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The Lake Geneva area, located in southeastern Wisconsin , offers a rich history to explore.
A popular destination for visitors from across the Midwest, the area encompasses Geneva Lake , Lake Como , Lake Delavan and several other smaller lakes, as well as the municipalities of Lake Geneva, Fontana , Williams Bay and Delavan. While the lake is named Geneva Lake , the area is commonly referred to as the Lake Geneva area, after the city of Lake Geneva .
Geneva Lake was formed from two great Michigan glaciers approximately 30,000 and 14,000 years ago. Covering approximately 5,200 acres, it is the largest lake in the region and is fed by natural aquifers that travel underground for hundreds of miles from Lake Superior . The Lake Geneva area was home to many tribes of Native Americans including Indian Mound and Potawatomies, whose Chief Big Foot and his tribe occupied the land now known as Williams bay. While Bog Foot’s royal residence was located in Fontana , Williams Bay was the site of the tribe’s arrow and spearhead production center.
The municipalities of Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana were settled in 1836 as agrarian communities. Fontana and Williams Bay , located at the western end of Geneva Lake , were strictly agricultural and remained rural trade centers until the last quarter of the 19 th century, while Lake Geneva developed quickly due to its accessibility to water power from the White River . A major flood in 1858 destroyed the outlet of the lake and caused the destruction of dams, bridges and roads.
Attempts to link the area to the rest of the state via rail failed until 1871 when the railroad established its first stop in Lake Geneva . In 1886, the railway was extended from the city of Lake Geneva to Williams Bay , making the north side of the lake more accessible to vacationers.
The settling of the Lake Geneva area accelerated after the great Chicago fire of 1871, when many wealthy Chicagoans relocated to the area while their homes and place of business in Chicago were being rebuilt. Many chose to stay in the area full-time, while others built mansions and vacation homes for summer use. The majority of these mansions were built on the lake’s north side to take advantage of the area’s prevailing winds.
An increased interest in boating and fishing for recreation took place during the same time, and when Civil War hero Lt. General H. Sheridan visited Lake Geneva in the summer of 1874, the first Sheridan boat race was held. Today the Sheridan Prize is still handed out to the master yachtsman who wins the Sheridan race.
Maple Lawn is the oldest mansion in the Lake Geneva area, dating back to 1870. Other surviving mansions in the area are homes that formerly belonged to scions of American business including the Swift, Harris, Allerton, Montgomery Ward and John M. Smythe families. The opulence and elegance of many area mansions have earned them designation on The National Register of Historic Places.
One of the most well known historic homes is Stone Manor, an 18,000 square foot house, which was designed to resemble a magnificent Italianate palace, complete with a 250-foot-wide veranda and expansive lawn. Constructed for more than $1 million, Stone Manor featured gold-plated fixtures, a basement bowling alley and a third-floor miniature golf course. The property served as a single-family home until 1939 when it was presented to the Order of St. Anne, to be used as private schools for girls. This magnificent building was recently restored and converted to six multi-million dollar condominiums.
By the turn of the century, all of the property on the Geneva Lake shore had been developed into estates, private resort parks or private camps, except for the public beaches and parks in the three communities of Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana . Beginning in the early 1900s, local residents enjoyed an excellent quality of life working in a variety of occupations, including farming. Dairy farming had long been a source of the area’s agricultural production, a practice that continues into the new century with many farms still in operation.
Today, the Lake Geneva area retains its authentic, turn-of-the-century charm and is mostly known for tourism, boasting numerous fine hotels and resorts, charming inns, vintage bed and breakfasts, cozy lodges and outstanding vacation rentals.
The Lake Geneva area is located less than 90 minutes from Chicago ’s O’Hare International Airport and 45 minutes from General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee .