Story and Photography by Holly Leitner
It’s a quiet weekday morning, the boats gently dangle from buoys, the lake’s glassy surface invites the day and a quiet surrounds the picturesque neighborhood stacked in these hills of the western shore of Geneva lake. Echoes linger of summer days filled with endless sunshine, afternoon boat rides, forts in the woods, weekly potlucks and ever-available best friends next door.
“I always wanted to live in a resort area,” says Gwen Clausius, Buena Vista Club member, while on an early morning walk around the Club’s 44 acres. Buena Vista Club celebrates 103 years as a neighborhood this year. This Club is just one of Geneva Lake’s many century-old neighborhoods, each with its own unique geography, history, characters and charm, making each place more than just a neighborhood, but a way of life.
Unique to Buena Vista Club, is the Association which owns all of the shoreline in front of the homes. Every member is entitled to a buoy or a boat slip. The Club also collectively owns the wooded preserves, park, tennis courts and walking trails. Each summer, nearly every weekend involves a neighborhood activity. Throughout the Club’s 100+ years, they’ve carried on traditions such as a golf tournament, tennis tournament, swimming races, 4th of July party, moonlit boat cruise, cocktail party and Buena Vista Day, not to mention the decades-old tradition of Wednesday evening potlucks in the park.
“It’s very rare for a home to go up for sale here,” says Clausius. Instead, these 66 family homes are passed on generation through generation, and in the rare case a family does decide to sell, it is most often word-of-mouth that sells the home, and usually within a few weeks. Walking through this preserved oasis for summer fun and friendships, it’s no wonder why few ever leave.
EARLY DAYS (1700-1800S) THE POTAWATOMI PLACE
The earliest record of the Buena Vista Club’s land indicate this area was once a residence of Chief Big Foot of the Potawatomi Tribe. His lodge, council house and seat of justice for the Tribe were located at this western edge of the lake. For 200 years, the Potawatomi Tribe roamed the lush wooded areas around Geneva Lake, naming the lake “Kish-wah-kee-tow,” meaning “clear waters.”
Following the Black Hawk War of 183132, the United States Army removed many Native Americans in Wisconsin to Kansas after a questionable treaty agreement. It is said that James Van Slyke was the first settler to arrive a few weeks before the Indians departed. His wife was the only witness of Big Foot’s farewell to the lake which bore his name and which he loved so much. She watched the breaking up of the camp where Buena Vista is now located and saw the Indians take the southern trail as they left the area.
1839 – 1910 DEVELOPMENT BEGINS
In 1839, the land was deeded to George Smith of Cook County, who paid $6,856 for the 100.8 acres and it became known as “Fontana Park” or “Montague & Porter’s Park.” Fontana Park had a central building that held the office and restaurant. Sprawled over the 100 acres were cottages for rent, yet most visitors chose to rent the tent space along the creek.
In 1894, Warren Furbeck, the secretary to Charles Yerkes, purchased the property for $42,000. He named his summer home Buena Vista for “Beautiful View.” In 1899, Furbeck decided to subdivide the eastern portion of his land into residential lots and barn portions. A caretaker’s cottage, resident manager’s cottage and two rental cottages were built. In 1900, Henry Lord Gay created the first plat and drove stakes for each lot.
By this time, people were buying lots to put down roots, rather than using the rental cottages.
Suddenly in 1901 the market collapsed and Mr. Furbeck’s stockbrokerage business went into receivership. Mrs. Ida Richardson of New Orleans purchased the Buena Vista tracts that Mr. Furbeck had not already sold.
Richardson was set on preserving this beautiful place and ensuring that many could enjoy it. In 1902, she appointed Albert Cotsworth as the “office man” of the park with specific instructions.
“You have full charge and control and my confidence. Spend money freely for necessary things. It is a beautiful spot. The wildness is its chief charm. Preserve that. People come to the country for the country. They can get grass lawns and flower beds in the city. Watch these noble trees. Don’t begin trimming them up as many persons want to. They shape themselves best. Encourage things to tangle and grow profusely and you will meet my views to the full, and I believe, persuade others to see with our eyes the beauty which Nature supplies when allowed her sway.”
Cotwsorth had a dining hall built, and in 1903, his sister and daughter joined him to manage the hall. There was a large garden that supplied much of the food for the hall.
In 1910, Mrs. Richardson died and her will stipulated that all her assets be disposed. A photographer creating a brochure about the property said, “This is paradise. The quiet and beauty are heavenly. It would be sacrilege to turn this place into hotel grounds. We must prevent that.”
1912 BUENA VISTA CLUB IS BORN
The first board meeting took place in 1912 and two organizations were formed, Buena Vista Park Corporation and Buena Vista Park Lot Owners’ Association. The Richardson estate declined to sell water rights only, but would sell all sixteen acres together with water rights. It was agreed to purchase the Richardson property from her estate and assess all lot owners based on frontage. This is why today, all Club members own the shoreline property collectively and enjoy the boat slip and buoy privileges.
