Discovering Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, sounded like one of those classic resort towns that a travel writer, like me, ought to know. So, I hopped a flight and began to explore. I came home with plenty of reasons to encourage others to visit, and I’m seriously considering a personal return next summer. It’s my kind of place. 

Wadsworth Hall, one of the many mammoth mansions on Lake Geneva.

Lake Geneva’s grand waterfront awed me and felt so relaxing, yet the place initially was called “Maunk-suck” (Big Foot) for a Potawatomi chief. Later it was named Geneva after the quiet town of Geneva, New York. The destination eventually became known as Lake Geneva to avoid confusion with the nearby Geneva, Illinois. 

Stone Manor sits on a bluff overlooking the lake.

Attracted by the fresh air, clear lake and scenic vistas, the community prospered and grew. Chicago’s wealthy businessmen started going there to hunt and fish. The Midwest’s great moguls, like Wrigley, Kellogg, Maytag and beer baron Conrad Seipp, liked it so much, they built opulent summer homes. A rail line opened in 1871 bringing more people to the area, and it gained the nickname “The Newport of the West.” 

Part of the Wrigley Estate on Lake Geneva.

Then, in October 1871, Chicago suffered its Great Fire, an event that oddly benefited Lake Geneva. Numerous families escaped the burning city on the train and stayed through the winter waiting for city homes to be rebuilt. While life in the big city slowly resumed, the Chicagoans cherished memories of summering in Lake Geneva and kept returning. Even today, about 80 percent of the summer residents have roots in Chicago.

You’ll find Lake Geneva’s old-fashion main street about 80 minutes from Chicago, and 45 minutes from Milwaukee. Boutique shops, non-chain restaurants, coffee shops and bars do a brisk business. Fall foliage, Oktoberfest, a winter ice sculpture extravaganza, and of course, ice fishing keep the pace going year-round. 

Downtown Pier in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

No trip to the region is complete without a guided cruise showcasing the spectacular lakefront mansions. The script from the cruise line sounds like it was lifted from the show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. You need only look at the yachts and boathouses to see the owners’ rank among the country’s highest tax brackets. 

One of several Lake Geneva Cruise Boats used for tours and mail delivery.

The best way to work off those splurge- worthy vacation meals is to walk a portion or all the way around the scenic 21-mile lake path. I took a guided tour past some of the mansions and loved learning their behind-the-scenes stories. 

A section of the 21-mile lakefront path.

Touring inside the Black Point Estate, a fabulous high Victorian style mansion built in 1887-8 for beer baron Conrad Seipp, brings a taste of the bygone lifestyle. The property stayed in the family until 2005, much unchanged, until it was gifted to the State. (Group tours via ferry boar or motor coach only.) 

High Victorian style Black Point Estate on Lake Geneva.
I loved this dollhouse on display in Black Point Estate.

When I return, (I’m getting more and more positive) I’ll stay in either the Baker House or Maxwell Mansion, two historic downtown properties with plenty of character. They make ideal getaways for couples or a girls’ escape. The gardens of these boutique hotels feel magical, flaunting their Gilded Age glamour. The interiors include fire-lit parlors, period dining spaces and enticing bars- and beverages. A personal butler comes with your room in the Baker House. They hope you’ll get in the Victorian spirit and encourage guests to wear hats, chosen from many on display.

Trying on a hat in the Baker House.

The Baker House Dining Room overlooks Lake Geneva.

The main portion of Maxwell House sports a dark and moody Speakeasy Lounge in the basement. A drinking well that begs you to waste away a few hours. An on-property addition looks like a stable, but contains equestrian-style themed guest rooms. Even if you stay elsewhere, make reservations for Champagne brunch, high tea or dinner at one of these two historic inns. 

The gorgeous Maxwell House called to me.

Lake Lawn Resort, a few miles from downtown, is a family place where generations have returned to vacation in rustic style overlooking two miles of Delavan Lake shoreline. The 140-year old resort has seen additions and continual updates and renovations and offers a full array of indoor and outdoor activities. I stayed here and hated to leave the captivating property. Many guest suites include full kitchens, entertaining areas, lofts and patios with lake views, perfect for weeklong escapes. 

One of many lobbies in Lake Lawn Resort.

If you are headed toward Wisconsin, don’t miss dipping your toes in glorious Lake Geneva. For more info:

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

I apologize that my photos lack sunshine. They were taken on a a few rainy days I encountered while visiting Lake Geneva. I am sure the sun shines often and gives the lake a lovely glow — just not during my visit!!

Exploring Art at Whitney Plantation

This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of DeSoto Magazine.

Georges Braque, a famous French artist who helped develop Cubism said, “Art is a wound turned into light.” That quote describes the Whitney Children perfectly: 40 life-sized terracotta statues of enslaved African-American children created by sculptor Woodrow Nash. The haunting boys and girls in ragged clothes are scattered around the grounds of Whitney Plantation, in Wallace, Louisiana. Most are placed in Antioch Baptist Church, the location where guided tours begin. As you move throughout the church, the statues pull at your heart and make you question what they are thinking. If these pieces of art don’t touch your soul, I dare say nothing will. 

