The Three Gentlemen Campers
In the Early 1900’s, three rather distinguished gentlemen embarked on a series of annual treks into the wilds of America’s North Coast. According to onlookers, it was a rare sight, indeed, as servants scurried about laying campfires and pitching tents so that John D. Rockefeller, Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford could get down to the business of camping, fishing, and just having fun in, of all places, Geneva-on the-Lake, Ohio.
There is no question that these three gentlemen possessed great vision and great wealth. They could easily have chosen a more exotic, more exclusive locale for their outings. So, perhaps, it was their uncanny genius for taking advantage of a good thing when they saw it that brought them back, again and again. And, perhaps that’s also why Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio’s First Summer Resort, continues to thrive, filling up each year with vacationers who, too, know a good deal when they see it.
The Spencers & The Sturgeon
It wasn’t too long after Moses Cleaveland began mapping out the Western Reserve that industry started up on the shoreline of Lake Erie between Geneva-on-the-Lake’s Cowles Creek and Indian Creek. Lumber mills, ships works and limestone ovens were bustling with activity by the Early 1800’s and, perhaps, would have expanded further had The Spencer family not settled in the area. At the turn of the Century, they opened “Sturgeon Point House, ” a lakefront lodging for tradesmen and travelers. Fifty years later, Cullen Spencer and another young man, Edwin Pratt, took a look around at the sunny beaches, the abundant fish, the glorious Lake sunsets and refreshing clean air and decided that the area could serve as more than just a way-station for transients.
So, four years after the close of the American Civil War, Spencer & Pratt cleared a bluff overlooking Lake Erie and, on July 4th, 1869, opened a public picnic grounds. As the Spencers had a true appreciation of the monsters who thrashed, fought & spawned just off their beaches, they named this park “Sturgeon Point.” A few years later, Spencer & Pratt added a jerry-built, horse-powered carousel to the picnic grounds and Geneva-on-the-Lake’s colorful tradition as Lake Erie’s “Playground.” was born.
It did not take long for the parks’ picnic grounds to turn into campgrounds, and then, for the tents to give way to primitive cottages as more and more people sought relief from the smoke-congested cities of America’s Industrial Revolution. Recognizing great potential when they saw it, the Spencer clan was again in the forefront with innovations as L.C. Spencer erected the area ‘s first dance hall and W.E. Spencer took the initiative to open the area’s first tourist home, “The Rose Cottage”, naming it not after the abundant fish but, instead, after the equally abundant and more pleasingly fragrant wild vines that grew on hillsides.
The rest they say, is history. A history created by the industrious, hard-working people who built up “The Lake” and the hundreds of thousands of families who since 1869 have enjoyed the clean air, the sunny beaches, the fishing, the camping and, most of all each other in Ohio’s resort, Geneva-on-the-Lake.
The Gentry Come Apackin’
By 1905, over fifty cottages and twenty-some boarding houses filled to the rafters each summer as the well-to-do in Cleveland, Youngstown and Pittsburgh sent their families packing to Geneva-on-the-Lake. They came for the healthful environment and the curative powers of taking to the waters, but, they stayed on for the fun. By the 20’s, these genteel vacationers enjoyed daily sightseeing and fishing excursions aboard modern motor launches such as the “Red Wing”. They enjoyed sets of tennis on the clay courts at Ramsey’s “Idle-A-While”. They picnicked and partied on the beaches of Chestnut Grove Park, played whist and bridge on the lawn of the Colonial Hotel, dined on succulent dinners of “milk-fed” chicken at the New Inn and, in the evenings, strolled along the Shady Beach hillside enjoying a dazzling sunset then dashed off for an evening full of roller skating, miniature golf, carousel rides or dancing at the Casino, Pergola or the newly constructed Pier Dance hall.
The Working Class Arrives
By the 1930’s, the boarding houses had evolved into full-service hotels providing for the needs of their wealthy and prominent clientele. New boat docks, horse stables and a state-of-the-art nine-hole municipal golf course were added. Geneva-on-the-Lake would have remained a private enclave for the rich had those three gentlemen campers, Rockefeller, Firestone and Ford, not dabbled in a thing called the automobile.
When Ford developed the first affordable motor car and Firestone and Rockefeller began marketing the tires, gasoline and additives that would make the motor car reliable, America’s working class was able to take to the road. For many, the road led to Geneva-on-the-Lake.
Big Bands and Big Beaches
The advent of the 40’s saw Geneva-on-the-Lake’s mile long entertainment “Strip” lined with the Fords, Oldsmobiles & Packards of clerks and shopkeepers, bakers and firemen. With wheels, young men and women from throughout the Tri-State region would flock to the area’s beaches by day and stay on to dance to the music of Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey or Duke Ellington by night.This was the heyday of Big Bands and Big Beaches.
The Pier Dance Hall became a Mecca for all the great bandleaders. Jimmy Dorsey, Ozzie & Harriet Nelson, Lawrence Welk & Cab Calloway all stopped to play at the Pier. Kay Keyser’s stop was almost permanent. It seems that prior to reaching national radio acclaim, Kay Keyser was marooned and penniless in Geneva-on-the-Lake by his mutineering band of musicians. Without resources, Mr. Keyser ended up spending the remainder of the season living in the attic rooms of the Shady Beach Hotel and off the generous hospitality of its proprietors, Helen & Durwood Bowers.
