Pleasure Grounds marks 150 years

The smoke from the July 4th fireworks has cleared, replaced by the oppressive humidity and haze typical of July along the Lake Erie shoreline.

The bursts of fire and glimmer over the Geneva-on-the-Lake business district was witnessed by thousands of motorists and their passengers who’d paid $10 or more for a spot to park their vehicle close to the heart of the commercial district.

People on the Strip at GOTL.
Thousands of people walked The Strip in the hours before the fireworks on July 4, 2019.

They came to drink, eat, listen to live music and find the best spot for watching the fireworks, which began at 10 a.m. Some might have known that it was the birthday of the nation that was being celebrated, not their arrival at The Resort. Even fewer knew the significance of the date to the story of Geneva-on-the-Lake, the “Pleasure Grounds” opened by Edwin Pratt and Cullen M. Spencer exactly 150 years earlier, July 4, 1869.

Ad for the Pleasure Grounds.

Their Pleasure Grounds amounted to five acres on Sturgeon Point. It was a shady picnic grove on this point of land that extends into Lake Erie and was named for the huge lake sturgeon that congregated around the landmark. The proprietors offered a horse-powered merry-go-round, tables and benches, lemonade and ice cream. Below the point, the wide beach beckoned, as did a small boat.

Sturgeon Point was sold for private development some 30 years after the Pleasure Grounds opened for business. By then, the business district had shifted to the west and was under the control of Warren and L.C. Spencer, Cullen’s sons, and several others. Sturgeon Point was renamed Mapleton Beach, which became a densely packed cottage development that exists to this day.

Sunset at Sturgeon Point, GOTL, July 4, 2019.

Knowing and having written about the beginnings of GOTL and the historical significance of the July 4, 2019, holiday, I focused my documentary photography of the celebration on Mapleton Beach. Dozens of boats, including one or two large ones in the distance, gathered off the point as dusk fell over the historic land. Young adults, their faces illuminated by the LCD screens that fed them entertainment and news from distant places, glanced at the panorama only long enough to acknowledge the occasional explosion of consumer fireworks being shot off from the point.

Mapleton Beach (Sturgeon Point) guests and property owners gather outside their cottages to watch the fireworks July 4, 2019.

When the first of the professional fireworks appeared in the southern sky, the cottage owners and guests left their beach chairs behind and flocked at the entrance to the Middle and West Drives of Mapleton Beach, which provided a clear view of the fire showers over Strip businesses.

Fireworks explode over SportsCenter, one of the vintage businesses on The Strip at GOTL.

The display came to a close and long lines formed at the order windows of Eddie’s Grill, Katie’s Korner and many other eateries that stayed open late to capture the post-fireworks business. Routes 534 and 531 became traffic jams from The Strip to downtown Geneva as the spectators returned to their beds and prepared for the day of work on Friday.

Spencer and Pratt would have been amazed by it all.

Sunset at Sturgeon Point, GOTL.
Pleasure Grounds book Karaoke Queen.

Karaoke Queen

Bill Allison hates karaoke, and with good reason.

The speakers from the The Time Square Patio karaoke at Geneva-on-the-Lake are aimed at his Grumpy Grandpa’s Lemonade Stand across The Strip. Bill “retaliates” with signs that express his disdain for the wailing and screaming.

“Karaoke” And on the 7th day God created earplugs.”

“Karaoke” is a Chinese word meaning “tone deaf.”

“Karaoke is the bane of my existence.”

Man reading in lemonade stand at Pleasure Grounds
Bill Allison of Grumpy’s Lemonade and the miniature golf course at Geneva-on-the-Lake, tries to read while karaoke singers belt out tunes across the street.

When it comes to Judy Allen, however, Bill’s in tune with her music. “Judy ‘The Karaoke Queen’ is a good karaoke singer.”

The Karaoke Queen is Judy Allen, who lives to the east of The Village and comes down to The Strip whenever she can get a ride from a friends. She’s at Time Square Patio most Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings.

Bill says there’s just one problem with Judy’s singing: She knows only a handful of songs, most of them sad country ballads made famous by Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline.

The Karaoke Queen is one of the many stories from GOTL’s 150 years of history that are featured in “Pleasure Grounds.” Want to hear Judy sing and tell her story? Check out this Pleasure Grounds video.

Good Question band photo

Memorial Day and a Good Question at GOTL

One of the traditions at Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio’s oldest summer resort, is the band, Good Question.

Although not quite as old as the 150-year-old resort, Good Question is nearing its golden anniversary, says Paul Bodnar, one of the band’s original members.

Bodnar, of Saybrook Township, grew up at GOTL during the years his parents owned the Hungarian Restaurant at the east end of The Strip. He became interested in the new rock-and-roll sound while a young teen exploring The Strip and listening to bands play in iconic bars like The Cove and The Sunken Bar. At the time, the early 1960s, Bodnar was too young to enter the bars, so he had to listen to the music from the sidewalks. After paying his dues in a few small bands that played mostly school dances, Bodnar pulled together several other northeast Ohio musicians to form Good Question. They became the house band at the legendary Castaway Nightclub. After a couple of years at Castaway, Good Question was enticed by Cove founder and owner Peter Macchia to move their smooth sound to his bar on The Strip.

