When the Great Chicago Fire raged furiously, killing 300 people in early October 1871, more than 100,000 residents were left homeless. Chicago residents found refuge 90 minutes north in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
The first recorded sighting of Lake Geneva, which is the second deepest lake in Wisconsin at 21 miles around, 3 miles wide, and 9 miles long, was in 1831. But the Chicago fire helped create a building boom as visitors, many who were wealthy industrialists, were drawn to the crystal clear water.
Today, Lake Geneva, with a population around 7,700, is known for these beautiful homes and mansions built by Chicago notables, its many outdoor attractions during every season, such as kayaking or snow skiing, and its extraordinary dining and lodging. During the peak of Wisconsin’s fall color, I spent four days in Lake Geneva with officials from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism who are working to promote the area.
“One of the biggest draws of this resort community is the lake,” says Danielle Johnson, who manages public relations at the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. “It’s spring fed, lined with grand mansions, has a path going all the way around it, offers many different boat tours during summer months, comes bursting to life in autumn with fall color, and connects all the communities surrounding it together. The downtown is so charming with one of a kind shopping and restaurants. The resorts offer fun and relaxation for families or romantic escapes. A perfect blend of small town charm, resort amenities, outdoor recreation, and welcoming communities, Lake Geneva has so much to offer visitors.”
I began my experience in Lake Geneva with a U.S. Mailboat Tour, which is the only marine mail delivery of its type in the country. Watch as the brave and agile mailperson leaps from boat to pier, races to the mailbox to deliver the mail and fetch the outgoing mail, then jumps back aboard — all while the boat continues moving. The mailboat tradition began in 1870 and can carry 150 passengers in addition to the crew that delivers mail to around 60 homes around the lake. The tour narrates the beautiful, historic mansions it passes with anecdotes about the many wealthy Chicago residents that settled on its shores such as the Wrigleys, (who earned their fame from the chewing gum industry and the name is notable at the Chicago Cubs’ field, the Wrigley Building tower in Downtown Chicago, as well as others), the Maytags of the Maytag Washing Machine Company, and Selfridge who founded major department stores. Mary Todd Lincoln and Generals William Sherman and Philip Sheridan also were notables to visit Lake Geneva.
Visitors can be a part of the tour every day at 10 a.m., including Sundays when the boat delivers the Sunday newspaper, from June 15 to Sept. 15.
Boat tours also are available to see the Black Point Estate, a 20-room 1888 historic home museum built by Adolf Cudell, a prominent Chicago builder. Conrad and Catherina Seipp (Conrad was a Chicago beer baron) were the original owners and the estate stayed in the family until 2005. The tour, which runs May 1 to Oct. 31, puts guests inside life on the lake while touring the 8,100-square-foot home with a wrap-around porch. While on the water, stop in for lunch at Pier 290, which opened in July 2012 with a casual lakeside location, outdoor bar, and fire pits.
I spent an afternoon at Yerkes Observatory, the birthplace of modern astrophysics and home to the largest refracting telescope in the world with its 90-foot dome, one of the largest of its kind ever built. Yerkes, a facility of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics of the University of Chicago, also has the world’s biggest lens-type telescope with a 40-inch refractor. The observatory is open for free public tours every Saturday throughout the year, with groups tours or special programs also offered.
The evening concluded with a stop at the Maxwell Mansion, an 1856 summer dwelling built by Chicago surgeon and real estate prospector Dr. Philip Maxwell. General Ulysses S. Grant once stayed at the home and it also was the site of an early courtship of Nancy Davis, who later married President Ronald Reagan. The home later was rescued from abandonment in the 1970s and traded owners becoming a bed and breakfast, inn, and restaurant, and in 2012, Bethany and Andrew Souza took over the home and put their own twist on things. The Souzas also own the Baker House, a 1855 Queen Anne Mansion with 30 rooms.
