Twin smoke stacks rose towering above the upper deck like a pair of candles on a birthday cake. The pilot house appeared like a cake topper between the chimneys. At least that was my momentary thought as I admired the beautiful lines of the Lady of the Lake.
The lady is the old but stately widow we were waiting for on the ship. Paying homage to America’s steamship era, the 60-year-old swayed gently, her landing board extending forward like a proud but elusive arc. It is part of the Lake Geneva Cruise Line fleet, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary.
Its white-painted roofs sparkled despite the slightly overcast sky as we went upstairs and quickly climbed the stairs to the top floor. It gave us a great view of Lake Geneva.
Wisconsin resort town
We had driven to the southern Wisconsin city of Lake Geneva for the day. This resort town with a population of less than 10,000 lies on the crystal blue waters of the 7-mile-long Lake Geneva. These waters have long been an attraction. Native Americans have resided in and hunted in the area for thousands of years.
With a picturesque Main Street, dotted with quaint restaurants, boutique shops, and small-town charm, Lake Geneva is the quintessential Midwestern city.
However, it was its discovery by some of the Midwest’s most wealthy and influential families and, for that matter, the country, that catapulted the region into a summer playground.
While standing on the port side contemplating our choice of seating, I decided to slide into the bar (it is a cruise, after all) and asked the waitress, Julie, for her thoughts. She was quick to point out that the harbor side was the worst side if you wanted to see the houses. It was starboard because the rich architectural history of the area was one of the features of the cruise.
Captain Donna settled herself into two plastic chairs along the rail (it’s a day cruise, not the Queen Mary), and introduced herself and her all-female crew.
While Captain Donna expertly steered the boat away from Riviera Marina, Megan, our teenage guide who had worked the cruise for 3 summers, provided us with a little history of the lake.
In the middle of 19y The 1900s, just an hour’s drive southwest of Milwaukee and an hour and a half from Chicago’s industrial growth pains, offered an escape from the stifling summer heat and the unfortunate byproducts of growing cities. But it was the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that drove the wealthy in increasing numbers to Lake Geneva to escape the city and its devastation. They built amazing and huge summer houses around the lake.
As the clouds began to reluctantly part to allow the sun’s rays to pass through, our boat settled into its slow but steady speed, its paddle wheel tumbling into the water as the pendant fluttered to attention in the breeze.
Along the shores of Lake Geneva, west of downtown Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Megan pointed out a group of 6 properties that take up most of the lakefront. At one time, all six properties were owned by the Wrigley family whose fortunes were due, in large part, to the Wrigley Chewing Company, which supplied one of the most common forms of that flexible rubbery material that ended up at the bottom of the earth.
William Wrigley Jr., founder of the chewing gum company, bought the first house in 1911. Philip K. lived there. Wrigley, son of William, lived on Lake Geneva until his death in 1977.
America is a country fascinated by wealth and all its trappings, and from here a proverb appears Rich and famous. The Lake Geneva Tour capitalizes on this fascination with narrated tours of historic estates on Lake Geneva and the stories of the wealthy industrial families who lived there.
The Lady of the Lake, one of the Line’s eight excursion boats, instantly transports you to a time when tycoons of industry spent summers on the lakeside in regal style.
As a steady stream of customers kept Julie, the waitress, busy, Megan continued to offer tidbits from history as each new house appeared.
Famous names in history
Shelton Sturges, son of Solomon Sturges, who made a fortune in the grain storage business, built the first mansion. Other prominent Chicago figures soon followed suit, including such names as the Maytag, Swift, Selfridge, and Schwinn families. The area soon became known as the “Newport of the West.” A summer haven for the ‘in’ crowd.
It seemed a little strange to me that such famous and, frankly, outcast families had found their way to an out-of-the-way village in the middle of dairy land. But their stories also fascinate me.
As we continued forward, a vast expanse of empty coastline appeared like a stark gap in a radiant smile. It was explained that the century-old Swift House, which was famous for packing meat, had been purchased earlier in the year and had recently been raised to the ground to make way for future development.
Unfortunately, much of the history shared with us revolves around the grand dames of architecture no longer among us, to be replaced by their more modern and, arguably, dismal visions of design.
The most expensive house
However, almost as a counterpoint, one of the most beautiful palaces appeared. The Dreihaus Estate, a stately Georgian house with Doric columns, feels like a home farther south, steeped in history. Originally built in 1906, the property has been home to the founders of Harris Trust & Savings, Yellow Taxi Cab Company, Morton Salt, and most recently Driehaus Capital Management.
It was explained that Mr. Driehaus would hold lavish costume parties on the lawn which included a spectacular fireworks display that astounded the entire community. The property recently changed hands after the death of Mr. Driehaus. It sold for $36 million, the most expensive home sale in Wisconsin history.
While Cathy enjoyed the simple pleasures of boating on the tranquil lake, I found myself captivated by the diverse and unique facades as each presented itself. Many of them are amazing, some are monotonous, some are quirky but all of them hide their own lives behind those walls.
Beer Baron Museum
However, one home can already be toured. One of the oldest homes on the lake, Black Point was built as a summer home by Conrad Siep, one of Chicago’s beer barons.
The 20-room Queen Anne-style “cottage,” designed by architect Adolphe Caudill, was completed in 1888. The property was donated by heirs to the state of Wisconsin in 2005 so it could be used as a museum. Family heirlooms and household items from the 1860s to the 1920s have been preserved to give a glimpse into life that we might not normally see.
As the sun continued to shine on the smooth waters, Megan continued to entertain us with historical anecdotes about the dozen or so properties and, by her own admission, corny jokes. We listened and enjoyed the gentle breezes, calm waters, and mild temperatures as a flock of ducks, alarmed by our wake, beat their wings on the water in flight.
The largest real estate
Even if you just enjoy the cruise itself and gazing at millionaires’ mansions isn’t for you, it’s hard to ignore Stone Manor. Built for $2 million (equivalent to $55 million today), this massive limestone edifice for real estate tycoon Otto Jung in 1899 is the 50-room, seven-story bastion, the largest estate ever built on a lake. Geneva is perhaps most often referred to by both tourists and locals alike.
Pretty soon we were easing our way back towards the Riviera’s docks and beach. We learned a lot about the lake’s architectural past and the lives of its inhabitants and enjoyed a delightful morning.
Another way to explore the gorgeous homes is to walk along the 26-mile Shore Path. We walked a small section of the local track.
Originally a simple Native American trail surrounding the lake, it is now a well-maintained path through the beautifully landscaped yards of the stunning estates that surround the lake.
It remains open to the public by local ordinance, and homeowners are required to maintain the trail as it passes through their property. I felt a little criminal as we walked through the backyards of these royal homes. Keep in mind that you have to stay on the road; Entering the yards is trespassing.
We ended our day by going to church, at least that’s what we told ourselves. We did stop at Topsy Turvy Brewery, a microbrewery housed in another century-old classic, the former First Baptist Church located just 3 blocks from the lake. Returning to their IPA, appropriately called Lake Path, seemed like an appropriate way to discuss a bit of the history and great real estate of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.