By Jim McClure | Photos Courtesy Of The Geneva Lake Museum, Unless Otherwise Noted
For 80 years, sounds of a bugler’s call at morning and evening, and the thundering, rhythmic sound of a military marching band could be heard emanating from the south shore of Geneva Lake in the Town of Linn. From 1915 to 1995, when it merged with St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin, the Northwestern Military & Naval Academy was a lakeside neighbor and a favorite site on Geneva Lake. NMNA, as alumni call it, had a profound impact on those who attended it, as well as those who worked and taught there.
Those booming drums were something of a recruiting tool to ear-witness Jon Ross, who grew up in the area and would hear the band practicing while attending nearby Reek Elementary School. “You could hear those drums from miles away,” says Ross. “It was music to my ears.”
Ross spent a lot of time on and around the NMNA campus. His stepfather served as the school’s headmaster from 1972 to 1990, and his mother worked at the academy in an administrative role. So it was perhaps inevitable, that when it came time for Ross to enter high school, he would attend the college-preparatory academy, a proud cadet from 1982 to 1986. “I spent 10 years of my life there,” Ross reflects. “Just to be on that property… it was a paradise.”
A CAMPUS LIKE NO OTHER
NMNA’s 42-acre campus featured a wide and long lawn — a parade ground, as the military would term it — that spread out between old-growth trees in front of Davidson Hall, a huge, neoclassical building that served as the epicenter of the institution. Looking not unlike the historic section of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, or an entrance wing of the Pentagon, Davidson Hall was built in 1915. The entrance featured tall columns and wide steps, while inside, the lobby boasted a cavernous octagonal rotunda with four giant fireplaces and several tall staircases rising dramatically from its main floor. The wings of the building housed between 100 and 200 “boarder” cadets, who lived on campus year-round, studying and learning alongside local day students.
The central building, named for the founder of the academy, Harlan Page Davidson, was more than just a place for academics and dormitory living, it was an elegant space designed specifically for the needs of the institution. The building contained a large library and classrooms, a dining or “mess” hall, a bank with a mini-post office, a barber shop, an infirmary for the sick and a dayroom for television viewing and playing pool. It was flanked by a chapel featuring a steam organ on the east end, and by a gym on the west end, which was added in 1959.
The NMNA campus was so grand and photogenic that eventually, even Hollywood took notice. In the 1970s, the academy served as the filming location for scenes from the horror movie “Damien, Omen II.”
A COMMUNITY MORE LIKE FAMILY
Among the cadets, instructors and administrators of NMNA, the word “family” is a common alumni description for the atmosphere on campus, despite the rigors of military discipline enforced there. “We were one big family,” says Lee Liddy, Jr., of the class of 1989, who rose to the top spot of Battalion Commander. He had found his place in that family when he first came to the campus six years earlier, and experienced a common emotion: homesickness. He credits the older cadets with giving him a boost. “The senior cadets were like a big brother and were there to help you out,” he explains.
Lake Geneva historian Christine Jacobson Brookes was literally born into the NMNA family. Her father, Episcopal priest James Howard Jacobson, served as the fourth headmaster of the school from 1943 until 1972. Brookes says that when she was brought home from the hospital to the headmaster’s apartment suite in Davidson Hall, there were “180 big brothers” waiting to give her a unique initiation. “They insisted that the blanket be opened so they could see ifIhadbigfeet,”laughsBrookes,who says she considers herself an honorary member of the class of ’67. “Dad was known around the campus for his big feet and they wanted to see if I inherited them.”
Living on campus with so many cadets far from their homes, Brookes says that her mother helped foster the sense of family and community on campus, and helped to reduce any longings from homesickness. “My mom was really a mom to the boys,” she says. That sense of family extended to the few girls who attended NMNA as well — for a brief time in the 1970s, four female cadets attended the school, and one graduated.
A DAY IN THE LIFE AT NMNA
A typical day for a Northwestern cadet started in a way familiar to anyone who has served in the military: the bugling of “Reveille.” “Six a.m. on the dot every morning,” recalls Liddy. “You’d go and get showered, come back, get dressed for formation and inspection.”
Assuming all passed muster, the battalion of cadets would then march to breakfast in the dining hall. Next came classes from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with a break for a noon meal. Class work covered a full college preparatory curriculum.