Antioch Baptist Church now on Whitney Plantation

The endearing children are the work of Ohio-based sculptor Woodrow Nash, commissioned by Jim Cummings, Whitney Plantation’s owner. Nash, who describes his style as African Nouveau, has a consuming passion for elevating the human spirit. He builds a sense of mystery and charisma into each piece, clearly evident in the Whitney children. 

Whitney Children sitting on a church pew.

When approached while working on the Children of Whitney, Nash said: “I want these pieces to be as genuine to true slave life as possible. This project has been a challenge that I’ve looked forward to for a long time. My pieces will breathe life into the whole plantation.”

Sculptures by Woodrow Nash, the Whitney Children as seen in the Antioch Church.

Whitney Plantation opened in December 2014 as the first plantation museum in Louisiana to focus exclusively on the lives of the slaves, and one of very few in the country. Many of the famous Louisiana River Plantations, like Oak Alley, have finally begun to include slave stories and slave cabins on tours. However, most estates in the Old South continue to focus on the grandeur of the big house and lives of the wealthy landowners. Whitney Plantation portrays the opposite. 

Whitney focuses the point of view on children because the collected oral histories from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s came from former slaves. These people were children at the time of emancipation in 1865, so their stories came from their youth. Whitney presents their recollections as told in their own words.

You’ll find some of the statues scattered around the plantation.
Two boys on the porch of a slave cabin.

To accomplish this, each visitor receives a lanyard with a card imprinted with a photo and name associated with an individual sculpture. The flip side of the card contains a brief narrative—in the original dialect and vernacular as told to the WPA. These snippets are among the 2,200 collected by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. The museum thus brings the past to life when visitors search for the child on their card, find the replica and make a connection.

John Cummings, a wealthy New Orleans lawyer, bought the plantation property about 16 years ago. Originally German immigrants, the Heidels (also spelled “Haydel”), were the landowners. They grew indigo and then the more profitable sugar cane from 1752 to 1867. Its second owner named it Whitney, after his grandson.

Cummings came to the realization that Americans knew little about the lives of slaves. He developed plans to educate them through visits to the plantation. He spent over $8 million of his own money to establish Whitney, a work still in progress. Especially noteworthy are the church and seven slave cabins, purchased and moved to the site to help tell the story. 

Statue of slave girl inside the Big House.

Guides move tours through the Whitney in a specific order. After leaving the church, visitors encounter The Field of Angels, a circular courtyard, featuring a poignant bronze statue by Rod Moorhead of a black angel holding a baby. The area is dedicated to the 2,200 slave children who died before their third birthdays in St. John the Baptist Parish. 

Statue in the Field of Angles, Whitney Plantation

Further along, a Wall of Honor, similar to war memorial walls, recognizes the 354 people who were enslaved at Whitney. 

Then, the most shocking part of the tour is the memorial to an 1811 slave uprising. Dozens of black, life-sized men’s heads stand on sticks in the ground. This is a brutal display, but unforgettable art. About 500 slaves participated in the uprising with the aim of escaping to New Orleans. Most never made it that far. Many of the captured were killed — and their decapitated heads were put on sticks along the river to terrify others. 

Slave Rebellion Heads at Whitney Plantation

The tour continues toward the slave quarters where guests discover a few more Whitney Children, one sitting on the front porch. Stepping into the cramped cabin provides a perspective on the bare-bones accommodations provided for the slave population. At one time, Whitney had 22 slave cabins, each serving at least two families. Nearby sits the kitchen, the oldest in Louisiana, where typically female slaves toiled over burning fires. 

A slave cabin at Whitney Plantation for hold two families.

Last stop is the French-Creole-style Big House built in the late 18th century. A few children worked in the house along with other servants. Therefore, another statue of a little girl rests there, in opposition to the fine antique furnishings and artworks. Guides use her to talk about the lives of the house slaves, the long hours they kept and the pallets where they slept on the floor. By the end of the tour, most visitors fall silent. Whitney is an attention-grabbing and moving place. 

Whitney Plantation Kitchen is the oldest kitchen in Louisiana.

Plantation owner Jim Cummings said, “You can’t rewrite history but you can right many of the wrongs—primarily with education.” Whitney Plantation makes significant strides in that direction. 

The Big House on Whitney Plantation

If you go: Whitney Plantation is about 32 miles from the New Orleans airport, 5099 Highway 18, Wallace, Louisiana. (225) 265-3300. Open daily 9:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Tours are on the hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Advance reservations are recommended. Tours cost $22; $15 for students with ID, military, those age 65 and older; free for children under age 12. They are 90 minutes, all on foot and mostly on gravel paths. Those with special needs should call in advance. Whitney Plantation is a member of the New Orleans Plantation Country group:

Debi’s Travel Advice for Boomer Women

In February 2018, I gave a speech for the Sawgrass Women’s Club and an interview for Big Blend Radio in March, 2018, concerning travel tips for Boomer women.  Many of these ideas came from lessons learned while traveling in Europe for six months in 2016.

Debi at Nikka Whisky Distillery in Japan
Debi at Nikka Whisky Distillery in Japan

Please use this link to see my article and listen to my radio interview: