Mystery Place: Delavan Lake figures prominently in cultural, social history

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Ginny Hall | June 10, 2016

Delavan Lake, located southeast of the city of Delavan, is the second largest lake in Walworth County; Geneva Lake is the largest. The Delavan Lake area is known for its Native American mounds, its circus history, sailing and ballrooms.

Years ago this area was settled by Native Americans, and the various mounds surrounding the lake are evidence of this.

Effigy mound builders were in this area between 500 and 1200 A.D. In 1878 an archeological team from Beloit College recorded 273 effigy mounds, most of them on Lake Lawn property and along the north shore of the lake.

It was one of the largest collections of mounds in southern Wisconsin. Unfortunately, most of these have been destroyed — many of them while this area was quarters for the circus. There is part of a lizard mound near the totem pole on the Lake Lawn Resort grounds; however, because parts are missing, it can't be recognized as such. Part of another mound is located near the 18th green.

Middle-Lake Woodland Indians were in the area as early as 1800 B.C. Their village site was on the north shore of Delavan Lake outlet. 

Other Native American tribes to live in this area included the Pottawatomie, the Winnebago, an Algonquin tribe and a branch of the Sioux. 

In May 2007, two Delavanites did a search in the lake for the remains of a Native American canoe. One of the divers had brought up a portion of the canoe in 1971. Unfortunately, that piece is lost and the 2007 dive was unsuccessful.

This lake has several long- standing businesses on its shore.  Probably the oldest of these is Lake Lawn, in existence since 1878, although another source gives the date as 1882.

Another long-standing business is The Village Supper Club, owned by Christ and Patti Marsicano. 

Col. Samuel Phoenix and his brother came to the shores of Swan Lake, as it was earlier known, on July 15, 1836. They  staked their cabin in the area of the fourth green at Lake Lawn.  The next day they found a mill site on Swan Creek.  

Delavan Lake was known for its ballrooms during the 1930s and into the 1970s. There were around 20 dance halls around the lake. Some of them included Lake Lawn, Dutch Mill, Delavan Gardens, Woodlawn and The Capital. Many of them were destroyed by fire over the years.  Big band musicians, including Lawrence Welk, Tiny Hill, Ted Weems, Bill Carlsen, Jan Garber and Bud Wilber, came to the area to perform. 

One of the first sailboat races on the lake was organized in 1889. The Delavan Lake Yacht Club was organized in 1892.    This is the lake on which Buddy Melges and his sister, Marilyn, learned to sail.

The lake also has some circus history. The area was known for being the winter quarters of two dozen circuses. When Lake Lawn was dredging its waterfront in 1932 for a swimming area, they discovered a huge leg bone. People thought it was a mastodon bone. It was shipped off to the Field Museum in Chicago.

Word came back that it was the bone of an elephant. People then recalled the story of Juliet, a circus elephant. She died at the nearby Mabie farm in 1862. It was winter and no one wanted to dig a huge grave in the frozen ground. Instead, a team of horses brought the elephant onto the frozen lake. A hole was sawed in the surface and the elephant was pushed into the lake and sank to the bottom.

In 1968 the town of Delavan formed the Delavan Lake Sanitary District in an effort to clean and maintain the lake's quality. Fishermen were concerned that the lake was growing more algae than fish. Work has continued over the years to keep the lake a good fishing destination.


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