With roughly 80 miles between Chicago and Lake Geneva, the cities are much more than a hop, skip and jump away from each other. But that hasn’t stopped thousands of Chicagoans from migrating to this familial Wisconsin city for nearly two centuries. The just-far-enough distance is all part of the charm.
“It’s an escape,” says Chicagoan Kevin Noll, who for the past 15 years has left his condo in Chicago’s Loop behind in order to race to Lake Geneva, where he stays most weekends. “You’re far from city life but still have a little hustle, like golfing and beautiful weather… it’s what I know summertime to be.
The exact number of Chicago residents that own a second home, rent or simply visit the area regularly is hard to pinpoint, says Jim Davis, a board member and docent at the Geneva Lake Museum in downtown Lake Geneva. But he estimates that 80 percent of lakeside residents come from Chicago.
The main factors that tend to attract the Chicago crowd to the small town of Lake Geneva are the direct access to its manicured beaches, the boating culture, the abundance of golf courses, and of course the good old-fashioned peace and quiet.
It All Goes Back to 1831
It may not come as a surprise to learn that Lake Geneva’s quiet countryside and rippling lake waters were first formally documented by two Chicagoans. Husband and wife John and Juliette Kinzie were living at Fort Dearborn in Chicago, when they got transferred to Fort Winnebago, which was near what is now Portage, Wisconsin. “In 1831, they were the first [non-native Americans] to see the lake and write about it,” says Davis.
He explains that on their trips between the two forts, the Kinzies met Potawatomi Indians who were led by Chief Big Foot, and Juliette documented the impactful encounters in her 1856 book, Wau-Bun: The “Early Day” in the North West.[metaslider id=”3410″]
The Kinzie’s oral and written histories generated interest and, in 1856, seven Chicagoans headed up and formally founded the city of Lake Geneva, buying 463 acres of land for a bargain price of 1.25 cents per acre. One of the founders, Phillip Maxwell, a physician for the United States Army, built the first mansion up on a hill near the lake, and momentum picked up from there.
By 1870, Lake Geneva’s population was 1,700. Chicago’s was 300,000, for comparison. The Chicago & North Western Railroad was built in 1871, connecting downtown Chicago to Williams Bay, right within reach of the boat docks. The line was dubbed the “Millionaire’s Special,” according to Davis, and regularly whisked away what were primarily Chicago’s wealthy elite to their summer cottages on and around Lake Geneva. There were no cars at the time, so travel once they got there consisted of a horse and buggy, or a boat.
Today: A Lively Mix
The Lake Geneva community of today has certainly diversified. In addition to grand manors, there are modern condos, single-family homes, and burgeoning subdivisions that almost mimic Chicago suburbs with their deliberate layout and landscaping. It’s exactly this kind of mix that keeps attracting Chicagoans who might desire anything from a full-time summer residence to an easy spot to hunker down for the occasional weekend.
Sarah Cobb, from Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, has owned a home in the Lake Geneva area for six years. She lives there with her husband and daughter for the entire summer, and visits frequently on weekends year-round.[metaslider id=”3429″]
“In college, I remember going up to Lake Geneva from Chicago to visit my friends’ parents, and I slowly got exposed to it all,” she says. “When you live in the city, you always feel like you’re in tight quarters. It’s busy and crazy, you just want an escape. [Here at the lake], things are scenic, relaxed and beautiful. It’s what we need; a vacation experience without getting on an airplane.”
The Cobbs just sold their first home in Lake Geneva and are currently finishing a new build right along the lake. Their new residence will provide direct access to the boating and swimming opportunities they’ve come to love. They’ve also met a community of friends not only in their neighborhood but through many activities that Lake Geneva offers, from sailing camps to festivals and tennis clubs.
“It becomes this great place to bring family and friends together,” says Cobb, who recommends joining a country club to get to know community members. Although she loves the social aspect of lake life, her own pace is decidedly slower. “It’s not like you can’t sit around to play board games in the city… but up here it’s more natural and you don’t get caught running errands all weekend.”
Going the Distance
Although there’s no longer a direct train from Chicago to Williams Bay (it was stopped due to low ridership), Chicagoans are now making the drive up. Or, if they’re like Kevin Noll, they’re getting creative with their transportation. Noll takes the Chicago & North Western train as far up as he can to Harvard, Illinois then gets picked up by his dad, who drives the last leg of the trip.
“The Chicago train departs about a block from my house, at Ogilvy station, and stops about 20 minutes away from my dad’s house in Fontana. It’s actually a really simple commute,” says Noll.[metaslider id=”3435″]
Things aren’t always so simple if you’re driving from Chicago during rush hour. Cobb says on Friday afternoons her family tries to get out by 4pm to beat some of the rush. “We get all stressed out in the traffic getting out of the city,” she says. “But once we take the exit for Highway 50 off of I-94 we feel our shoulders relax and get so excited for life at the lake.”
The rewards of lake life always prove to be worth the trip. For Cobb, it’s that quieter pace. For Noll, it’s the time he gets to spend with his family; golfing, barbecuing, boating, and helping with projects around the house.
“We always go up for Thanksgiving and celebrate as a family. It’s noticeably quieter then but still beautiful and you do get those surprise 50-degree days,” he says.
No matter what lures an individual to this lake, renowned for its 22 miles of gorgeous shoreline and rolling hill landscape, one thing is always consistent: When people visit the area once, they keep coming back.
That’s true for John Notz, a fourth generation Chicagoan and Air Force veteran who first voyaged up once on a lark because he had scored a spot in a golf club. “I ended up being a member for a long time,” he says. Sure enough, one game became many games, and then it all led to commuting nearly every weekend in the summer to play.
When Notz got married, he and his wife’s love of the area only increased. “We started staying at local hotels, then renting for short periods of time, then staying the entire season. We really built a life in Lake Geneva,” he says.
In 1980, Notz bought a house near his golf club where he lives to this day, in addition to also owning a condo in Lincoln Park, where he stays during much of the week. He continues the drive up to Lake Geneva all winter long and says that in many ways he prefers the off season.
“Restaurants are happy to see you. And now the golf club has lengthened its season,” says Notz. “I have been involved in local civic activities and really have almost all my civic contacts up here. In winter, it’s easier… you can sit and reflect.”
Like many who migrate to Lake Geneva, it all comes down to tradition that will be passed down for generations. Notz’s own children are proof. “Everybody in my family lives in Chicago and everybody has a house key to our lake home.”
Indeed, the lake lifestyle is worth sharing. Especially by Chicagoans who have found that much-needed quiet escape. Their visits are remembered. They’re special. And they’re as rooted in history as the glistening body of water itself.
By: Kelly Aiglon
Photography Courtesy of the Geneva Lake Museum and Visit Lake Geneva