Among Fontana’s 1,700 year-round residents and the 10,000 or so who vacation near its Geneva Lakeshore during the summer, there is a saying–“The west end is the best end.”
Officially named Fontana-on-Geneva-Lake, the town stretches both north and south from the west end of the 5,400-acre natural lake, which is the second-deepest in the state of Wisconsin.
“The lake is what attracts everyone here,” says Patrick Kenny, Fontana’s Village President.
In summer, locals and tourists pack their lunches and head for Fontana’s pristine public beach to spend the day at play or stretched out on the sand, occasionally stepping into the bracing water to cool off.
Boaters frequent Gordy’s Marine where they can rent a watercraft and sign up for waterskiing and wakeboarding lessons.
Anglers ply the waters for Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass, Northern Pike, Trout, Walleye, and Panfish.
And, while the number of visitors declines in the winter, the frozen lake turns into a placid site for ice boating and fishing.
“It’s magical up here,” says Sally South, executive director of the Geneva West Chamber of Commerce. “There’s an overwhelming sense of calm.” Calm is exactly what people appreciate about Fontana. “We try to keep it a small, quaint town,” Kenny says, despite the fact that the town has had multiple offers from developers with big ideas for big projects.
“There’s a small-town charm with enough to do for vacationers and locals,” South agrees.
A Slow, But Steady, Growth
Where mastodons once roamed, a glacial lake formed Geneva Lake. Between the years 1641 and 1836, 500 members of the Potawatomi tribe called the area home, with other branches of the tribe living in present-day Fontana, Williams Bay, and Lake Geneva. The natives reaped marsh grasses for building material and floor mats. There, the Potawami lived comfortably for nearly 200 years, thanks to the area’s rich soil, and plentiful game, fish, and fruits. Not to mention its natural beauty.
The Indian Removal Act (1830) heralded the end of the Potawatomi era. In 1836, Potawatomi Chief Big Foot wept as he looked at the lake for the last time before leading his tribe west, first to Missouri, then to Kansas. Today, a bronze marker on a granite stone marks the spot of Big Foot’s wigwam. Three similar markers point out other locations in Fontana’s early history: the Potawatomi village, the spot where white settlers first spied Geneva Lake, and the sacred spring-fed pools near Big Foot Country Club.
When Mr. and Mrs. James Van Slyke built a cabin on the west side of what is now Pioneer Park in 1836, they became the first white settlers. Soon, others from New York and other East Coast states followed. One, Matthias Mohr, dubbed the town Fontana, meaning fountain and springs, after a town in Switzerland with the same features. Then in 1839 Henry Clark executed what could be considered the most ambitious real estate deal of all time–the purchase of 66 acres between what is now Highway 67 and the lake, for the bargain price of $83.25–$1.25 an acre.
Seeking respite from the noise, pollution, and busyness of Chicago, wealthy families built summer homes in Fontana in the 1870s. After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, many of those families stayed in their summer homes while rebuilding their downtown houses.
Train service–the interurban in 1889 and the railroad in 1901–allowed the town’s early businesses to ship products to Chicago. Sand and gravel from local pits went downtown in gondola cars. Ice harvested from Geneva Lake traveled by freight car to the big city.
Daily passenger trains brought vacationers to Fontana and took year-round residents to their jobs in Chicago. With 66 homes, Buena Vista Park became Fontana’s first residential community in 1912. Comprising 16 acres, the development’s residents still share the shoreline, boat slip, and buoy privileges.
Incorporated as a village in 1924, Fontana continued its slow, but steady growth. More planned neighborhoods sprang up and, during the Great Depression, some city families moved into their vacation homes where they could live more affordably.
Living in Fontana
Today, the median price of a home in Fontana is $459,100. While starter homes can still be found in the $200,000 range, prices rise the closer one gets to the lake, with lakefront homes going for north of $1 million.
Since 1971, Abbey Springs has offered the unique advantages of a semi-private club for its homeowners. Spread out over 320 rolling and wooded acres, the gated community offers lake access, indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, a workout facility, and casual and fine dining.
With condos, townhomes, and single-family homes, Abbey Springs’ housing stock fits into a range of budgets. As a semi-private club, the fees from dining, golf, and recreational memberships help keep homeowners’ monthly assessments low.
Those who make Fontana their year-round home can participate in the town’s full calendar of annual events, including joining the Easter Bunny to hunt for eggs at Duck Creek Pond Playground on the Saturday before Easter, taking in the renowned fireworks display on the Fourth of July, and participating in or watching the Fontana Triathlon in mid-September.
The Big Foot Recreation District serves the people of Fontana, Sharon, and Walworth, along with parts of Delavan and Linn Townships. Preschoolers can participate in crafts or sports, while school-aged children can pursue lessons in music and dance. Wellness and fitness classes as well as financial literacy seminars attract adults. The whole family can opt for a snowshoe hike or a day of ice fishing.
A Day’s Adventure
For visitors, a day spent in Fontana reveals the many quiet charms of Geneva Lake’s west end.
The morning begins with a stop at the Coffee Mill, just across the road from Fontana’s public beach. The decade-old shop serves up organic and Free Trade coffee and tea, handcrafted drinks, and fresh smoothies. The shop’s tables invite customers to linger over drinks with friends and the loft provides a quiet workspace. Fresh muffins, delivered daily, are available to fuel walks along the Geneva Lake Shore Path.
From Fontana, walkers can head north and east to Williams Bay or along the south shore in the direction of Big Foot State Park, where they can work up an appetite for a crispy chicken sandwich at Gordy’s Boat House or a burger at Chuck’s Lakeshore Inn later. Both restaurants offer excellent water views and a relaxing vibe after a morning of exercise. If you are in the mood for a craft beer as afternoon approaches, stop by Kimkasi Pub on Mill Street or Little Bar on Fontana Boulevard in the heart of the village.
Choices abound for the afternoon after reenergizing over lunch–exploring the shops on and around Fontana Boulevard such as Fontana Home, owned and operated by local resident, Kathie Perkins, specializing in unique home décor and vintage items, soaking up the sun at Village of Fontana Beach, stopping by the showroom at Munson Ski & Marine for your watersports and boating needs, or teeing off a round of golf at Abbey Springs, which is known as “Wisconsin’s most beautiful golf course.” And don’t forget, located just outside Nick’s Upholstery, to snap a photo with Fontana C. Frog, a unique member of the Fontana on Geneva Lake community for over 55 years.
Dinner begins with a cocktail at Bar Abbey inside The Abbey Resort. Opened as a year-round resort in 1963, The Abbey’s 90 acres include one indoor and two outdoor pools, hot tubs, boat launch and rentals, complimentary bicycles and sports equipment, an Immersion Cinema, and the full-service Avani Spa. If you are in the mood for a classic Wisconsin dinner, stop by the Fontana Kringle Company for Wisconsin Fried Chicken or a Yankee Pot Roast.
Next door, The Abbey Marina’s 417 boat slips, available for rental or purchase, lie within the only protected harbor on Geneva Lake.
After a cocktail, diners can choose a patio table at the casual Waterfront restaurant or a lakeview table inside the rustic richness of the resort’s 240° West Restaurant, where the cuisine features fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.
There’s no need to leave the relaxation and beauty behind once dinner is over. The Abbey offers guest rooms, suites, and two-bedroom vacation villas for a peaceful night’s stay. Arise refreshed, and repeat as often as necessary.