By Jennifer Bradley | Photography by Holly Leitner
Lake Geneva’s downtown is busy year-round, with people frequenting restaurants and bars, shops, art galleries and antique stores, all the while enjoying its picturesque lakeside setting. Tucked away, just a short distance from the hustle and bustle of today’s business district, is a different main street paved in cobblestone. It’s here, inside the Geneva Lake Museum, visitors step back in time and get a glimpse of lake life, stores, homes, businesses and even a schoolhouse from days gone by.
This local gem also boasts historic relics from private mansions, local pioneers, famous residents and artists, along with exhibits featuring the Chicago and North Western Railway plus boats and yachts of Geneva Lake.
On the walls of her office, Director Karen Jo Walsh hangs notes from area children, who have written to her about their excitement in “touching history” and how much fun they’ve had at the museum.
“These walls tell us who we are,” Walsh says with a smile. “We dress up [in period costumes] a lot because we want people to have fun while they’re here. It’s not my museum. We’re just sharing things because we’re simply stewards of the collections.”
LEARNING BY EXPERIENCE
Walsh says the word “museum” traditionally portrays a “don’t touch” attitude, which is not the case at Geneva Lake Museum. “We took down the chains, and want families to come here and be open to learning,” she says.
Throughout the museum, elements of surprise await each visitor. Walsh says people always are fascinated to learn Native Americans once lived on the actual building site. “When they come in, they can close their eyes for a second and realize the Native Americans were here first: farming, trading and building enterprise,” she notes. She’s also very candid with visitors, and shares the area’s rich history, including the fact that Native Americans were forced off their land in the 1830s, as well as tales of the Chicago businessmen who brought much growth and prosperity to the area.
The museum is very colorful and Walsh says people really enjoy the visual aspects of the building. A new farm mural depicting the area’s early settlers was painted this summer by local student artists.
Lighting and music are intentionally used throughout, to evoke a mood or feeling of being in a specific time period, such as the Roaring Twenties or in exhibits to honor those that served in various wars.
Textures also help visitors experience life throughout the years, from the animal skins in the Native American wigwam to antique hand-carved panels from Ceylon Court, the all-wood replica Buddhist temple, brought to Lake Geneva after the Columbian World Expo in Chicago in 1893.
Walsh says a hands-on approach allows visitors to become connected to their past and the objects people used before them. She encourages museum patrons to consider where something has traveled, who held it before them, and then take that story and share it with others.
A visit to the Geneva Lake Museum is educational, but also fun. Walsh says it’s not unusual to have buckets of water out on the cobblestone Main Street, which depicts Lake Geneva from 1830 to 1930. A volunteer can be found teaching children how to scrub and wring clothes. They learn how to spin tops, toss pennies, then have wheelbarrow races down old Main Street and play games children their age would have played many years ago.
“Water dries – it’s okay,” Walsh says with a laugh. “The objects were meant to be used for those purposes. If we can make it real for people, we can make a connection and we’re on the road to preserving history.”
LIFE ON THE LAKE
Just step inside and anyone can see that the Geneva Lake Museum is a wealth of artifacts and history about the local area. Walsh says people are constantly donating items that provide another glimpse into bygone days, and everything from dolls to hats to mugs or fishing tools are on display at the museum. Side-by-side kitchens from 1880 and 1920 show the impact a refrigerator had on a family.
The museum has a special exhibit room, which is currently housing a Pickard fine china collection until January. After that leaves, Walsh says a fun exhibit showcasing underwear over the years will be set up. “Wouldn’t that be fun?” she says “Our focus is for the people. We want to be approachable.”
The museum will host the first Oak Hill Cemetery Walk on October 11. It will not only focus on the Bakers, Cranes and other famous families of the lake, but the families that made Lake Geneva home year-round.
Geneva Lake Museum offers a free outreach program, led by volunteers (called docents), which brings local history to schools, senior centers or other community organizations. Walsh says the program usually is 30 to 40 minutes and is a time for those in attendance to touch artifacts, hear stories about where the objects have been, and ask questions.
Each fall a children’s parade is held throughout the museum, and at Christmas the entire place is donned in Victorian décor. The trees boast old-fashioned ornaments and are lit, up and down old Main Street.
The GLM is operated by a volunteer board of directors as a non-for-profit history museum. The City of Lake Geneva provides significant support via the building and services. A lesser-known fact is the amount of volunteer hours local citizens offer to the museum. Walsh is no different, volunteering her expertise full time to the museum and its educational efforts. She spent 40 years as a school principal and says that as long as this is fun, she’ll stay. “Volunteers is an all –inclusive term for docents, painters, electricians, exhibit set up, design, hosting and so much more” says Walsh, who is an advocate of the TEAM approach and it clearly shows throughout the museum.
Three part-time employees are on the payroll, but everyone that helps with tours, or cleans and sorts donated items are volunteers. “That’s what’s exciting,” Walsh says. “We have to help each other and when you get to help your community, it’s very rewarding. It’s a gift we give freely.”
The museum relies on its stipend from the city and generous benefactors to operate. It offers memberships as well. Walsh says she and the volunteers continually seek to improve themselves, and the museum, which is currently in the process of going through a national accreditation program called Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations.
The Geneva Lake Museum is just a short walk from today’s main street, and a chance to step back in time, but also reflect on the reasons why Lake Geneva is the thriving city it has become. “When people learn more about the world they live in, they become more aware of how and why people do the things they do,” she concludes. “Then, they are more tolerant, more loving, more giving.”
Geneva Lake Museum
255 Mill Street, Lake Geneva
September and October: Open Mon., Thurs. – Sat., 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Sun., 12-3 p.m.
November and December: Open Fri., Sat., 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Sun., 12-3 p.m.
Please check www.genevalakemuseum.org for spring and summer hours.
Children 11 years and younger, free; Adults: $7
Visit www.genevalakemuseum.org for more info