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The towering twin smoke stacks rose above the top deck like a pair of candles on a birthday cake. The pilot’s house appeared as a cake topper between the smokestacks. At least that was my momentary reflection as I admired the handsome lines of the Lady of the Lake.
The Lady is the aging, but stately dowager that we were awaiting to board. Paying homage to America’s steamboat era, the 60 year old swayed gently, her landing plank reaching out forward like a proud but ungainly bowsprit. She is part of the Lake Geneva Cruise Line fleet, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
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Her white-washed decks gleamed despite the slightly overcast sky as we boarded and quickly ascended the stairwell to the upper deck. It gave us a fine view of Geneva Lake.
A Wisconsin Resort Town
We had driven up to the southern Wisconsin town of Lake Geneva for the day. This resort town of less than 10,000 is anchored by the crystal blue waters of the 7-mile long Geneva Lake. These waters had long been a draw. Native Americans had resided and hunted the area for millennia.
With a picturesque main street, dotted with quaint restaurants, boutique shops and small town charm, Lake Geneva is the quintessential Midwest town.
However, it was its discovery by some of the most affluent and influential families of the Midwest and, for that matter, the country that propelled the area into a summer playground.
While standing on the port side contemplating our choice of seats, I decided to slip over to the bar (it’s a cruise after all) and asked our bartender, Julie, her thoughts. She quickly pointed out that the port side was the worst side if you wanted to view the homes. Starboard it was, because the rich architectural history of the area was one of the features of the cruise.
Settling into two plastic deck chairs along the rail (it’s a day cruise not the Queen Mary), Captain Donna introduced herself and her all-female crew.
While Captain Donna expertly guided the boat away from the Riviera Marina, Megan, our teen-aged guide who had worked the cruise for 3 summers, provided us with a little lake history.
The Chicago Fire
In the mid-19th century, just an hour’s drive southwest of Milwaukee and an hour and a half from a Chicago struggling with industrialized growing pains, it provided an escape from the stifling summer heat and the unfortunate byproducts of the growing cities. But it was the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which drove the well-to-do to Lake Geneva in increasing numbers to get away from the city and its devastation. They built incredible and immense summer homes around the lake. Each one trying to outdo the next.
While the clouds began to part begrudgingly letting the sun streak through, our boat settled into its slow but steady pace, its paddle wheel dipping into the waters as the pendant flapped at attention in the breeze.
The Wrigley Family
Along the shores of Geneva Lake, west of downtown Lake Geneva, WI, Megan pointed out a collection of 6 properties that claim the most lake frontage on the lake. At one time, all six properties were owned by the Wrigley family whose fortunes were due, in no small part, to Wrigley Chewing Gum Company, providers of one the most popular forms of that chewy, pliable substance that has ended up on the bottom of my shoes more times than I care to count.
William Wrigley, Jr., the founder of the chewing gum company, purchased the 1st home in 1911. Philip K. Wrigley, William’s son, lived on Lake Geneva until his death in 1977.
America is a country that is fascinated by wealth and all its trappings, hence shows like the Rich & Famous. The Geneva Lake tour capitalizes upon that fascination with its narrated tours of historical estates on Lake Geneva and the stories of the wealthy industrialist families who lived in them.
The Lady of the Lake, one of the Line’s 8 excursion boats, immediately transports you to that time when industry tycoons summered on the shores of the lake in regal style.
As a steady stream of customers kept Julie, the bartender, busy, Megan continued on with tidbits of history as each new home hove into view.
Famous Names of History
Shelton Sturgis, son of Solomon Sturges who had made a fortune in the grain storage business, built the first mansion. Soon other prominent Chicagoans, including names like the Maytags, Swifts, Selfridge and Schwinn families, followed suit. Pretty soon the area became known as the “Newport of the West”. A summer escape for the “in” crowd.
It seemed a bit odd to me that such famous and, frankly, untouchable families found their way to an out-of-the-way village in the middle of dairy land. But their stories also fascinates.
