Park Spotlight: Geneva
Along the Inland Sea
Had history taken a different turn, Geneva State Park might have been a jewel in the crown of the New Connecticut State Park System! In 1662, King Charles II of England granted the colony of Connecticut a chunk of the Ohio wilderness bordered by Lake Erie on the north, and Pennsylvania on the east. The 5,000 square mile tract, referred to as the Connecticut Western Reserve, included all of present-day Ashtabula County along with all or part of thirteen additional northeast Ohio counties.
Connecticut planned to annex the prime lakefront property as “New Connecticut,” but the wild Western Reserve was not easily tamed. The harsh coastal winters discouraged permanent settlement until 1796, when surveyor General Moses Cleaveland and a party of 52 hardy souls established a tiny hamlet on the Cuyahoga River destined to become a great city. In 1800, the state of Connecticut finally gave up its ambitions for westward expansion and ceded the Western Reserve to the United States government, moving Ohio further along the road to its own statehood in 1803. The population remained sparse until 1825, when the grand opening of New York’s Erie Canal, followed by the completion of the Ohio and Erie Canal, provided a relatively safe and easy travel route to Ohio’s north coast.
Something about the Lake Erie landscape must have stirred the souls of many who came to live here, and instilled an unquenchable love of freedom. In Ohio’s formative years, Geneva and neighboring towns were the home of patriotic citizens and passionate politicians devoted to the anti-slavery cause, as well as a prominent suffragette, and a popular poet and short story writer. The entire Western Reserve was well known for its strong abolitionist sentiments, and Ashtabula County’s influential anti-slavery society was formed in 1832-29 years before the start of the Civil War.
The village of Jefferson, fourteen miles as the crow flies from the lakefront at Geneva, was home to U.S. Representative Joshua Giddings and his law partner, U.S. Senator Benjamin Wade. Giddings was an eloquent spokesman for the rights of all Americans and he practiced what he preached throughout his long political career-before and during his stint in Congress, Giddings’ home in Jefferson served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Benjamin Wade was a controversial figure who thought President Abraham Lincoln’s stance on slavery was too weak. After Lincoln’s assassination, Wade’s opposition to President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies nearly landed Wade in the White House-as president pro tempore of the Senate at the time of Johnson’s impeachment hearings, Wade would have been next in line for the presidency. Johnson narrowly escaped impeachment, and Wade missed the presidency, by a single vote in Congress.
Betsy Mix Cowles grew up in Austinburg, a ten-mile trek from the Geneva lakeshore. In a time when women were offered few life choices beyond marriage, Betsy remained single and supported herself through a distinguished career in education, becoming one of Ohio’s first female school superintendents. Betsy began her impressive life’s work as an advocate for civil rights when she organized the Ashtabula County female Anti-Slavery Society in 1835, and opened her home to runaway slaves. Betsy also became active in the women’s suffrage movement and presided over the first Woman’s Rights Convention held in Canton in 1850.
Geneva’s Chestnut Grove is a garden of memories for John Kopp and his family. As a boy in the early 1930s, John and his friends spent blissful summer days at Chestnut Grove Park, fishing, swimming and watching the boats go by. At the close of the decade, as teenagers in search of more sophisticated entertainment, John and his pals would leave their campsite at Chestnut Grove and walk to Geneva-on the-Lake, grab a bite at Eddie’s Grill, and head to the Pier Dance Hall to jump and jive to the music of big bands led by Jimmy Dorsey, Lawrence Welk, Cab Calloway and Ozzie Nelson. Inspired by happy family camping trips and the boys’ enthusiasm for the beautiful 478-acre park, John’s father, Lewis, rented and eventually bought Chestnut Grove Park in 1941 as a legacy for his sons.
Despite the outbreak of World War II, the park remained busy as war-weary families came to escape their worries. Patriotic duty called, and John responded. When he returned home in 1946, John took on the responsibility of managing Chestnut Grove Park from Memorial Day to Labor Day. He helped make improvements to the campgrounds and cottages, which had been built from the wood of the mighty chestnuts that were ravaged in the chestnut blight of the 1930s. In 1963, the Kopp family sold Chestnut Grove to Geneva Point Investors, who acquired additional land in the area and, in turn, sold the property to the state of Ohio in 1964 for development as Geneva State Park.
The opening of the new Geneva Lodge and Conference Center on the old park grounds this summer begins an exciting new chapter for the Kopp family and everyone who has enjoyed Geneva State Park over the years.
No doubt the Lake Erie environs also inspired Geneva resident Edith M. Thomas, who penned her way into the minds and hearts of the nation as a leading poet and short story writer of her day. As a youngster, Edith was entranced by nature and she spent much of her leisure time on nearby Lake Erie beaches, observing the lake’s many moods. Her blossoming fame as a fine writer eventually swept her away to the literary scene in New York City, but her childhood by the lake left a lasting impression. In her essay “Along an Inland Beach” published in the Atlantic Monthly in September 1883, Edith waxes poetic as she confesses her fascination with Lake Erie:
“…No configuration of the land, neither the majesty of mountains nor the airy spaciousness of plains, so moves us as does the sea, with its sublime unity and its unresting motion. What is true of the sea, as regards this exalted first impression, may as justly be claimed for any body of water which vision is unable to span,--may be claimed for Erie, which, as well as its companion Great Lakes, fully deserves to be called a ‘fresh-water sea.’
For the hundredth time beholding it, I feel the thrill of discovery, and drink in the refreshing prospect as with thirsty Old World eyes. ‘Who poured all that water out there?’ a child’s question on first seeing the Lake, best embodies the primitive wonderment and pleasure which the sight still retains for me…”
Through the 1800s, the abundant natural resources on Geneva’s Lake Erie coast attracted a diversity of industries to the area. Towering white oaks provided the raw material for ships and oaken barrels. The long growing season yielded sweet and juicy grapes that fed a flourishing wine culture. Monster sturgeon weighing in at two- to three-hundred pounds came home to the coast to spawn, to the delight of sport and commercial fishermen. The area had the makings of a successful sea port, but some influential visionaries capitalized instead on its potential for lakeside recreation.
In the heart of the nearby village of Geneva-on-the-Lake, the enterprising Spencer family opened a public picnic grounds at Sturgeon Point in 1869. The addition of a carousel a few years later prompted the development of a full-fledged resort. The lakeside playground quickly earned a widespread reputation as a summer vacation destination, and in the early 1900s, the resort attracted its most famous trio of campers; John D. Rockefeller, Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford. Meanwhile, the secluded woodlands a few miles west of the village on the banks of Cowles Creek were also opened to the public as a lakeside park and camping area. This unspoiled natural area, dubbed Chestnut Grove Park for its stately stand of chestnut trees, became the precursor to Geneva State Park.
Today, Geneva State Park still provides a natural lakeside getaway that offers a serene atmosphere that is removed from-but an easy drive to-the excitement and bustle of the tourist activities at Geneva-on-the-Lake. Twelve deluxe Cedar Cabins on the lakefront promise a relaxing retreat with the comforts of home. The park’s 91-site campground offers campers a choice of pleasant campsites in sunny meadows or shady woodlands, with modern amenities including electrical hookups, hot showers, laundry facilities and a camp store. Six launch ramps provide Lake Erie access for boaters, and the full-service marina offers a snack bar along with fuel, boating supplies and 383 docks for seasonal rental. Through an innovative partnership between Ashtabula County and Ohio State Parks, a fabulous new resort lodge, offering guest rooms, fine dining, meeting rooms and an indoor pool, has been constructed at the old Chestnut Grove picnic area.