By Anne Morrissy
On Oct. 8, 1919, the residents of Williams Bay packed into the local schoolhouse to discuss a matter of great contention: whether or not to incorporate Williams Bay as a village. Those in favor of incorporation argued that since being settled by Captain Israel Williams in the 1830s, Williams Bay had flourished into a tight-knit community that aspired to the modern improvements that incorporation could provide: sidewalks, crosswalks, streetlights. (At that time, the land was officially split between the Towns of Linn and Walworth, and both townships were reluctant to invest money in civic improvements for Williams Bay.) However, according to the Lake Geneva News, there was also “considerable opposition” to village incorporation — “the opponents charge that there is an attempt being made to ‘put one over’ on the majority of the voters and that taxes will be unreasonably increased.”
In a heated special election a week later, the community ultimately voted to incorporate as the Village of Williams Bay by a vote of 66 to 41. The following month, the first village government was elected: Storrs B. Barrett became the first village president, Carl Bjorge was elected the first village constable, and among the new village trustees elected was the venerated Dr. Edwin B. Frost, director of Yerkes Observatory.
At the time of its incorporation, Williams Bay had a population of more than 450 residents and an assessed valuation of $1.8 million, making it the most highly valued village in Walworth County and one of the richest in Wisconsin at the time, according to news reports.
This October, the village will commemorate its incorporation with a centennial celebration to honor the past 100 years of Williams Bay history. A variety of displays, activities and events are planned, culminating in the official Williams Bay centennial festivities on Saturday, Oct. 19. According to LaVerne Duncan, Williams Bay Historical Society board member, “The whole focus will be on community and fun. We’ve got a lot of years to celebrate.”
THE EARLY YEARS OF WILLIAMS BAY
By the time Williams Bay voted to incorporate as a village in 1919, the community already had a long history. Starting in the late 1600s, the Potawatomi Indians had used the area around the bay as a secondary village for hunting, fishing and gardening, and kept a sacred burial ground near the site of the present-day library. White settlers began arriving in the 1830s. Captain Israel Williams, the village’s namesake settler, claimed land on the north side of Geneva Lake, ultimately establishing a homestead near the bay that would soon bear his name. Other homesteaders followed, most arriving from New England like Williams, though the area eventually attracted immigrants from places like Norway, Germany and Denmark.
Following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, Williams Bay’s growth expanded. In 1874, Camp Collie (today known as Conference Point Camp) became the first camp to locate in Williams Bay, and several others followed, including George Williams College Camp in 1886, Holiday Home in 1887, Eleanor Camp (now Wesley Woods Retreat Center and Olivet Camp (now Norman B. Barr), both in 1909, and the Williams Bay Bible Camp (later Camp Willabay) in 1946.
Traveling to Williams Bay from Chicago became even easier in 1888 when the Chicago & North Western Railroad extended its Lake Geneva line to the village, constructing a station directly in front of the present-day beach on land purchased from the Williams family.
The extension of the train line not only brought more visitors, but introduced new cultural and business opportunities to the community as well. In 1896, the University of Chicago began construction of Yerkes Observatory to house the world’s largest refracting telescope, the presence of which attracted many of the top minds in astrophysics to Williams Bay. And by the 1910s, the village boasted two ice-cutting companies and a lumber company, as well as a growing business district that included a grocery store, general store, pharmacy, ice cream parlor and a gas station.
A VILLAGE WITH FAMOUS VISITORS
Shortly after incorporating as a village in 1919, Williams Bay received a very famous visitor: Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time. While visiting the University of Chicago as part of a two-month American tour in 1921, Einstein made a day trip to Yerkes Observatory, staying long enough to pose in front of the telescope with Yerkes’ staff in a now-famous photograph.
In fact, over the past 100 years, Williams Bay has played host to several people who were famous or went on to become so: In 1949, Oscar-winning actor Paul Newman got his start in the theater industry while performing in summer stock productions at the Belfry Theatre, which had opened in Williams Bay in 1934 as a summer outlet for the Chicago-area theater community. (According to local reports, Newman met his first wife at the bar at Williams Bay landmark Bay Shore Lodge that summer.) Within five years, Newman would go on to star on Broadway and was signed to a multi-picture contract with Warner Brothers. He was eventually nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning for best actor in 1986 for “The Color of Money.”
