Have you ever wondered how your town was formed? Researching the history of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for a project we’ve been working on, we’re so intrigued by this town’s unique history.
The Geneva Lakes area with its beaches, specialty shops and galleries, golfing, boating, Potawatomi Trail, lake cruises, great food, and lodging services are what most us of know about the area. The earliest record of white men seeing the beautiful expanse of water was a party traveling with the Kinzie family between their army post at Fort Dearborn (Chicago) and Fort Winnebago (Portage City) near the Fox and Wisconsin River portage in1831. This area was not on the river and lake highways of the earlier frontier period and thus lay undiscovered.
Following a “Wild West” battle to settle ownership, grist and sawmills were built. The town was surveyed and laid out in 1837 and lake shore logs and many walnut trees were floated to the mills and cut into lumber from which the town was built. Earlier land sales were confirmed at the Federal Government Land Office in 1839. The price was $1.25 per acre! Most came via the Erie Canal and steamboat or sailing ships through the Great Lakes, embarking at Southport (Kenosha) or Milwaukee. Others trudged through the swamps and forest of Southern Michigan, Northern Ohio and Indiana. By 1840, there were two hotels, two general stores, three churches, and a distillery added to the mills, cabins and houses.
Prior to the civil war, Lake Geneva was on the reverse route to the Great Lake ports for slaves escaping from Southern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky. After the war, the town became a resort for the wealthy Chicago families. These families began construction of the many mansions on the lake, and Lake Geneva became known as the Newport (RI) of the West. Visitors included Mary Todd Lincoln and Generals Sherman and Sheridan.
The Chicago Fire of 1871 caused many Chicago families to move to their summer homes on the lake while the city was rebuilt. The construction and maintenance of these mansions, as well as household employment, developed a separate industry in the town adding to the milling, furniture, wagon and typewriter manufacturing enterprises. After arrival of the railroad, thousands of tons of Lake Geneva ice were shipped each year to the Chicago market, until the beginning of World War II. Lake Geneva is filled with homes and buildings from these earlier times. They represent the frontier and pioneering, as well as the later Victorian period.
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