When World War Two broke out, Geneva-on-the-Lake supported the war effort, and catered to ever increasing numbers of local soldiers, sailors and Coast Guardsmen. Even with rationing, food and beverages were provided to those young men who would soon be on far away and less-welcoming beaches. While gasoline rationing prohibited extensive road trips during the War Years, it seemed that more and more families were finding a bit a peace at “The Lake.” On V-J Day, the streets of Geneva-on-the-Lake filled with pot-bangin’ and pan-pounding noise as residents and visitors celebrated the War’s victorious conclusion.
Families, Families, Families
With Peace came a new prosperity. So, veterans and their young wives returned to the Lake, many with children in tow. In 1946, “Pop” Pera, the forever young-at-heart entrepreneur who with his young wife, Martha, added a unique item to the New Inn they purchased from the Swan Family in 1921: “The Flying Scooters”. This, first-in-the-area, aerial ride was an immediate hit with kids of all ages as it provided an exciting bird’s eye view of both the Lake and the “Strip”. Strategically placed just behind the Inn, the “Scooters” were soon joined by other fun attractions as “Pop” added Dodge’ems, kiddie cars and, ride-by-ride, developed the 18-ride Erieview Amusement Park. (It is said that of all the jobs “Pop” performed at the Lake– from volunteer fireman to hotel keeper– his most favorite pastime was working the rides at Erieview Park. Many a Baby Boomer who may now reading this Guide will fondly remember the white-haired & bearded gentleman who took the ticket from their hand and, gently set them soaring on the Flying Jets.)
Why A Duck?
During the Postwar Years families flocked to the Lake.They were everywhere, riding the waves, riding the rides,sharing hot dogs and donuts on the street or picnic baskets in the Township Park. On Saturday evenings, families lined up on the “Strip” as the “Duck”, an amphibious unit from World War II led a battalion of beauties who vied for the coveted title of Miss Geneva-on-the-Lake. And, on July 4th, the families would converge onto the beaches to cluster on blankets as fireworks, launched from “The Duck”, exploded into the night sky.
For two solid decades the resort grew with a new vitality. Chestnut Grove Park became crowded with plywood summer palaces. A few hundred yards from the site of Rockefeller, Firestone & Ford’s encampment, Indian Creek, a mammoth and modern campground was hewn from the woods by Ed and Dottie Andrus to became the summer home for thousands of campers.
There was, indeed, something for everyone at Geneva-on-the-Lake. Toddlers rode on the self-propelled land cars, while their older siblings soared above on the “Scooters” whose name was modernized after the War to”The Flying Jets”. While teenagers sipped sodas at Pete’s Grill or danced to the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” on the Front Porch, college students (who weren’t waiting the tables at restaurants, or running the rides at the amusement parks) cruised the Strip as “Night Train” blared from the organ in The Barn. The Swallows and the Cocktail Lounge served as the cabaret for the sophisticated.
Shops lined the streets, featuring Jantzen bathing suits and souvenir stuffed crocodiles, who unlike the sturgeon, thankfully, did not spawn in the local waters. Charter captains however, did find other “Big Ones” for boatloads of sport fishermen. Speed boaters and sail boaters took to the water along with slews of inner-tubing bathers. The arcades and the midways offered challenging games of ski-ball and pin-ball and Shoot-Til-You-Win. But, perhaps the biggest challenge for most youth were the claw machines which held the ultimate prize: naughty playing cards.
Geneva-on-the-Lake was a place of priceless moments and very affordable pleasures. It’s continued growth is a testament to those vacationers who stuck with a good deal when they had it.
Mega Parks, Mega Prices
The 70’s and 80’s saw the advent of mammoth fantasy parks and exotic vacation destinations. And, families, compelled by advertising, scrimped and saved for years so they could afford to be flown on a plane, shuttled on a bus and transported on a tram to worlds where lions roared, mice wore shoes, and dinosaurs again walked. For many, the terrifying thrill of a high-speed, twisting, turning roller coaster ride eventually wore off while the equally terrifying reality of the price of a hot dog at the mega parks sank in. These folks began to weigh the value of a “once-in-a-lifetime” vacation versus “a lifetime” of vacations, and headed back to the simple, affordable pleasures of Geneva-on-the-Lake with a new and intense appreciation.
The New Lake
When the families came back to Geneva-on-the-Lake, they came back with a vengeance. Old cottages were torn down or renovated. Condo’s went up. Hotels and motels expanded. And, bed & breakfasts opened their lace-curtained doors to many new, first-time ever vacationers to Geneva-on-the-Lake.
The State of Ohio got into the action in the mid-80’s and created new camping, hiking and bathing facilities west of the “Strip” in the Geneva State Park. By the Early ’90’s, a full, 385 slip marina and small boat harbor with 6 public boat ramps were added and opened to the public. Now, as boaters, jet skiers and wave runners make their way in and out of the protected harbor, thousands of bathers soak up the sunshine on the mammoth State Park Beach.
And, the fun isn’t just on the water as duffers find excitement on the greens of our championship 18-hole public golf course and shoppers delight in the unique selections available in our storefronts. “Milk Fed” chicken isn’t served any more. Instead, hand-cut steaks, General Tso’s Chicken & Chimi-Changa’s sate the appetites and local wineries and night clubs sate the soul with soft guitar or New Wave vibrations.
Priceless moments and affordable pleasures, that’s what Geneva-on-the-Lake is about and has always been about. From Rockefeller, Firestone & Ford, through generations of value-conscious vacationers, Geneva-on-the-Lake has proved to be a good deal for 130 years.