beach Subdivision.
• In the roaring twenties, gambling and booze were available in the bars. Then in the thirties, prohibition stopped many of these practices in public, but the speak-easies were prominent on both the south and north shores of Lake Como and along roadside bars on Highways 12 and 36. Many gangsters and mob members could be found on the north and south shores of Lake Como due to our proximity to Chicago. Both Al Capone and Bugs Moran, opposing gang members from Chicago, could be found in our area. Gambling flourished also and was not curtailed until the election of Oscar Rennebohm as Governor of Wisconsin. The Como Hotel (currently the French Country Inn) was a very popular place, with lots of drinking and gambling, cards and slot machines. It has been rumored there are many slot machines at the bottom of Lake Como having been dumped there during a police raid on the Como Hotel.
• On today’s Highway 50 there were two bars, Pat Granahan’s on the south side and Pat Barr’s on the north side and never the twain did meet, as customers only went to one or the other and never to both of them. Fish fries were popular on Friday nights. Pat Barr’s tavern was an early landmark. It featured Miller High Life beer and nickel and dime slot machines. The building was torn down when Highway 50 was widened and their location is now under the westbound lanes of 50. During the “thirties”, the Granahan family purchased diagonally from Barr’s and built a small restaurant that served hamburgers, soft drinks and ice cream. After Prohibition was repealed, they added liquor and today it is called Foley’s.
• A favorite spot to eat was at the “Ship” located on the corner of Highway 50 and Geneva Street in Williams Bay. The “Ship” was a former ship named the “Topsy” that had been set on a rough foundation and used as a restaurant.
• Natives will recall Dummers Hill near the west entrance of Lake Geneva. When Highway 50 was widened, they also graded down Dummers Hill. You can see the Dummer estate on top of the hill just west of Snake Road. Mrs. Dummer was Ethel Sturges.
• Snake Road was a service road to the lakeshore estates after cars became popular. Today it is a Rustic Road, a designation by the state to keep it as close as possible to its original condition.
• Rooming homes were popular in Lake Geneva and tourist rooms in small cabins were popular in the townships. Prior to World War I, my grandfather chaired a group of Lake Geneva businessmen who tried to better the economic conditions of Lake Geneva. Their conclusion was to have each family, regardless of their station in life, to give up one room from Memorial Day to Labor Day for tourists. A side note, one of the families that stayed with us was the movie actor Robert Ryan’s parents. These people came back often and became friends. This was the precursor to the bed and breakfast of today.
• Sunset Hills is composed of property purchased from the Cronins (part of the Irish Woods family) on the north, and the John Westerlin land south of Highway 50 or the lakeshore portion. This land was purchased by Jones & Winter Company, developers from Chicago, and made into a subdivision in the 1920’s. The subdivision was initially designed for mid-priced summer cottages, but with the advent of the Depression, the developers declared bankruptcy and the subdivision was taken over by the property owners who formed the Sunset Hills Corporation on June 8, 1934. Many of the lots after the Depression were sold to anyone willing to pay the modest price or the back taxes. This resulted in some very small structures on very small lots. Most subdivisions in this area date from 1923 and on.
• After World War II came another change for the area. A radar base was built on Highway 67 by the military and was later used as a pre-release center for prisoners to re-enter society. The site has since become a multi-use industrial and commercial development.
• After the war, tourism became the number one industry in this area. Ice boating became a popular sport in winter. Boaters can be found first on the ice of Lake Como, then as it gets colder the ice boaters move to Delavan Lake, then last to freeze, Geneva Lake. Fishing is another popular pastime. When you look at past records for the largest fish caught (lunkers), you will find them in 1946, 1947, and 1948 because the men had been away to war and the fish had time to grow and populate.
• Interlaken was built, and later the Geneva National residential area with its three golf courses designed by Gary Player, Lee Trevino, and Arnold Palmer was built in the 1990’s.
• At the east end of Lake Como was a large celery farm. Major Meatyard, a Geneva lakeshore resident near Cedar Point Park, also tried to establish a truck farm by draining Lake Como. Now, the dam is located on the east end of Como. When the lake becomes too high, the dam is opened and the water goes out Como Creek to the White River, the Fox River and the Illinois River to the Mississippi River.
• The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources now governs much of the east end of Como. During one period prior to 1949, the peat bogs were on fire and for weeks the heavy smoke lingered in the area.
• The property in the south side of the east end of Lake Como is called the Brass Foundry not because there was one there, but because the owner’s business was a brass foundry.
• In the July 4, 1967 riots in the Lake Geneva area, the main police headquarter command was set up on the corner of Forrest Street and Highway 50. They rounded up the youth involved and, with the help of a local resident’s moving van, deposited them at the old drive-in movie on Theater Road. Then they took them to the Walworth County Fairgrounds and put them in the barns. Parents, mostly from the Chicago area, had to come for them there and pay their fines. The Wisconsin National Guard was stationed along McDonald Road.
• Highway H north through the Como area was called the Elkhorn Road. Originally it did not go through the “flats” as that was a wetland. It went to the north along Park Drive around Kelter’s Corner. The auto salvage was in Kelter’s back yard as their house was up facing today’s Park Drive.
• In the 1990’s the town bought two properties on the intersection of Como Road and Highway H. These buildings had been grocery stores and gas stations. The town, through state grants, made these soils environmentally safe. Much to my surprise, the Geneva Town Board named it Charlotte Peterson Park.
• The area east of Highway H and the lands north of Palmer Road still remain more or less as they were in former days, primarily agricultural, however dairy farming is less popular today. Along with the corn and wheat fields that have always flourished in our prime soils, today we see the addition of soybean crops and other innovations such as buffalo farming.
• In the northeast corner of the Town are located the Walworth County Facilities. Presently, a new and smaller single story nursing home is being built to replace the existing multi-story facility and a new judicial center and jail facilities have recently been completed. One of the two hospitals located in the Town of Geneva, Lakeland Hospital, is there together with various county departments and administrative offices, such as the County Highway Department, Health and Social Services Facilities and Land Use and Resource Management Department. Additionally, the University of Wisconsin-Extension offices reside in the complex.
• The other health care facility, Mercy Walworth Medical Center, is located at the intersection of Highways 50 and 67 in the Southwest corner of the Town of Geneva. The Town of Geneva is unique among Wisconsin Towns and larger municipal areas in the distinction of having two hospital facilities within its boundaries.
• In the year 2000 more change came to the town with the advent of Hawk’s View Gold Club on Krueger Road. Amidst rolling hills are two beautiful 18-hole golf courses with a 5-star rating: “Como Crossing “ and a shorter hole course, wonderful for families, “Barn Hollow”. Presently, they are going to build 2 units of 8 condominiums. Prior to this development, the property had been Mount Fuji Ski Hill. There are also many lovely homes in this area.
• The Town of Geneva is governed by a five-member board: one chairman and four supervisors.
As transcribed by Charlotte Best Peterson to Joseph and Jeanine Kopecky.