On the west end of Geneva Lake, an unexpectedly wide inlet juts north to the village of Williams Bay.
Heading in from the lake, the public beach beckons. The bathhouse resembles a train station and reminds visitors that the Chicago and Northwestern railroad line once ran right to the beach. Williams Bay’s compact downtown lies just beyond. Residential streets fan out in either direction with homes for the village’s 2,600 residents.
Although the population doubles in the summertime with vacationers, the lack of congestion, a highly-ranked school system, and availability of affordable housing near and on the lake draws families and retirees to Williams Bay year round.
“Williams Bay is intimate,” village president Bill Duncan says. “It’s a great place to raise a family.”
And how many small towns are so lovely that they have a song written about them? “Moonlight Melody of Williams Bay,” composed by Stanford Espedal in 1938, features the sentimental lyrics of a Tin Pan Alley ballad: “Maybe the lovesong moonbeams play…Will bring you back to Williams Bay?”
This quiet spot’s treasures include not only Geneva Lake, but also Yerkes Observatory – “The Birthplace of Modern Astrophysics” – as well as George Williams College, an Aurora University campus location.
For commuters and vacationers, all of Williams Bay’s riches lie within easy reach of Milwaukee (a 50-minute drive), Madison (a 75-minute drive), and Chicago (a 100-minute drive).
A succession of native tribes roamed what is now Williams Bay, beginning 10,000 years ago. The most recent were the Potowatomi, who lived, hunted, gathered, and farmed in the area from the early 1600s to 1836. An 1833 treaty with the United States government dissolved the tribe’s rights to the land, and within three years, Walworth County was home to 200 settlers. The village name came from Captain Israel Williams of Massachusetts, who followed his two sons to the area in 1837 on a hunt for prime Wisconsin farmland.
Growth was modest until 1888 when the railroad reached Williams Bay, bringing with it wealthy Chicago families looking for a place to vacation. Still, it wasn’t until 1919 that Williams Bay was organized as a village. Water and sewer service finally arrived in the 1930s.
Williams Bay seldom makes the headlines, but in a historical footnote, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with other Civil Rights leaders at Conference Point in Williams Bay, which is now owned by Lake Geneva Youth Camp, over several days in October 1965. The conference was spent planning their strategy for what became the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement, an effort to fight discrimination in housing, education, and employment in Chicago.
Another famous visitor to Williams Bay drew attention years earlier.
In 1921, Albert Einstein visited Yerkes Observatory, the home of the largest lens-type telescope in the world, known as the “Great Refractor”. The observatory opened in 1897 with funding largely provided by Chicago millionaire Charles Tyson Yerkes, Jr. At 112 feet high, the tower still houses the famous telescope.
Yerkes, who donated the facility to the University of Chicago upon its completion, insisted that the observatory be built within a 100-mile radius of Chicago, where he owned two-thirds of the street railway system. Williams Bay provided a location 1,050 feet above sea level, far enough from Chicago’s late 19th Century coal pollution and persistent moisture from Lake Michigan so that the telescope could provide excellent viewing of the planets and stars.
The university closed Yerkes in 2018 and turned it over to the nonprofit Yerkes Future Foundation two years later. The foundation’s goal, says executive director Dennis Kois, is to restore the entire property and create a “pilgrimage site.” Features will include programming for astronomers with the Great Refractor and modern telescopes, exhibits, displays, play spaces for children, opportunities for artists and composers to be in-residence, and sci-fi film festivals on the lawn.
“There’s not another model for it in the U.S.,” Kois says.
Kois expects behind-the-scenes tours of Yerkes to commence in Spring 2022, with programming ramping up from that date.
The richness of outdoor activities draws many to Williams Bay. On Geneva Lake, residents and visitors can swim, sail, or fish for bass, trout, pike, and walleye.
Supported by donations, grants, and the dedicated efforts of a corps of volunteers, the Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy boosts the number and scope of outdoor activities in Williams Bay.
