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Friday, 18 September 2015 09:43

Saving downtown: In Williams Bay, it takes a village to make a downtown

Written by  Lisa Schmelz
Daddy Maxwell’s diner has been a staple in Williams Bay for decades. Whether its Walworth Avenue location is part of “downtown Williams Bay” remains up for debate, though. Daddy Maxwell’s diner has been a staple in Williams Bay for decades. Whether its Walworth Avenue location is part of “downtown Williams Bay” remains up for debate, though. Terry Mayer

Editor’s note: Saving Downtown is an award-winning series by freelance writer Lisa Schmelz exploring how Walworth County communities are breathing new life into their historic downtown districts. This is the fifth installment. Visit other towns in the Saving Downtown series by going online to communityshoppers.com/tag/Saving-downtown.

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Last Sunday morning, a table was hard to come by at Daddy Maxwell’s in Williams Bay. Two hours before the Packers-Bears kickoff, this igloo-shaped diner felt as crowded as Soldier Field -- provided one made the proper per-capita and square-footage adjustments and was still prone to exaggeration.

But folks here didn’t mind waiting for a table, being elbow-to-elbow at the counter or shoulder-to-shoulder along the western wall, where a row of tables overflowed with locals and weekend visitors. The mood was jovial. Conversations were a mix of politics, town gossip, including whether or not the cashier should be allowed to wear a Bears jersey in Packers country, and the glorious fall weather of the moment. There was also much pontificating as to where downtown Williams Bay started and stopped, and even more specifically, if Daddy Maxwell’s could claim to be a part of downtown Williams Bay.

“It’s not downtown,” offered Patrick Smith, a longtime waiter here, who is known for his towering height and skills as a human database for all things NFL, as he breezed past the counter, his hands full of breakfast plates. “We’re uptown now. Uptown goes from Daddy Maxwell’s to Lucke’s Cantina.”

But isn’t Daddy Maxwell’s the spiritual downtown of Williams Bay? Forget about its location a few blocks north of the Geneva Lake shorefront, and the historic brick commerce building on the corner of West Geneva Street and North Walworth Avenue, which has one of the last remaining barber shops in the county. Doesn’t the sea of humanity seeking daily sustenance here serve as the heartbeat of Williams of Bay? Isn’t that what a downtown is, a place where you can take the pulse of many?

“Janette would be just tickled pink to hear you say that,” Smith said from the next room, freshening coffee mugs at a table for eight.

Smith is referring to Janette Maxwell, the owner of Daddy Maxwell’s, which opened its doors in 1949, and which she bought 28 years ago. Emerging from the kitchen, as if on cue, she joined the debate only to make it murkier.

“It’s not even a town,” Maxwell said. “It’s a village. Williams Bay is a village.”

Village versus town

How a place gets deemed a city, town or village is based on a number of factors, with population and local government structure playing a big part in the moniker. Typically, villages are quaint places with small populations.

Maxwell is right, Williams Bay is not a town. It is a village. So is it possible for a village to have a downtown if it lacks town status? Sure, but first a little backstory.

European settlers arrived here in 1836, drawn by the beauty of the land and the lake. This hamlet never built up with the fervor of nearby Lake Geneva. From 1874 to 1898, five recreational camps were established. By 1895, the village of Williams Bay had caught the attention of the University of Chicago. Astronomers there were looking for a remote place, with enough elevation for star-gazing, to build an observatory to house the world’s largest refracting telescope. Today, Yerkes Observatory is still peering into the night skies and its refracting telescope is still the world’s biggest.

When Albert Einstein came to Williams Bay on May 6, 1921, to tour Yerkes, the population was about 436. Back then, Williams Bay had everything a village could want: postal service, train service, a general store, an ice house, a hardware store. Just like today, the location of those stations of commerce varied and were not always in what would could be described as “downtown.”

Eighty-four years after Einstein visited, this community is now just over the 2,600 mark and continues to keep most of its storefronts open -- even if they don’t neatly arrange themselves around a shared nucleus.

Let the record reflect that today Williams Bay includes two banks, a library, an investment firm, a post office, multiple real estate companies and restaurants, two ice cream shops, a barber shop, two beauty salons, a dog groomer, an antique store, an organic grocery store and deli, a coffee shop that also acts as an art gallery and live music venue and a few old-school motels.

The village of Williams Bay does indeed have a downtown, it’s just more scattered than most and spans about a three-block radius.

At Skip’s on North Walworth Avenue, which like Daddy Maxwell’s is a favorite of foodies on websites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, Rick Pfenning is serving Chicago-style hot dogs and pizza on the spot that once served as the town’s general store and livery until it burned down in 1912.

Post-fire, it then went through a number of incarnations -- bakery, dairy, sandwich shop -- before Pfenning and his wife, Linda, bought it 16 years ago.

How is business in the village by the bay?

“I would say the property owners tend to do well,” Rick Pfenning said. “The tenants struggle because of the seasonality of the location.Williams Bay is not Lake Geneva. It’s the quiet side of the lake.”

Like most business owners, Pfenning won’t share much about his bottom line. But it’s good enough that he’d like to pass it along to his daughter and son-in-law, Tracie and Joe Cyganiak, who recently moved back to the Midwest from Florida and now work alongside the Pfennings.

“I’d love for it to stay in the family,” Tracie Cyganiak said.

“It’s not just business,” added Joe Cyganiak. “It’s history, too. I love history.”

Sandy Johnson also loves history. Johnson grew up in Williams Bay. A year ago, she returned and opened Bragi. Named for the Viking god of poetry, this is a coffee shop, art gallery, wine bar, live music venue and music studio all in one building on West Geneva Street. The building she’s now in, she said, dates back several decades.

A classically trained pianist and singer, she holds a doctorate from the University of Houston. These days, she’s bringing what she loves to do to the village that loved her as a child.

“I think it’s really important to expose smaller communities to culture ... I’m not really a money person. I do what I love. I’m really in this to give back to my community. I was really lucky to grow up in a place with no crime, no pollution,” said Johnson behind the counter of her five-businesses-in one. “And we’ve been here a year. We’re doing it.”

A downtown state of mind

As geographically disjointed as the downtown of Williams Bay might seem, it proves a valuable lesson for communities everywhere.

Downtown isn’t simply a place, it’s a state of being. At least that’s how Patricia Nahn sees it.

Nahn is in Williams Bay a few times a year. An Illinois resident, she comes here to relax and unwind. Perched on a stool at Daddy Maxwell’s, she offers her perspective on what a downtown is and hits a universal note.

“A downtown is just a collection of buildings and energy, where people go out at night and business is done during the day,” Nahn said. “It’s a gathering place. Anyplace people gather is a downtown.”

And in Williams Bay, downtown is everywhere.

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