As we continued on, a gaping expanse of empty shoreline appeared like a glaring gap in a radiant smile. It was explained that the century-old Swift home, of meat-packing fame, had been purchased earlier in the year and recently raised to the ground to make way for future development.
Unfortunately, much of the history being shared with us is about the grand dames of architecture that are no longer with us, to be replaced with their more modern and, you might say, somber visions of design.
The Most Expensive Home
However, almost as a counterpoint, one of the more beautiful manors came into view. The Dreihaus Estate, a stately Georgian home with Doric columns that would be quite at home in the Deep South, is steeped in history. Originally constructed in 1906, the estate has been home to the founders of Harris Trust & Savings, the Yellow Taxi Cab Company, Morton Salt and, most recently, Driehaus Capital Management.
It was explained that Mr. Driehaus would throw lavish costume parties on the lawn which included an incredible fireworks show that enthralled the entire community. The estate recently changed hands after Mr. Driehaus passed away. Selling for $36 million, it the most expensive home sale in Wisconsin state history.
While Kathy enjoyed the simple pleasures of boating on the quiet lake, I found myself fascinated by the various and unique facades as they each presented themselves. Many stunning, some monotonous, others quirky but all of them hiding their private lives behind those walls.
A Beer Baron’s Museum
However, one home can actually be toured. One of the oldest homes on the lake, Black Point was built as a summer home by Conrad Seipp, a Chicago beer baron.
The 20-room Queen Anne-style “cottage,” designed by architect Adolph Cudell, was completed in 1888. The property was donated by heirs to the state of Wisconsin in 2005 so that it could be used as a museum. Today you can enter this Victorian home frozen in time. Family heirlooms and household items from the 1860s to the 1920s have been preserved giving a glimpse into lives that we may not normally see.
As the sun continued to twinkle off the smooth, aqua waters, Megan continued to entertain us with historical tidbits of a dozen or so estates and, by her own admission, corny jokes. We listened and reveled in the gentle breezes, calm waters and the mild temperatures as a flock of ducks, disturbed by our wake beat their wings against the waters while taking flight.
The Largest Estate
Even if you are just enjoying the cruise for its own sake and gawking at millionaire mansions isn’t for you, it’s hard to ignore the Stone Manor. Built for real estate magnate Otto Young in 1899 at a cost of $2 million (the equivalent of $55 million today), this colossal limestone edifice, a 50-room, seven-level bastion, is the largest estate ever built on Geneva Lake and probably the most often pointed out to both tourists and locals alike.
All too soon, we were easing our way back towards the Riviera docks and its beach. We had learned a great deal of the lake’s architectural past, the lives of its inhabitants and enjoyed a delightful morning.
The Shore Path
Another way to explore the fascinating homes is walking the 26-mile-long Shore Path. We walked a small portion of the local trail.
Originally a simple Native American trail skirting the lake, it is now a well maintained path through the immaculately landscaped yards of the stunning estates that frame the lake.
It remains open to the public by local ordinance, and homeowners are required to maintain the path as it crosses through their property. It felt a bit criminal as we walked through the back yards of these kingly homes. Keep in mind you have to remain on the path; entering the yards is trespassing.
We ended our day going to church, at least that’s what we told ourselves. We actually stopped into the Topsy Turvy Brewery, a micro-brew housed in another century-old classic, the former First Baptist Church just 3 blocks from the lake. Tipping back their IPA, appropriately named Lake Path, seemed a fitting way to discuss a little history and the magnificent estates of Lake Geneva, WI.
If you go:
Lake Geneva is about 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee and 65 miles northwest of Chicago
Lake Geneva Cruise Line https://www.cruiselakegeneva.com/
Black Point Estate & Gardens https://blackpointestate.wisconsinhistory.org/
Lake Geneva https://www.visitlakegeneva.com/
Topsy Turvy Brewery http://www.topsyturvybrewery.com/
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Author Bio: Frank Hosek is an Illinois-based Director of Human Resources who revels in traveling with his wife, Kathy. He enjoys discovering new experiences, meeting the people that make those experiences enjoyable, and sharing their adventures. He is a freelance writer for newspapers, magazines and travel websites.