Another famous actor to get his start in Williams Bay was Harrison Ford, who worked as a carpenter and actor at the Belfry during the summer of 1964 before going on to enormous acting success. Beginning in 1977, Ford starred in two of the highest-grossing film franchises of the 20th century: Star Wars and Indiana Jones. In 1986, he was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for his work in Witness. The Belfry Theatre continued to operate as a summer stock venue through the 1970s, training generations of actors, directors, and theater crews. Today it is the Belfry Music Theatre and hosts a busy schedule of music performances throughout the year.
HONORING A RICH HISTORY
In 1929, just 10 years after incorporating as a village, the leaders of the community welcomed another visitor of great importance: Simon Khaquados, then the legal head chief of the Wisconsin Potawatomi. His grandmother had been a member of the local tribe headed by Chief Maunk-suck (Big Foot.) He came to Williams Bay to participate in a dedication ceremony of the native burial ground, where oral tradition indicates that two of Chief Big Foot’s wives and one of his children are buried. A bronze plaque commemorating the site still stands on Elm Street.
Another somber event took place in the village 36 years later on New Year’s Eve, 1965, when a small group of local residents gathered at the Williams Bay train station to witness the final passenger train pull in from Chicago. After 77 years of continuous service to the area, the Chicago & North Western Railroad terminated its Williams Bay route due to low ridership and track deterioration. A few years later, the railroad suspended service to Lake Geneva as well. It was the end of an era. The train had carried generations of summer residents to Williams Bay and spurred the development of Williams Bay subdivisions catering to them: Loch Vista in 1921, Cedar Point Park in 1922, and Oakwood Estates in 1927 among them. But by the 1960s, Americans preferred to travel by car, and passenger rail travel entered a long period of decline.
THE POWER OF NATURE
Just before the end of train service to the area, on April 11, 1965, a powerful F1 tornado made a direct hit on Williams Bay, destroying $500,000 worth of property and injuring a handful of residents. The funnel cloud that hit Williams Bay that day was part of a much larger storm system which spawned a total of 47 tornadoes across the Midwest. It would come to be known as the Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak. In Williams Bay, the twister narrowly missed Yerkes Observatory before cutting through the residential area near Sherwood Rest Home (later Williams Bay Care Center) and eventually made a path across Highway 67, seriously damaging several businesses there.
According to Debra Soplanda, a founding member of both the Williams Bay Historical Society and the Walworth County Genealogical Society, as well as the History Club Adviser and the History Bowl Team Adviser at Williams Bay High School, “The Palm Sunday tornado showed the true meaning of Williams Bay residents caring for their neighbors, as well as the assistance of neighboring communities, immediately following the crisis.”
The tornado exited the village through what is now Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy (KNC). At the time, the land was still owned by the railroad, but less than a year after the tornado passed through, the property would become the subject of much village debate. Following the railroad’s removal, the village approved two separate development plans for the land, including one that would have brought a marina several times larger than the current Abbey Marina to Williams Bay. However, neither development raised sufficient funds to proceed and the land sat empty until 1989, when the village leaders chose to purchase it, setting the parcel aside as a dedicated nature preserve. Today, KNC comprises 231 acres of wetlands, prairie, oak woods, meadow and deciduous forest and is open to the public.
THE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION
The upcoming village events surrounding the centennial will celebrate remarkable events like these, as well as many more moments from Williams Bay’s history. Beginning in September, the Williams Bay Historical Society will sponsor a temporary display at the Barrett Memorial Library covering the past 100 years of village history.
Society President Pat Grove says that a centerpiece of their collection will be the newly restored 1906 Chicago & North Western Railroad map of the area recently donated to the society by Chris Pauley. “It was in poor condition [when we received it], so we’ve had the map restored and framed and we eventually hope to have it on permanent display in the Village Hall,” she explains. Also in September, the Williams Bay Business Association is planning a community open house event to showcase local businesses.
The main centennial celebration will take place on Saturday, Oct. 19 in Edgewater Park and other locations throughout the village, and will feature a collaborative, community-wide roster of events.
According to Duncan, the collaborative nature of the events will highlight Williams Bay’s tight-knit sense of community. “That’s kind of what the Bay is,” she explains.
Soplanda agrees. “Williams Bay people care and share,” she adds. “The pioneering mentality that you ‘help your neighbor, and he’ll help you’ stands as true today as it did 100 years ago.”
For more information on the history of Williams Bay, pick up “A Pictorial History of Williams Bay, Wisconsin on Beautiful Geneva Lake: 1836-1939,” published by the Williams Bay Historical Society.