Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Lake Geneva Wisconsin Library - A Backstory Like None Other

A few weeks ago, I headed to my hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and its wonderful public library to begin researching the old mansions wealthy industrialists and bankers from Chicago had built on the lake shore during the last half of the 19th Century and into the early 1900s.

The librarian guided me first to a folder on Mary Delafield Sturges, the woman who willed the property the library occupies, as well as the park that stretches to the west of the building, all situated on the shore of Geneva Lake, offering an unobstructed view for passersby.

But to explain all this, I must take you back to 1871 when Mrs. O'Leary's cow famously kicked over a lantern that started the Chicago fire. A great portion of the city was destroyed, including businesses and the fancy homes of the well-to-do.

Until that time, the wealthy businessmen often headed north over the state line into Wisconsin a few miles to a beautiful spring-fed lake that was surrounded by virgin forest. There they hunted and fished, and  then likely spent their nights in the small village at the western end of the lake called Geneva.

After the fire, these men whose homes had been destroyed, wanted to get their families out of the horrible mess of the city until it could be restored. George Sturges, a prominent banker, brought his wife, Mary, and their children to a boarding house that sat on Main Street--probably one he had stayed in while on one of his fishing or hunting trips--and they moved in, along with another family by the last name of Rumsey. And that's where they lived for many months.

The following summer, someone planted corn on the land between the house and the lake, and when it grew so tall, the home's residents could no long see the lake from the back porch, Mr. Sturges bought the house and the property. The first thing he did was chop down the corn so they would continue to have an unobstructed view of the lake.

Fast forward to 1894 when Mary Sturges, the widow of George, executed her will of the property, including the house they'd lived in right after the fire, to the city of Lake Geneva "for use as a public park and public library."

When I learned this in such detail, I sat there looking out the library window at the lake and tried to imagine corn growing there. I couldn't blame them for wanting to cut down that corn!

The house that was once the Lake Geneva Library
I actually do have a vague memory of the old house that still served as our library when I was small. By then it was falling apart and becoming unsafe for occupancy. I remember my mom volunteering to help pack boxes of books for moving to the library's temporary location while a new modern library was built. One designed by an affiliate of Frank Lloyd Wright.

And I remember when the new library opened to much ballyhoo and delight. But if I was told the details of how our wonderful library came to sit on such a prime location, it must have gone in one ear and out the other. If the forward-thinking Mary Sturges hadn't specified the property was to be used for a library only, and a public park for all to enjoy. That land could now have fancy condos facing the water, giving no view of the lake to people on the street.

I grew up often going to the new library to take out my first chapter  books, then later, Nancy Drew mysteries. When I reached high school I spent many hours there studying and researching for my term papers. Then life moved on, and so did I when I moved out of state.

The newer library & the walkway that sits where corn once grew
Now here I am, a published author, back sitting in the library of my childhood, researching facts about the history of the town and lake I've come to love all over again. The old library that began life as a boarding house figures in a scene I wrote for Love Finds You in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (out April 2013) and the new library is in a scene in Thyme for Love (released last November), a contemporary novel set in fictional Canoga Lake, Wisconsin, a few miles east of Lake Geneva. In both books, I have my lead couples take the walkway that goes between the lake and the library.

Before I left the library for the day a few weeks back, I sat in front of the window wall that faces the lake and thought about how the Sturges family was treated to the same view (minus a few buildings on either periphery) as I experienced that day. And that's kind of cool.


Ane Mulligan said...

That is so cool, Pam, to visit back there now, doing research. And what an interesting story! Of course, you told it to me before, but I enjoyed reading it as well.

Tammie Edington Shaw said...

Oh, Pam, I loved this post. Isn't neat to think what people saw and thought years ago.

Pamela S. Meyers said...

Thanks, Ane and Tammie. That story about the corn really touched my heart. It is hard to imagine corn growing on that spot, but how different life was back in those days. Although my memory of that old house is vague, I'm glad I remember it at all. Especially now that I know more of the history.