Walworth County’s African-American community gets its historic due
LAKE IVANHOE – The excitement and awe remain 57 years after Peter Baker arrived here with his best friend’s grandfather.
This 46-acre lake east of Lake Geneva is where Baker hunted bluegill, bass and northern pike, watched ducks and geese float in its waters and kingfishers dive for prey.
There were summer swims, winter toboggan runs and family picnics.
And for a 10-year-old African-American boy on the South Side of Chicago, this housing development off Highway 50 in Walworth County was a slice of heaven that Baker had no idea existed until he arrived here. in 1965.
“I came to a completely different environment than where I was growing up, even though I lived in a really nice neighborhood, in a really big house and had a big backyard,” Baker recalled Thursday as we stood on the shore of Lake Ivanhoe. . “I didn’t have this room to move. There were houses everywhere I walked (in Chicago). And, here, there were woods to walk.
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But it wasn’t just the natural surroundings that made this place special. By the mid-1960s, this community consisted of about 30 homes, most owned by African Americans who sought lakeside living a short drive from their Chicago-area homes. And now the story of this community, which began in 1926 as the state’s first black-owned resort property, is being highlighted through the efforts of Baker and others who have been advocating for years for a Wisconsin Historical Society historical marker.
On Saturday, the brown metal marker on a single steel pole was erected just outside the Lake Ivanhoe Property Owners Association clubhouse and helps tell the story of this unique piece of Wisconsin history that occurred in the shadow of the more opulent, whiter, grander resorts and townhouses that surround nearby lakes Delavan, Geneva and Como.
“It was definitely a hidden gem,” said Baker, a retired stagehand. “I’m really proud of that and the recognition and I can’t wait to be remembered for what it was and what a wonderful place it was.”
The marker is the 599th in the state’s historical marker program, established in 1943, which strives to better recognize the history of resident blacks, Native Americans and other underrepresented communities. On Monday, the 600th will be erected at State Fair Park in West Allis. It will tell the story of the Tee Sisikeja Mound group located in what is now the DNR Forest Reserve in the park.
At one time there were four mounds on the site, but only one remains. The group of mounds was first recognized by the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, which placed a stone marker in 1910. A larger, more informative panel was erected in 2006 as part of the Sacred Sites Run, a program National Recognition of Sacred Sites.
The Lake Ivanhoe and State Fair Park markers are both part of a Wisconsin Historical Society’s three-year program in which it will work with communities to “create a more dynamic and accessible marker program that better reflects the history rich and diverse Wisconsin. The effort, designed to install 10 to 12 markers per year, is supported by a $75,190 grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation.
“These funds help prioritize co-curation with community members, identify and create new markers, and remove and replace markers that contain inaccurate or outdated language,” according to the historical society.
Wisconsin is home to thousands of lakes, but none have the history of Lake Ivanhoe.
According to a 1972 thesis by Samuel L. Gonzales, a student at UW-Whitewater, the land around the lake was first developed as a resort by wealthy black residents of Chicago after World War I. The city was in a housing crisis caused by the lack of new construction during the war, migration of poor black people from the rural South and racist homeowners associations, covenants and violence. Besides housing, black residents also competed for beaches, parks and playgrounds, which “intensified racial hatreds” and erupted in the Chicago race riot of 1919 in which 38 people were killed and 537 injured, Gonzales wrote.
“Jeremiah Brumfield, Bradford Watson and Frank Anglin (a trio of prominent African Americans in Chicago) began looking for recreational areas they could take their families to during the summer months to avoid hostility to Chicago,” Gonzales wrote. “They visited many white resort areas in Michigan and Wisconsin, but found that prejudice and discrimination were as much a part of the communities there as they were in Chicago.”
It was then that the trio purchased 43 acres of land on Lake Ryan in Walworth County in 1926, began selling narrow lots, and renamed Lake Ivanhoe. When a pavilion opened in 1927, famous jazz musician Cab Calloway performed. But when the Great Depression hit in October 1929, unsold lake lots went to a sheriff’s sale. New white owners attempted to make the property a white resort, but a 1934 court case overturned those efforts and blacks continued to buy property and build homes on the site, which also included Franklin’s Lodge , with a bar, restaurant, dance floor, jukebox and pool tables.
No longer a resort, the development now has around 60 homes, but only nine are occupied by African American families. Its streets, however, reflect African-American history. They include Phyllis Wheatly Drive, in honor of the enslaved poet; Banneker Drive, for Benjamin Banneker, African-American naturalist, mathematician and astronomer; and Crispus Attucks Drive, named after a man of African and Native American descent who escaped slavery and is known as the first American settler killed during the American Revolution.
Janet Alexander Jones, 79, visited Lake Ivanhoe last week for the first time in decades. As a child, she spent part of her summers here fishing, swimming and hanging out with friends and neighbors. She was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois where she continues to live and is a licensed real estate broker. His family never owned property here but always rented a cabin.
“I came to camp, played and let the mosquitoes bite me,” said Alexander Jones with a laugh. “Things like that are all over the United States, but because they weren’t written, or written and then destroyed, you don’t know about them.”
Baker has a unique perspective as one of the community’s most tenured residents. He moved here with his mother when he was in eighth grade and attended Lake Geneva School, where he was one of the few African Americans in the district. His mother first taught at a private elementary school in Burlington before landing a teaching job in Lake Geneva.
After high school, Baker worked in Burlington and Kenosha, but also built and sold homes in Lake Ivanhoe, including his current home on Crispus Attucks Drive, which he built in 2007 and has lake views at through a grove of trees. He remembers his first trip to the lake in 1967 like it was yesterday and is grateful to his friend’s grandfather who opened up a world to him that changed his life.
“We caught a bunch of bluegills. I kind of think I was labeled ‘The Fisherman’ that day,” said Baker, who now fishes statewide. “I went home (to Chicago), told my parents about the community, and the next week they came to buy a house. I’m just glad things turned out the way they did.
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or email [email protected]