Susan Ballje worked at the school for many years, teaching literature, writing and journalism. Ballje says working at NMNA was pleasantly different from a typical high school teaching post. “I had far more academic freedom to teach what cadets needed for their future,” she remembers. Ballje says she felt her role was to make sure all the students had a broad perspective on the life that awaited graduates after high school or college, be it civilian or military.
“Once I realized I could allow these guys a respite from their stoicism, I could see that several realized, ‘I don’t always have to be military,’” Ballje says. She became a cadet-respected educator, partly for relaxing the rules slightly. “I would let them take their boots off in class,” she describes with a lowered voice, as if risking comeuppance from superiors even all these years later.
LEISURE TIME AND EXTRA-CURRICULARS
After classes ended at 3:30 p.m., the footwear changed from shined boots and laced Oxfords to cleats and tennis shoes. The ample lawn served as a
football field for both practice and games, and the grounds also contained four tennis courts. Competing under their mascot, the Falcons, the NMNA baseball, football, track and tennis teams proved formidable opponents to other local high school teams, who loved traveling to the lakeside campus to play a game under the beautiful fall foliage of the changing trees.
When sports practice and other extra-curriculars ended at 5 p.m., the cadets returned to formation inspection and a bugle call to dinner, followed by study time until 9 p.m. Then they had an hour of free time until 10 p.m., when one bugler inside and one bugler outside would sound “Taps,” the military signal that means the end to another day.
A PLACE WITH A RICH HISTORY
The academy was originally founded as Northwestern Military Academy in Highland Park, Illinois, in 1888. After suffering two devastating fires in its original location, the institution moved to the Geneva Lake site in 1915. The school’s mission, as described in the 1919 catalogue: “To graduate young men who, with sturdy physique, sound scholarship, refined tastes, high moral and spiritual ideals, will be best prepared to make good citizens.”
In the 19th century, the land where the academy made its home on Geneva Lake had originally been the home of Kaye’s Park, “the Famous Summer Resort,” as described in a 1900 advertising brochure.
Beginning in 1873, visitors would come up from Chicago to enjoy full-amenity lakefront resort living in a variety of accommodations, from rustic tents to full-service cabins and lodge rooms, all with lavish hotel dining that could serve up to 1,000 guests a night. While there, vacationers could enjoy Kaye’s Park’s extensive slate of activities, including boating, fishing, bicycling, horseback riding, billiards, bowling, baseball, lawn tennis, a racetrack, a zoo, a dance hall, a gift shop and orchestral concerts.
Vacationers would reach Kaye’s Park by taking a train first to Lake Geneva or eventually to its terminus at Williams Bay, and transferring to the passenger steamer Arthur Kaye, named for the owner and proprietor of Kaye’s Park. The site remained a popular local resort from its founding in 1873 until 1901, when competition from more modern hotels and the death of Arthur Kaye led to its closure. The Kaye family sold off 42 acres of their expansive holdings to Northwestern Military Academy in 1911, and the property began a new life.
FAMOUS CONNECTIONS AND TREASURED MEMORIES
From the first half of the 20th century to the school’s merger with the Delafield academy (the newly formed school was renamed St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy) the boys-only school was not entirely deprived of social activity or female attention. The administration would arrange to bus in girls from high schools throughout Walworth County for the regular events of dances, balls, cotillions and homecoming events. Many alumnae from local high schools have fond memories of attending these events in the grand Davidson Hall.
The academy also produced several accomplished and famous alumni who either matriculated or graduated from the school, including U.S. Army one- star brigadier general Douglas Ewing, the actor Spencer Tracy and Clarence John Boettiger, the oldest grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. One historic photograph shows Cadet Boettiger in his NMNA dress uniform at the White House with his grandparents — the President and First Lady — and the extended Roosevelt clan. Another shows him escorting Eleanor on one of her visits to Northwestern Military & Naval Academy’s Geneva Lake campus. He would graduate to become an army lieutenant colonel and a delegate to the United Nations.
Ewing’s daughter, Geneva Lake Museum Director Janet Ewing, says the museum’s permanent exhibit on NMNA, which houses an impressive collection of academy artifacts and memorabilia along with an extended slideshow of the institution’s eight decades in the area, is popular with alumni. “A lot of the former cadets like to come here to reminisce,” she explains.
Alum Ross says that to this day, he remembers the sign at the entrance to the gym that read “P.R.I.D.E.” It stood for Personal Appearance — Respect — Integrity — Dedication — Enthusiasm, ideals that last longer than any concrete, brick or mortar. “To this day ‘P.R.I.D.E.’ is instilled in me to practice every day,” he says.