They were the wives and children of steel-mill and auto workers from Pittsburgh and the Mahoning Valley.
The day after school let out for the summer, they packed the station wagon full of summer clothes and necessities, then headed north to Chestnut Grove at the west end of The Strip, Geneva-on-the-Lake.
Living in tents, makeshift cottages and a big silver Greyhound bus, the women and children formed a community unto themselves until school resumed. For nearly three glorious months, they would live in bathing suits and dispense with shoes, except for Sunday Mass at Assumption Church and the once-a-week trip to the A&P.
“The appeal of coming here every summer was you got your family out of the sweltering city,” says Betty Wynn Layport, a Pittsburgh native who came to Geneva-on-the-Lake every summer with her aunt and uncle Betty and Same Collinger, Strip accommodation owners. The time period was the 1950s and 1960s.
Layport says prior to the coming of the automobile, Geneva-on-the-Lake was a playground for the wealthy of Cleveland and Pittsburgh, who came to the beaches to escape the heat of the summer. Once blue-collar workers could afford automobiles, the resort’s demographics changed, and it became a summer getaway for the common man.
Richard Quinn and his siblings exchanged their home in Youngstown every summer for a simple cottage at Chestnut Grove. The children and their mother, Stella, lived at the cottage seven days a week; their father, a welder with Republic Steel, came to visit on weekends.
His sisters, Patricia and Kathleen, have wonderful memories of those times, when life was stripped to the bare necessities.
“We didn’t have showers in the cottages,” Patricia says. “You took your bath in the lake, and we always had a bar of Ivory soap because it floats, or your soap was on a rope.”
Layport estimates that there were up to 200 families who called Chestnut Grove their home every summer. Campsites were marked by the trees.
“Between every four trees was a cottage,” says Robert “Timmy” Timms of Youngstown. “There was a tree on each corner.”
Emily Smith Wetherill’s family arrived from Youngstown every summer in their proctologist-father’s silver Greyhound bus converted to a vacation home on wheels. There were seven children, and the bus got very crowded at night. Her friends from that era recall Emily telling them that her father, Dr. Harry Smith, was a pediatrician because she was embarrassed to share his real specialty.
The children, although they came from different cities and backgrounds, were on a level playing field at Chestnut Grove. Most of them had little in way of spending money, but in their grove community you didn’t need money to have fun. Endless hours of free recreation were just off the dock and all along the large beach at Chestnut Grove. Once a summer, Stella Quinn made hundreds of doughnuts and treated the entire community.
Youngsters picked up a few pieces of change by scouring the beaches for pop or other returnable bottles, which brought 2 cents apiece.
“After the weekend, you could hit the jackpot by cleaning up the beaches,” recalls Kathleen Quinn.
A quarter would purchase three plays of the jukebox, which was located across the street at the Front Porch, a popular evening gathering spot for the youngsters. Once they turned 18, they could graduate to the “Barn,” where the organ played “Night Train” incessantly and college students connected.
This summer nirvana came to an end when the grove was sold for state park land in the late 1960s. Several years ago, Timms began looking for the youngsters he had grown up with at Chestnut Grove. Their first reunion was held in 2008 at the Lodge and Conference Center, with about 40 in attendance. Since then, a small reunion has been held every year; the plan is to do another large reunion at the lodge in 2012.
This year’s gathering brought people from Illinois, Virginia and, of course, Youngstown, to a Madison Township cottage.
They stay in touch throughout the year on a “Chestnut Grove Park” Facebook page, where they share photos and memorabilia of those times so long ago.
“There is no way to describe the paradise this place was,” Layport says.
“We literally cried all the way home because summer was over,” Kathleen Quinn says. “We loved it so much here.”