The conservancy lies north of Williams Bay Beach off Elkhorn Road. Opened in 1990 and dedicated to “the children of tomorrow,” it encompasses 231 acres of wetlands with creeks, ponds, prairies, meadows, and oak woods. Four miles of trails offer visitors, who are welcome 365 days a year, the chance to glimpse deer, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, and 36 species of birds.
The George Williams College campus of Aurora University, located on 150 acres that border Geneva Lake, is home to three hundred students. Many more people visit the campus each summer for “Music by the Lake.” First running from 1951 through 1969 and revived in 2001, this music series has hosted acts as diverse as Great American Songbook interpreter Michael Feinstein, the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, and Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.
On a more casual note, each August the local Lions Club hosts its Corn and Brat Festival, featuring sweet corn and Wisconsin brats, along with burgers, hot dogs, and sweet treats. Other attractions include raffles, live music, and fireworks. Proceeds from the yearly event have helped to build the town’s fieldhouse, tennis courts, pavilion, and playground.
Out to eat
For a small town, Williams Bay is rich with dining options.
“We’re becoming really well-known for our restaurants,” Duncan says.
Pier 290, Geneva Lake’s only on-water dining spot, adjoins Gage Marine and lets diners enjoy lakefront views while savoring salads, sandwiches, or full dinners with an emphasis on American fare.
Just a short walk from the beach, three other restaurants offer diners varied cuisines. Café Calamari specializes in upscale Italian and Continental fare, including steaks and fresh seafood. Its sister restaurant, Privato Pizza Bistro, serves up a more casual vibe both indoors or on the outdoor patio, with delicious appetizers, salads, calzones, and pizza. Harpoon Willie’s Pub and Eatery, the last sister in the trio, is a local favorite for barbecue, burgers, and the Friday Night Fish Fry.
Repurposing beloved spaces
The love that a community has for its history is evident when new uses are found for cherished landmarks.
Back in 1906, the Lackey/Granath Building served as Williams Bay’s downtown anchor with a dry goods shop, hardware store, and post office. Now, three newer businesses in what is now the Bay Centre building ensure the vibrancy of the downtown spot.
In 2005, the former post office got new tenants when Jennifer Veith and Dawn Marie Mancuso opened Clear Waters Salon and Day Spa.
Five years later, Mancuso woke up on a Fourth of July morning with a discouraging thought. Because Williams Bay did not have a grocery store, she would have to drive out of town, once again, to do her food shopping for the holiday.
When she next saw Veith, she presented her with an idea. “We need to open up a little grocery store,” she told her business partner.
Although Mancuso says the two knew “absolutely nothing” about running a grocery store, Veith was game. Jane Larson joined them in the enterprise that became Green Grocer, where residents and vacationers can find staples such as snacks, fruits and veggies, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and a well-curated wine section.
“We meet most needs,” Mancuso says. But, she admits, it is Green Grocer’s deli that “put the store on the map.”
Green Grocer’s homemade soups, salads, pizza, and sandwiches are all made with fresh, organic, quality ingredients. They’ve become so popular that the deli now caters events for up to 100 people.
Not quite two years ago, Steamers, a coffee shop now run by Green Grocer, opened in the former hardware store. Now patrons can sip coffee, tea, and organic fresh juices and smoothies at an antique dining table or a 1930s enamelware kitchen table, settled cozily in the space that highlights the building’s original hardwood floors and exposed brick and beams. Gelato and all of Green Grocer’s deli offerings are available to order, including breakfast sandwiches for the morning crowd.
To enter Green Grocer is to hear once again the banging of a screen door, the tinkling of a bell when the heavy wooden door is pushed open, and the comfortable creaking of the hardwood floors. A seat at one of the tables on the porch allows one to take in the peaceful view of the beach and Geneva Lake as well as the sounds of happy swimmers and boaters drifting by. As Stanford Espedal put it in music: “Always a cherished memory…Is that soft moonlight melody.”
Written by: Susan W. Murray
Photography by: Jen Schildgen