Mystery Place: First cheesemaker in county from Williams Bay

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Ginny Hall | June 12, 2015

The village of Williams Bay was named for Capt. Israel Williams, a soldier in the War of 1812 who lived in Connecticut. His wife is credited with being the first cheesemaker in Walworth County.

In the summer of 1836, Williams settled on the south shore of Geneva Lake with his family of five sons. Israel Jr. became a justice for the county and Festus was the first director (chairman) of the Williams Bay school board.  

The sons built a cabin for Israel just east of the Northwestern Military & Naval Academy, now South Shore Club. They built another one for Moses, another son, around Abbey Springs.  

In 1838 the family moved across the lake to Williams Bay. Their home was located in the park on the lakeshore south of the fire department. Three generations of Williamses lived in that original house until 1924. That last Williams was George, who was not married.

At one time the house had the name of Buckhorn Tavern. Mrs. Williams began making cheese in this house in 1838.  

Williams Bay was part of the town of Walworth until it was incorporated in 1919.  

The village settlement began about 1879 and was platted in 1897 by James L. Tubbs. The original plat began to the north at what is now Olive Street. It went west one-half block toward Elmhurst then south to Cherry and west to Williams. It jogged west one lot down to Spring Street and then east on spring to Walworth and continued south to Congress and east to the lake.

Until the railroad came in 1888, all of the area was farmed by a Williams.

The first regular meeting of the village board was held Nov. 24, 1919, and the first budget was passed Oct. 11, 1920, with a tax rate of $4.20 per $1,000.

Jacob Crane, a Chicago engineer, offered to draw up a master plan for the village for $450. In April 1922 his offer was accepted and he finished the plan in September of that year. In 1923, the village approved plans for the Cedar Point, the Lackey Bros. and the Emery F. Jaeger & Alfred A. Pederson subdivisions.

The official song of the village is “Moonlight Melody of Williams Bay.” The words and music were by Stanford R. Espedal. The composer copyrighted it in 1938.

The Hollister Lumber Company and one of two original stables in the village were located downtown where Harpoon Willies and Café Calamari are now located.

Across the street on the lakeside is the Williams Bay Fire Department — this was the site of the Williams home. It also was the first library and the first post office for the village.

Potawatomi Chief Big Foot had one of his villages in this area. Heading east along the shore you can see a statue created by Douglas Henderson. “Pottawatomi Woman” depicts Chief Big Foot's wife. Her grave was on private property near the library.

Today, many people know of Williams Bay because of  Yerkes Observatory.  Construction for this unique building began in 1895. It is the home of the world's largest refracting telescope and made its first observations in the summer of 1897.  The 40-inch lens is 35,000 times greater than the unaided eye. The telescope is 62 feet long and weighs 20 tons. In addition, the observatory has a 41-inch aperture reflecting telescope in the southeast dome and a 24-inch aperture telescope in the northeast dome.
Ginny Hall, a historian from Delavan, is author of the “Walking around ...” and “Meandering ... ” books, which highlight the history of Walworth County communities.

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