New views of history: Communities around Geneva Lake featured in book

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, June 14, 2014

LAKE GENEVA—History isn't just about famous people and big houses.

It's also about the ordinary people who build communities.

That's the idea behind “Geneva Lake,” a new book by Carolyn Hope Smeltzer and Martha Kiefer Cucco. The book is part of the "Images of America" series by Arcadia Publishing.

“This is really about the people who shaped the communities around the lake,” said Smeltzer. “These are the people that built the school system, created the infrastructure, and created the distinct cultures in the towns that surround the lake.”

The book features postcards, photos and memorabilia dating between 1850 and 1920 from the four main communities around the lake: Williams Bay, Fontana, Lake Geneva and the town of Linn.

Many of the items come with a little story about the people in the photos, who they were, how they spent their time at the lake and how many of them became founding families.

“We went through more than 800 images,” Smeltzer said. “These were pictures out of frames, out of attics, from the whole community. We had more than 40 contributors from six different states.”

The book really got its start in 2005, when the two authors published “Lake Geneva in Vintage Postcards,” through Arcadia Publishing. They were encouraged to do another book, but they wanted to do something from a different historical angle.

The authors loved collecting the postcards and photos, but the work was about more than that.

“I think the treasures aren't just the pictures,” Smeltzer said. “The stories are the soul behind them. The stories are the treasures.” 

The book starts with stories of two of the families that started to come to the lake in the 1880s, the Leonards and Probascos.  Their stories are representative of many others who spent time at the lake in those early days, the authors write in their introduction.

Another chapter, “Physical Chores,” looks at the workers and the work needed to maintain the cottages, estates and communities. It includes photos of servants, homemakers, farmers and churchgoers.

Of course, readers will be treated to plenty of photos of historical landmarks, early street scenes and stories of the camps that helped start the area's vacation scene.

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