On October 31, 1912, the charter was granted by the state of Wisconsin for the organization of Buena Vista Park.
By the 1920s, Buena Vista Club was a full-on community or often referred to as “The Colony.” Members created their first rules and regulations in 1912 and by 1923, a lifeguard was paid $250 for the season and the tennis court was completed. The Village of Fontana was incorporated in 1924, the name Fontana meaning “place of springs.”
By the end of 1930 all of Buena Vista Club’s 100 lots had been sold.
1930S – 1960S THE BUENA VISTA WAY OF LIFE BEGINS
Things kept evolving in the association, a bridge and swings were donated and roads were surfaced for the first time by the 1930s, say Debbie Voss Mecklenburg and Doris Clausius Mosser. Although most houses had refrigerators, some still had iceboxes, and the iceman would circle the park; if you put a Z in the window it meant you needed ice. Many did not have phones, so the caretaker would deliver phone messages if there were emergencies.
In 1936, Resident Park Manager and Caretaker CD Shoemaker, who had been there for 20 years, passed away. Then in 1939, Dr. Cotsworth resigned from the board at 88 and was given a gold watch and named “The Godfather of Buena Vista” for his 37 years of service.
Mosser and Mecklenberg recall when WWII ended in 1945; everyone in the Club celebrated, kids ran out into the park yelling “We won!” and neighbors had impromptu parties.
In 1946, the Club began what would be the long-lived tradition of Potluck Wednesdays. Today, the tradition still continues every Wednesday evening from Memorial Day until Labor Day.
“In the 1950s, the only available speedboat for our age group belonged to the Voss family,” says John Reynolds. “It was a Hacker Craft, there weren’t many of those on the lake. Fuel was dear to our meager pocket books so we didn’t go every day, but John and Debbie Voss took us waterskiing. There were very few piers and no Buena Vista boat pier, so we could sit on the Voss pier with skis in the water and the boat would haul us away without getting wet. As the boat whisked by the pier, we would release the rope and ski to the pier. Debbie was, and is, the best female boat driver on Geneva Lake.”
By the 1960s, families were well rooted in the subdivision. Summers were full with boat rides around the lake, roller-skating in Delavan and paper boat races down the creek.
“After breakfast on Sunday, we would attend the Fontana Community Church and then enjoy a boat ride on my dad’s beloved wooden Century boat, Winky,” says Mary Keeling. “We would take the same ride around the entire lake every Sunday with a stop for caramel corn and cotton candy at the Riviera.”
In 1962, the 50th Anniversary celebration included many neighbors dressing in 1910s-style clothing, a cookout on the picnic grounds, and a moonlit boat cruise.
1960S – TODAY TRADITIONS ARE KEPT ALIVE
Many changes have occurred over the years, yet many things have stayed the same. The Club is very close-knit, with many families being fourth or fifth generation. In addition to golf and tennis tournaments each summer, members enjoy the Club’s annual cocktail party every third Saturday in July, followed by Buena Vista Day on the fourth
Saturday of July. This annual event is filled with swimming races, a weenie roast and the crowning of two children as King and Queen of Buena Vista Club. On every Fourth of July, the members gather on the lake’s edge to watch the fireworks together, often times accented by live music.
Weekly activities include potlucks every Wednesday, Boys & Girls Club every Thursday, tots’ club, and weekly men’s, women’s and children’s tennis with free tennis lessons for kids. The Geneva Lake Water Safety Patrol even offers swimming lessons at the Club’s pier. Buena Vista is a neighborhood that has created its own sense of community by offering activities for everyone.
In 2012, the Club celebrated its 100th anniversary with many events, including a tour of historic homes and a cocktail party hosted by the Kendall family, who have called Buena Vista home for 100 years. The following weekend’s Buena Vista Day incorporated activities popular when the neighborhood was founded and members dressed in period clothing, and enjoyed a pig roast, live band and fireworks.
“Some things change: there are no elm trees, lots more piers and boats, a sand box, bigger houses,” says John Reynolds. “Some things stay the same: 4th of July fireworks, potluck on Wednesday, Buena Vista Day. Growing up in Buena Vista was a privilege, having a whole summer of unsupervised play and projects. Sure, we washed dishes, swept porches, and walked dogs, painted woodwork, cleaned gutters, changed screens and storm windows. In the process, we made lifelong friends from age 8 to 74.”
Buena Vista Club has buried itself deep within the hearts of those who have lived here. From one generation to the next, the neighborhood has been elevated by the outpouring of love and respect for this close-knit community. Its annual traditions are tightly held onto by the many families that have been a part of them, and all those that have been fortunate to call this place home are grateful.
Many thanks to Mary Keeling and Gwen Clausius for their research and help with this article. For those interested in learning more, the Fontana Public Library’s collection includes the book, Our First 100 Years: 1912-2012 compiled by Mary Keeling. The book includes over 2,000 scanned photos and 100 years of club meeting minutes and letters.