The very shape of Delavan Lake suggests gentle motion. It is a gorgeous five-mile long stretch of water, and for nearly two centuries, it has beckoned to settlers, visitors, and entrepreneurs to come and experience this charming community.
Located 45 minutes southwest of Milwaukee, one hour southeast of Madison, and two hours northwest of Chicago, the City of Delavan is home to 8,500 residents, with an additional 3,500 in the surrounding town of Delavan. The community combines small-town living with a family-friendly resort area, all built upon a remarkably diverse economic base.
For a visual glimpse of Delavan’s history, twenty-one murals depicting crucial moments of the area’s past, grace the sides of the downtown buildings. The land was once home to Native American Mound Builders and the Potawotomi tribe, until brothers Henry and Colonel Sam Phoenix of New York chose the site in 1836 as the idyllic spot to build a temperance community. After initial success in attracting other settlers who shared those values and pledged to “temperance, sobriety, and religion,” temperance eventually died out in 1845.
Just two years later, Delavan became the winter headquarters for Edmund and Jeremiah Mabie’s U. S. Olympic Circus, on the site of today’s Lake Lawn Resort. With plenty of pastures and clean lake water for the animals, other circuses soon gravitated to the area. More than 25 shows had settled, with their entire casts, crews, and livestock for the cold weather months between 1847 and 1894. In fact, it was in Delavan in 1871 that P.T. Barnum created his “Greatest Show on Earth.” Two murals depict Delavan’s circus history, while fiberglass sculptures of an elephant, a giraffe, and a clown stand in Tower Park.
“Delavan is a great place to raise a family,” says Sara Sekeres, the Executive Director of Delavan’s Chamber of Commerce. And she’s not wrong. In fact, for two years in a row, the Delavan-Darien School District has received a five-star rating from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. But even more so, it is in what Sekeres describes as Delavan’s “small-town vibe,” that the community’s emphasis on family is most evident.
With each lamppost proudly bearing an American flag, the three-block length of Brick Street, named for the vitrified brick surface, is home to locally owned stores and restaurants. Most notably, Delavan continues to support the 167-year old Bradley’s Department Store, a reminder of when most shopping was done right in town. Residents buy their engagement rings and take their watches in for repair at the family-owned Utiger’s Jewelry Store, in business since 1958. Likewise, the former Wisconsin State Bank Building will soon reopen as The Treasury, an event space for meetings, weddings, and other celebrations.
Just two blocks from Brick Street is the Phoenix Park Bandshell. From May through September, free events are held there, with families in mind. During the summer, everyone sets up lawn chairs or spreads out blankets to watch a monthly movie under the stars. Beginning in late May, a free concert takes place every few days in a variety of musical genres, from Gospel, folk, and country, to Big Band, blues, and rock.
In addition to the busy summer schedule, the annual calendar boasts larger events that bring thousands of visitors to Delavan every month. Last year, in mid-February 15,000 people came to see the Sky Circus on Ice. Held on the lake, right on the shores of the Lake Lawn Resort, giant streaming kites, some more than 80 feet in length, took flight. In July, car enthusiasts can view 1,200 classic and antique cars parked along Lake Lawn’s lakefront. On the day after Thanksgiving Mayor Mel Nieuwenhuis hosts the Annual Tree Lighting, by reading a Christmas story to the children in the crowd and partaking in a ceremonial fruitcake tasting. To cap off the event, Santa arrives on a firetruck. With so many events geared to families, it’s no wonder that Delavan attracts year-round residents and seasonal visitors.
Another attraction is the Lake Lawn Resort, which has provided a haven for visitors since the construction of a small hotel on the property in 1883, as the circuses were moving to warmer climates for the winter. Renovated and reopened in 2011, the resort offers rooms, suites, and even a three-bedroom ranch house. Guests can swim and boat on the lake or play golf at one of the local courses before gathering around the evening bonfire to end the day.
And then there’s the lake itself. Lake Delavan accommodates sailing, boating, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, waterskiing, and parasailing. Anglers can hope to catch northern pike, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and walleye. For those who are searching for the perfect summer home, properties in Delavan hit every budget point, from small condos to million-dollar lakefront homes.
These lake activities draw families who want to spend time together. Take, for example, Molly and Sean Ryan from Pleasant Prairie. Molly grew up spending summers boating on Wonder Lake in Illinois while her father commuted to his job in Chicago. When Molly and Sean’s five children were growing up, Molly’s parents had a house on Lake Geneva where the next generation grew to love life on the lake. After the sale of the home in Lake Geneva, Molly and Sean wanted a place where they could continue to pass on the traditions of boating and waterskiing to their children.
The Ryans met with a Keefe Real Estate agent and this past fall, the couple purchased a cottage on the far southeast side of the lake. The property came with a pier and a view of the lake, and was just an hour from the family’s home, allowing them to easily make the trip out for a day or a weekend, to entertain friends and family and, of course, go boating.
“Boating has been a very important part of my life for a very long time,” Molly says. “We’re excited to have boating and a lake back in our lives.”
Between its visitors and its year-round residents, Delavan has “enough traffic to support a wide variety of businesses,” says City Administrator Denise Peroni. In addition to the family-owned stores and restaurants, national chains have outlets in Delavan for the convenience of its residents. Indeed, this small town in Walworth County, Wisconsin is home to what Peroni calls “a nice mixture of industries.” Those include Andes Candies, makers of Andes mints and Tootsie Rolls; Pentair, the designer of water treatment and filtration products; and Vision Plastics, developer of plastic injection molded parts for the automotive and marine industries.
With its family-friendly environment, wide variety of outdoor activities centered on the lake, and businesses and industries that support the local economy, Delavan is one of southeastern Wisconsin’s best-kept secrets.
By: Susan W. Murray
Photography by: Jen Schildgen