Pondering a local and a life's past

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Margaret Plevak | March 6, 2016

Local historian, author and former archivist Patrick Quinn not only is steeped in the history of Lake Geneva and the states of Wisconsin and Illinois, he's been part of history's fabric himself, including a march for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, during the tumultuous 1960s.

History is part of his genealogy; Abraham Lincoln used to drink at Quinn's great-great grandfather's tavern in Greenview, Illinois, just west of Springfield.

Quinn, who grew up in Lake Geneva during the 1940s and '50s, worked as an archivist for the University of Wisconsin-Madison — where he was a student — as well as the Wisconsin Historical Society and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he spent 34 years.

After retiring from Northwestern in 2008, he and his wife, Mary, returned to Lake Geneva, where they now live in the same house on Maxwell Street in which he spent his childhood.

Quinn continues to write a regular history column for a local newspaper, and his books include a republished version of “The Annals of Lake Geneva” and “Reflections of Lake Geneva.”

Look back at this slice of life with Quinn:

No place like home

There were four of us who lived here — my grandparents, my bachelor uncle and myself. I always thought it was a tiny place when I was growing up, but it's just perfect for us. For people in their mid-70s, it's like a condo. My boyhood bedroom is now my study.


What struck me the most when I returned to Lake Geneva was how much things remained the same. The elementary school I went to, Central Denison, is still two blocks away. The high school used to be just two blocks from here and now it's out at Badger, but the central part of the city hasn't changed. What's changed are the subdivisions that have been built all around it. The center of Lake Geneva in those days was the downtown, and now the business district has moved east of town.

Times past

There are thousands of memories, and I've written about a lot of them. Right over here on Broad Street, just where the railroad tracks used to go, was the blacksmith's shop. I used to go in there and watch the blacksmith. He'd be in there hammering away, with no shirt on, but the big gloves and leather apron. There would be a ton of horses outside, waiting to be reshod. 

In those days the train came to Lake Geneva, so you could hear the train coming in and leaving. The train went all the way up to Williams Bay. I remember going over to the train station and watching the trains come in. They had freights going in and out and they had passenger trains. During the summer, you could watch all the tourists unloading from the train.

Working in a tourist town

Lake Geneva's been a tourist town going back to 1871. And it really picked up during the 1920s and then especially after World War II. It was always extremely crowded with tourists during the summer. I would say there were maybe even more people in town in those days.

One of the good things about growing up in Lake Geneva for young people was that there were always jobs during the summer. And that wasn't necessarily the case in Elkhorn or Delavan or Burlington. I worked for 10 years at the American Legion Canteen, right on the lakeshore, on what they now call Wrigley Drive. I always had a job during the summer, from the day that school let out all the way to Labor Day. I worked seven days a week, and in those days the pay was only a quarter an hour.

From 1959 to 1966, I worked at the post office while I was going to school. It's sort of a family occupation. My uncle was a letter carrier and my father was a letter carrier. When I got the post office job, it was $2.93 an hour. As my grandmother used to say, “You're now making a man's wages.”

Civil War

As I think back at the history of Lake Geneva, certainly the Civil War period was very interesting. At that time the city was called Geneva. It didn't become Lake Geneva until 1882, when the post office changed its name to prevent it from being confused with Geneva, Illinois. But during the Civil War, Geneva contributed three companies to the Union Army. A company had 100 members in it. One was in the 4th Wisconsin Infantry. One was in the 22nd Wisconsin Infantry. And the third was in the 49th Wisconsin Infantry. That first regiment, the 4th Wisconsin, was involved in the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana, which is right on the Mississippi River, just sort of south of Vicksburg. It was a Confederate stronghold. The attack resulted in a slaughter of Union Army regiments, and it wiped out the company from Lake Geneva almost entirely.

There were many others who joined other companies. But these were the three that were raised right here. They drilled in what is now Maple Park. A lot of people turned out here. Not all lived in the town, some were from the surrounding townships — Linn and Bloomfield and Lyons Township.

Civil rights

We're lucky we're talking now because I almost got killed three times when I was down (in Selma). It was pretty dicey in those days because segregation was in full swing. And white Alabamans immediately saw that any white person from the North who spoke with a Northern accent was the enemy, that they were down here to support blacks in their struggle for civil rights.

I like to say I was the next speaker after Martin Luther King (at the rally after the Selma march). I was, but my comments when I spoke were not nearly as articulate as King's. I just told people where they should meet their buses heading back to New York and Chicago.


After the demonstration, I saw people had left all these young black kids in Montgomery with no provision to get back to Selma, about 50 miles away. So I and this young black student from Lake Forest College that I met, we simply went to a phone booth and called up the Montgomery Bus Company and told them to get three buses down here right away. And I was astonished. They said, “Yes, sir. We'll get them right down.” Three school buses showed up. In the meantime we saw this flatbed truck, driven by a black guy, and I hailed him. He was going to Selma, so we put a lot of kids up in the flatbed and we put all the rest of the kids in the buses.

At that time, it was only a two-lane road going west to Selma. By this time it was night, and we had gotten about three-quarters of the way between Montgomery and Selma when all of a sudden these three cop cars come whipping right around our school buses. And I saw, off the road, gumballs were going and the police had the road closed. So I got down off the bus. I saw the cop cars had their floodlights up off to the south side of the road, where there was a big embankment going up. And I saw a car up there that had gone off the road and the doors were open, and they had the spotlights on it. And I asked the Alabama state trooper there, “What's going on?” And he said, “None of your (expletive) business. Get the (expletive) back into the bus before I arrest you.” 

I didn't realize what happened until I got back to Selma. We had been staying on the floor of a black church there, but the next day, I was invited to stay at this black family's place and they had a little black and white TV. We were watching the morning news, and they reported on what we had seen from the bus — the car that was off the road. The Ku Klux Klan had killed a civil rights worker, Viola Liuzzo, from Detroit. She had been driving another black kid back to Montgomery, and they just ran her off the road and shot her, killed her.

Mary and I were on our way to Florida some years ago, and we were in Selma and stopped in this convenience store. I walked in there and I was shocked because there were both blacks and whites in there, which is something that wouldn't have computed in 1965. It was very strange.

Northwestern archives

My predecessors there had assembled a small collection, but it wasn't a modern archive in any sense of the word. I was able to build it up into, I think, one of the best academic archives in the country. We brought in a lot. For example, a professor of political science (at Northwestern) was the guy who wrote the modern Japanese constitution. After Japan was defeated in World War II, they brought Americans in to restructure Japan. He was a specialist in Japanese history, and he wrote the constitution. During the 50th anniversary of that in 1995, we had tons of scholars coming from Japan to the university archives to go over papers and see how he assembled that constitution.

Future history

There are very few paper records now being created and saved. I say both of those things because much more paper is being used now as people are printing out emails and such. But then they throw them all out because they figure they're in digital form on their computers. So far, there hasn't been a systematic effort to save all those computer disks containing all the correspondence and other materials. So I'm a little nervous about what the future's going to hold until people evoke a historical consciousness that it's important to save these records in digital form and not just leave it to chance that they survive.

Patrick Quinn shares stories: See the video at https://www.facebook.com/walworthcountytoday/.




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