Good Question was Macchia’s favorite band, and the group always played a birthday concert for him in October. Most recently they opened the season at The Cove with a concert in April.

Paul says that there are GOTL visitors who book their cottages and lodge rooms around when Good Question is playing at The Lake. Mike and Bob Beer of western Pennsylvania confirm that tradition in Pleasure Grounds.

“Good Question, that band is the best in the world,” Bob Beer said in an interview for Pleasure Grounds. “I know of people who have scheduled their vacations around that group being here.”

Pleasure grounds book cover.

Pleasure Grounds, 500-plus pages, fully indexed, hundreds of photos. 8 1/2 x 11 inches, silk laminate paper cover

Because Good Question and GOTL are so intertwined, Pleasure Grounds devotes several pages to Good Question, which also had a long run with the Swiss Chalet. Over Memorial Day weekend 2019, Good Question will play three nights at the historic bar, the former New Inn, which also receives much attention in Pleasure Grounds.

The Pleasure Grounds history of GOTL book will be for sale during the band’s first break Saturday and Sunday evenings, starting around 9 p.m. The cost of the autographed book is $42.65. Cash is preferred, but credit/debit card processing will be available.

If you can’t make the Good Question performances, Pleasure Grounds is available on The Strip at:

  • Lakehouse Inn
  • Treasure’d Island
  • Anchor Inn
  • Eagle Cliff Hotel

In Ashtabula, the book is at Bridge Street Art Works, 1009 Bridge Street; in Harpersfield, at the Covered Bridge Shoppe (Harpersfield Covered Bridge Metropark).

Paul Bodnar with photo of Good Question.

Paul Bodnar, “the glue” that has held Good Question together for nearly 50 years, stands with the band portrait that once adorned the front of The Cove.

Pleasure Grounds

Bathing beauties enjoy Lake Erie near Sturgeon Point, where The Pleasure Grounds got their start in 1869. It grew into GOTL.

Our newest book, Pleasure Grounds, arrives May 22 and will be available for purchase from this website, at Bridge Street Artworks and several vendors at Geneva-on-the-Lake, which is book’s topic.

July 4 of this year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of these Lake Erie picnic grounds, referred to as a “Pleasure Grounds,” by the founders, Edwin Pratt and Cullen Spencer. Our new book traces the history of Ohio’s first summer resort town (it beats Cedar Point by a year through more than 500 historical and recent documentary photographs, maps and brochures. The book has 578 pages, is 8.5×11 inches and weighs nearly five pounds!

Exhaustive, and exhausting for the author/designer, Pleasure Grounds is our biggest book yet. It grew out of the work I did with my former employer, The Ashtabula County County Commissioners, who loaned me the Geneva-on-the-Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau to work on interpretive signage about key events, people and attractions at “The Lake.” This work became known as the Summer Fun Heritage Trail.

The many bars along The Strip provide a Pleasure Grounds during Thunder on The Strip, one of the topics explored in the new book.

After a new board commissioners decided to eliminate my position, I decided to use my new status as a freelance writer to delve much deeper in The Resort’s story and provide readers with a narrative that looks at all aspects of this unique town and resort.

I sparingly use the word “unique” when I write, but when it comes to GOTL, it earns it.

Where else can you find an incorporated Ohio village without a single franchised business except Dairy Queen? It has no banks, no payday loan joints, no doctor’s or dentist’s offices, no traffic lights and no big-box stores, not even a pharmacy. Yet there are 17 bars, hundreds of cottages to rent, a state park, a lodge, wineries, zip lines, mom-and-pop stores and what appears to be the nation’s oldest miniature golf course. GOTL even has a magic store!

This little microcosm has developed totally independent of outside investment, until recently, when Delaware North Companies began building high-end amenities like the zip line/challenge course and cottages development. Most of GOTL’s commercial district is operated by families in the third and fourth generation of ownership. They have created the businesses vacationers associate with GOTL: Eddie’s Grill, The Cove, Firehouse Winery and many more.

This little resort soon became a vacation destination for blue-collar steel-mill towns of Western Pennsylvania and the Youngstown region. Many of them camped at Chestnut Grove. Their voices and stories run flow through the book like 3.2-beer once flowed through the village. Topics covered in the book include dance halls, alcohol, lodging, amusements, beaches, the riots, cottages and much more.

There is both pleasure and sadness in this place, a microcosm of human experience and emotions, joys and disappointments.

Pleasure Grounds will be available at select merchants at GOTL this summer. We have chosen not to distribute through Amazon at this time. It can be purchased through this website as well as our retail location, Bridge Street Art Works, 1009 Bridge Street, Ashtabula. Books will be in stock starting May 23.

Confirmed GOTL locations selling Pleasure Grounds are the Eagle Cliff Hotel and Anchor Inn. The Covered Bridge Shoppe at the Harpersfield Covered Bridge also will stock the book. .

In the weeks ahead, I’ll be posting supplemental videos and stories about GOTL as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of this unique town and resort.

See you on The Strip!

Pleasure grounds book cover.

Pleasure Grounds, 500-plus pages, fully indexed, hundreds of photos. 8 1/2 x 11 inches, silk laminate paper cover