For generations, Chicagoans have been trading one lake life for pursuit of the other, spending their summers in Wisconsin at Geneva Lake, rather than the closer Lake Michigan. Bucktown-based Kelly and Marty Pankau can attest to that, since they frequently pack up their young daughters, eight-year-old Misha and three-year-old Zara, and make their way to the Wisconsin border. Their destination: The Little Blue Cottage in the quaint and quiet town of Williams Bay, on Geneva Lake.
Kelly and Marty have a lifelong affection for the area, instilled in them by their parents and the generations before them, all of whom invested in second homes around Geneva Lake. “Marty and I grew up spending our summers on the lake,” says Kelly. “That’s where we met– on college break– when I was working Water Safety Patrol and Marty was renting boats at Marina Bay.”
A few years after graduation, the couple returned to their summer roots, marrying in Lake Geneva at St. Francis de Sales Church and celebrating their reception at the Geneva National Resort & Club. Their careers then took them to Chicago’s loop, where they purchased a home on the trendy northwest side. “We bought a smaller house in Chicago so that we could better afford a lake home, which was always our goal. Lake Geneva is where our most cherished family memories are, and we wanted to pass that experience on to our children.”[metaslider id=”3350″]
After becoming parents, the Pankaus stepped up their quest for a fixer-upper in the Cedar Point Association in Williams Bay. For a while, nothing caught their eyes– or their hearts– until the refurbished Little Blue Cottage came on the market. “It was a bit above our range, so we passed it up at first,” admits Kelly, “but we couldn’t pass up the Open House.” When they walked in, they fell in love … again.
“The first thing you notice is how utterly charming the house is,” says Kelly. “It is very much a cottage; likely a kit house copied from a Sears catalog model,” complete with a white picket fence trimmed by flowering native plants. Built in 1924, the storybook home has original wood floors and a substantial wood-burning fireplace built of hefty rocks. Once a single-level, two-bedroom home, the dwelling now features two additional bedrooms and a bath in the converted attic.
“My favorite room in the house is the screened-in porch,” says Kelly, who starts her mornings in the open-air retreat curled up in a white wicker chair with a cup of Milwaukee-brewed Colectivo coffee. “From the porch, you can hear boats on the water, and in the early morning, the sound of water skiers yelling and cheering. It really feels like lake living.”
Because the move-in-ready cottage already checked all the boxes, the Pankaus didn’t do much to make the delightful abode their own, other than adding a rustic sandbox and a wooden tree-swing, which hangs some 25 feet from a lofty oak in the front yard. (So high, in fact, that it had to be installed by a cherry picker.)
While Kelly admits the swing is quite the thrill, Misha and Zara’s most prized element of the Little Blue Cottage is its location. It’s just around the block from their cousins, and only three doors down from Grandma and Grandpa’s summer home. “If the girls see my parents in their driveway when we’re pulling in, they make us drop them off while we unload the car,” says Kelly. “It feels so good to arrive and get started with the weekend fun.”
The Pankaus adore their cozy cottage and make it a point to spend as much time enjoying their neighborhood and its surroundings as possible. Utterly committed to this end, they forgo both cable and internet service once they cross the state line. “Our memories of the lake didn’t focus around screen time, and we want to pass that onto our daughters,” says Kelly.
For them, true lake life consists of making a splash off the Cedar Point swimming piers, motoring about the lake in their Chris-Craft Lancer, hiking the Shore Path or the Kishwauketoe trails, and gathering for family cookouts with 20-plus cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents in attendance. “The girls and their cousins are always running back and forth from one of our family houses to another,” says Kelly. “We don’t have any family nearby in the city, but with the cottage, we’re able to make family time a priority.”[metaslider id=”3364″]
Other summer highlights for the family include watching the Fourth of July fireworks over the lake, attending Williams Bay’s Corn & Brat Fest, and Misha’s August birthday. “She always picks celebrating with her cousins at the lake versus anything we might do in the city,” says Kelly. Like many other vacationing kids, Misha attends sailing camp at the Lake Geneva Yacht Club and day camp at Covenant Harbor.
There’s no doubt about it, summers by the lake are unforgettable, but the winter months in the Geneva Lakes area hold cherished memories of their own and create the possibility for a new season of adventure.
“Misha is obsessed with snow and prays for enough of it to fall so she can go sledding on the Cedar Point hills right by the cottage,” says Kelly. “Marty chops wood and piles it on for a roaring blaze in the fireplace afterward.” For the Pankaus, winter in Wisconsin wouldn’t be complete without the annual London-time New Year’s Eve parade. “We celebrate with whatever cousins and kids we can round up, and march down our street at 6pm with noisemakers, yelling ‘Happy New Year!’” says Kelly. “The kids get the biggest kick out of it.”
Despite their best efforts, not everything is the same as when they were kids. As a dual-income couple, they can’t spend every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day at the lake like they did when they were growing up. But still, the trade-off is worth it.
“Every week on our way up, when we’re just a few miles from the cottage, our drive takes us through a winding, wooded road in Knollwood,” says Kelly. “The girls know we’re almost there, and are on the lookout for deer, red foxes, or a pack of wild turkeys. They know we are so not in Chicago anymore.”
Experiencing treasured time at the lake through the eyes of their daughters allows Kelly and Marty to relive what made Geneva Lake so magical for them. “Last summer, Misha was finally old enough to walk to downtown Williams Bay with her cousins to get ice cream,” says Kelly. “I can still remember when my parents first said it was okay for me to walk downtown with my cousins. And just like my cousin says, ‘It’s so fun seeing our kids hanging out together. It’s like seeing ourselves grow up again.’”
The nostalgia for summers gone by with beloved family is what anchors three generations to this enchanting little cove on Geneva Lake. For Kelly and Marty, that is reason enough to make the drive whenever they feel the need to escape urban living and enjoy their idyllic lake life at The Little Blue Cottage.
By: Barbara Karabas
Photography by: Bob Coscarelli