There are five guest rooms, an 1880s Apothecary Bar, and a 1920s speakeasy lounge decorated in actual vintage mugshots. A speakeasy is an establishment that illegally sells alcohol, which grew in popularity due to Prohibition. The employees dress in Gilded Age attire or as flappers in the Roaring ‘20s. The speakeasy is located in the basement and is not always open. Guests must pay attention to the Maxwell Mansion’s Facebook page for the secret word for speakeasy accessibility. After hors d’oeuvres for dinner and learning the history of the home in a fire-lit receiving room, I would love to go back and spend a weekend here.
During my time in Lake Geneva, I stayed in the beautiful Lake Lawn Resort with the back door of my room opening to a breathtaking view of Delavan Lake. Delavan, the neighboring town to Lake Geneva, is home to the famous Andes Chocolate Mints, also known as Andes Candies, which are small rectangular chocolate with a mint-green layer in the middle. Other lodging options include the Abbey Resort and Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, which previously served as The Lake Geneva Playboy Club Hotel for Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Bunnies. The Playboy Club was sold in 1982. (See When You Go, page 38).
For those avid golfers, each resort offers championship-quality golf courses onsite or nearby. The Abbey Springs Golf Course sits on the rolling slopes of Lake Geneva’s south shore and is an 18-hole course. The Grand Geneva Resort & Spa’s courses are considered some of Wisconsin’s best golf courses and Lake Lawn Resort’s course is considered one of the Midwest’s premier golf destinations. Other nearby courses include the Evergreen Golf Club in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, and Hawk’s View’s Golf Club, Lake Geneva’s only five-star rated championship golf course, as well as others.
If you’re looking for an outdoor physical activity, turn your sights to kayaking or stand up paddle boarding, or SUP-ing with the locally-owned and operated Clear Water Outdoor. Its name is rooted in the Potowatomi name for Lake Geneva, which is “Kishwauketoe,” meaning “clear water.” The Lake Geneva store sits on Main Street of downtown, an easy walk to lake access, with options for rentals or private instruction or guided tours. With private instruction of guides Shannon Blay and Dave Schuster on a chilly day in mid-October, I spent a couple hours kayaking on Lake Geneva to the background of fall foliage and the beautiful mansions. With little kayaking experience, the instruction, friendliness, and personality of the guides were unbeatable. In the winter, the guides at Clear Water will provide instruction for snowshoes and cross-country skis to help users get started on the trail.
After a couple hours on the lake, we traveled to Delavan for a relaxing time at Staller Estate Vineyard and Winery. Both owners Wendy and Joe Staller were amateur winemakers until the lines blurred with their biological and chemical sciences education backgrounds. In 2013, Staller Estate’s Estate Reserve wine won the prestigious honor of double gold at the Indy International Wine Competition. This medium bodied dry red, which is slightly spicy with a hint of oak can be tasted during Staller’s complimentary tastings.
Nearby in Palmyra, Wisconsin, is an on the farm dining experience you won’t want to miss. Rushing Waters Fisheries is Wisconsin’s largest rainbow trout farm and allows guests year-round “hook and cook.” President Peter J. Fritsch promises a caught fish in less than 15 minutes from its more than 50 ponds and then allow the Rushing Waters chefs to clean it and cook it to your preference. The fishery is open to the public with no license required.
“There are truly endless options for playing outside in Lake Geneva,” says Johnson.
When You Go:
• Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
• Walworth County Visitors Bureau
• The Abbey Resort — 262-275-6811
• Lake Lawn Resort — 262-728-7950
• Grand Geneva Resort & Spa — 262-248-8811
• Pier 290 — 262-245-2100
• MF Helicopters — 262-391-5177
• Maxwell Mansion — 262-248-9711
• Hunt Club at Geneva National Golf Club — 262-245-7200
• Clear Water Outdoor — 262-348-2420
• Black Point Estate — 262-248-1888
• Lake Geneva Cruise Line — 262-248-6206
• Rushing Waters Fisheries — 262-495-2998
• Staller Estate Winery — 608-883-2100
• Yerkes Observatory — 262-245-5555, ext. 810