Lake Geneva: scenic beauty, fascinating history

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A Lake Geneva mail-boat jumper in action. –Photo:

College students are accustomed to dealing with peer pressure, but only in Lake Geneva do they face the summer phenomenon known as “pier” pressure.

June 15 marks the start of the mail-boat tour season, a three-month period during which college students on break test their courage and skills delivering mail to the residents of about 65 summer homes that line the lake. The task sounds simple, except that the mail boat never stops during its two-and-one-half-hour route.

The deliverers – most of them young women – must leap from the moving boat to the pier and back again after stuffing catalogues, utility bills, Sunday papers and other mail into the            residents’ pier-side boxes. The jumpers are surprisingly nimble, but even the best ones can take an occasional misstep, ending up in the 65-degree lake water. The occasional mishap is likely to earn applause from tourists along for the ride on the Lake Geneva Cruise Line ship.

The mail boat, the only service of its kind in the country, is just one of the things that sets the Walworth County resort community apart as a vacation destination.

A community of about 8,000 residents, the town was christened the “Newport of the West” in the 1920s for attracting so many Chicago glitterati, many of whom built large summer homes there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Montgomery Ward, William Wrigley Jr. and a host of other Windy City business barons had summer “cottages” along the lake, each unique in design and striking to the eye of those in passing boats. Even Al Capone is rumored to have visited the place, but his idea of a summer “get away” may have had other connotations.

During the summer months, Lake Geneva’s streets and shops bustle with visitors, while its lake is awash in sailboats and tour vessels. Boat tours skirting the shore of nine-mile long, 8.6-square-mile Geneva Lake may be the largest draw, but tourists also view the area aloft from one of the several ziplines that have gone up in recent years, offering a new look at the popular destination.

Known as Kish-Way-Kee-Tow, or “Clear Water,” to the area’s original Native American inhabitants, Geneva Lake was home to a series of flour and wool carding mills in the 19th century, thanks to the water power provided by the White River outlet to the lake. Contrary to popular belief, Lake Geneva is not named after the Swiss city of the same name, but after Geneva, N.Y., the hometown of government surveyor John Brink, who helped map the area in 1835.

By 1840, in addition to its mills and cabins, the community boasted two hotels, three churches, two general stores and a distillery. Railroad access from Chicago significantly enhanced the area’s evolution as a resort destination.

In addition to the lavish vacation homes along its 26 miles of shoreline, the town has several other claims to fame. In 1954, Lake Geneva was named one of three finalists for the then-new U.S. Air Force Academy, eventually losing out to Colorado Springs, Colo. The late Kerwin Mathews, the gay Janesville resident and Hollywood actor best known for his fantasy film roles in the 1950s and ’60s, once taught high school English here.

In 1968, Hugh Hefner built the first Playboy Club, Hotel & Resort in Lake Geneva. The club closed in 1981, and the site is now home to the Grand Geneva Resort. Guns ‘N’ Roses singer Axel Rose owned property on the lake’s southwest shore from 1988 to 1998. The community also was home to “Dungeons and Dragons” co-creator Gary Gygax, who lived there until his death in 2008.

But Lake Geneva’s most notable history still rests in its lakeshore mansions. One of the most striking – and the only one open to the public – is the historic Black Point Mansion, which sits 90 feet above the lake at Black Point and is accessible only by boat.

Originally built in 1888 by Chicago brewing magnate Conrad Seipp, the 20-room mansion sports a four-story tower of distinctly nautical design that overlooks the lake. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house was given to the State of Wisconsin by the late William Peterson, a Chicago attorney and a third-generation owner of the property, who wanted others to enjoy the home where he had spent his summers growing up.

Lake Geneva Cruise Lines offers a combination lake and mansion tour for those interested in seeing how the other half used to live. The mail boat may not stop at Black Point Mansion anymore, but the two features today combine to make Lake Geneva a one-of-kind destination. And you don’t have to get wet to enjoy its charms.

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