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Williams Bay Village

Williams Bay Village Hall is located at 250 Williams Street, Williams Bay, WI 53191; phone: 262‑245‑2700.

Beginnings [1]

In the beginning was the land ... and the water. It was Geneva Lake that caught the attention of Juliette and John Kinzie in 1831 and inspired reports of its beauty. The first land claims on its shores were recorded in 1835 near the outlet of White River, eventually resulting in the settlement of Lake Geneva. Fontana and Williams Bay were settled in 1836, but development at the western end of the lake was strictly agricultural. These three municipalities and the surrounding unincorporated towns, because of their extraordinary natural setting and proximity to the urban centers of Chicago and Milwaukee, were destined to become one of the premier living and recreation areas of North America. Each community would eventually develop in its own fashion and exhibit uniquely different characteristics.

The first family of settlers in Williams Bay and its vicinity was that of Israel Williams, who came with his wife and five sons: Israel Junior, Moses, Royal, Festus and Austin. They established themselves in different cabins in the area and built the first house in Williams Bay, at one time called "Buckthorn Tavern." It is still standing on Geneva Street. It housed three generations of Williamses, who gave their name to the town.

Throughout the years, recreational camps were established in various locations around Geneva Lake, but the five earliest camps, established between 1874 and 1898 were all located in the wilderness at the western end of the lake. In considering the historical significance of these camps, it is important to note that camping as a recreational activity was unheard of in the United States until the middle of the nineteenth century. Such camps shared a common belief that fellowship in a beautiful natural environment could have beneficial effects far beyond the short time spent at camp.

Conference Point was the earliest camp established on Geneva Lake (1874). It began as an informal camping retreat for members of a Delavan church, but became so popular that it was soon opened to the public. However, the spiritual element remained.

In 1886, four acres of land were acquired for what would become the YMCA George Williams College Camp, now owned by Aurora University. The camp was based on the idea of providing a training center for YMCA workers, combining education and recreation. The first permanent building, the Lewis Auditorium, was constructed in 1890.

Camp Holiday Home is located at the western limits of the Village of Williams Bay. In 1887 a group of summer residents formed the Lake Geneva Fresh Air Association. Their objective was to extend the opportunity to enjoy fresh air and lakeside beauty to some of the less fortunate children of Chicago. The camp is still operating as originally conceived.

The Norman Barr Camp was established by Dr. Alice B. Stockham in 1898 to provide a site for formal discussions inspired by the 1893 Columbian Exposition and World Congress of Religions. It became a summer school of nature study and philosophy prior to becoming Olivet Camp, operating in a manner similar to Holiday Home Camp.

The Eleanor Camp was established in 1898 to offer lodging and meals to female students and business women. In the late 1940s it was purchased by the Rock River Conference of the Methodist Church and came to be known as Wesley Woods.

Private camping associations also became popular on the shores of Geneva Lake, one of which (the Congress Club) is located in Williams Bay. The Congress Club was a social and musical club organized in 1876 by a group of people who lived on or near Congress Street on Chicago's west side. The first of several buildings was constructed in 1882. The Club's architectural significance rests on the 19th century interpretation of the Queen Anne style as an appropriate summer cottage form.

In 1895 the Beaux-Arts Yerkes Observatory was constructed on a 53-acre site overlooking Geneva Lake, selected because of remoteness and clear skies. For over 100 years this facility has been devoted to astronomy and astrophysics and contains the world's largest refracting telescope. Its presence in the community introduces an extraordinary scientific and research ambiance, as well as a major visitor attraction.

  1. Williams Bay Village Board, Comprehensive Plan of Williams Bay, 1999, www.williamsbay.org, accessed October, 2010.
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