‘This riot over here is something Geneva never had, believe me … there is no respect for no law officer, so they have to use tear gas to shake them away, disperse the crowds.
Vacationer who witnessed the riots
This sign is located at N41 51.589 W80 57.182.
That’s what the national media called the young people who participated in the July 4, 1965, “riot” at Geneva-on-the-Lake.
The skirmish between police and the revelers began on the east end of The Strip late in the evening of July 4th. News of it traveled around the world and, in the days and years that followed, a resort town formerly associated with families and old-fashioned recreation became branded as a trouble spot frequented by hoodlums, motorcycle gangs and drunks. It would take years, decades, for the village to recover from the bad press caused by the riot, a word some eyewitnesses are loathe to use.
The 1960s were a time of social and political tremors and quakes in our county. There was racial unrest, as well. The nation was still healing from the assassination of its president, John. F. Kennedy. Sex, drugs, alcohol and a more liberal attitude toward them helped fuel the passions.
Despite the potential for this simmering pot of trouble to boil over, the vendors at Geneva-on-the-Lake went about their business of making money on what is usually the busiest day of the summer for them. It had been a dandy day for doing that; the weather was hot and steamy, the crowds thirsty. Louis DiFabio, who owned a restaurant/bar on the east end of The Strip, said every establishment down there was running low on product and business owners struggled to keep up their coolers stocked.
High demand for 3.2-beer, legal for 18-year-olds in Ohio, was driven by the influx of out-of-state youth who had found the perfect establishment for getting a buzz in ears and brain alike. The Cove, opened two years earlier by Pete Macchia, had been an instant success. It offered alcohol and live music, and on that Independence Day, a Saturday, the crowd simply could not get enough of either. Indeed, Macchia’s Cove could not meet the demand, and he cleared the building in the late afternoon to make room for the evening crowd, which would be charged a cover fee.
Some sources say that Macchia charged the guests who had paid a cover charge to get in that afternoon when they attempted to re-enter for the evening show. Indignant, intoxicated and in need of an outlet, the swarms began to protest and demonstrate their dissatisfaction. Fights broke out, civility broke down.
The village’s police force was small, rookie and lacked the training for dealing with large crowds. The ruckus drew the attention of other youth in the Sunken Bar and other east-end eating and drinking establishments. Many were drawn into the protest and fights; the local police were quickly overwhelmed and call upon the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Department to intervene.
Shortly after the cruisers arrived, a boisterous male began ripping down a picket fence in front of a cottage. Pickets in hand, he and followers beat upon the sheriff’s department cruiser, smashing in windows and denting the stiff metal. Fireworks, rocks, bottles and noise were hurling through the steamy night air. Some students climbed into trees and hurled rocks toward officers. Law enforcement responded with tear gas.
The mayor of the village, overwhelmed by the disorder, called the governor for assistance from the National Guard. The gun-toting troops arrived in the early morning hours of July 5 and began shutting down businesses and clearing the street. Tear gas was used to control the crowds. The roads into the village were blocked and checkpoints established. Ambulances carried away the injured, estimated at a dozen or so.
And arrests were made. The number of arrests was probably between 30 and 40, according to the best eyewitness sources, although the national media reported figures 10 time higher. The jail at GOTL was a small holding area (it is intact in the building occupied by Goblin Custom Cycle, 4964 S. Spencer Dr.).
The village resembled a ghost town for the next two days, but in the aftermath, those who were allowed to return to their homes and businesses on The Strip, noticed that very little damage had occurred, aside to the unfortunate picket fence and police cruiser.
The Chicago Tribune, in an article published July 5, 1965, suggests two nights of police occupation and rioting, July 3 and July 4. “About 30 arrests were made and police said 14 persons were injured, including a policeman felled by a thrown rock,” the newspaper reported.
The National Guard was in the village for less than eight hours. Slowly, things returned to normal, but it was a new kind of normal, one rewritten by the national media.
Local and national media reported on the “riots.”
Local and national media reported on the “riots.”
“Cops around, beer gone, riots fizzle: Resorts quieter after arrests,” reported the Chicago Tribune on July 6, 1965. “At Geneva-on-the-Lake, national guard troops withstood an effort by rioters to enter the Lake Erie resort town in defiance of a military ban against visitors. The ban had been imposed Sunday following a riotous Saturday night in which several thousand persons surged into the community.”
The story reported that the rioters were “teen-agers and men and women in their twenties and thirties who formed themselves into defiant mobs intent on resisting all restraints attempted by authorities.”
Two weeks later, Time magazine stated that the riot lasted three hours and involved 8,000 students who smashed shop windows and destroyed three police cruisers. The New York Times estimated the crowd at 5,000 and stated that police had to use night sticks and tear gas to bring them under control.
Perhaps these outlets confused GOTL with other places in Ohio and other states that experienced rioting that same holiday weekend. In Russells Point, Ohio, National Guard members dealt with a riot involving 1,500 youth. One hundred of them were arrested, and there were several injuries.
At Rockaway Beach, Mo., the Missouri Highway Patrol and police from seven communities took on 3,000 beer-intoxicated youth who ripped into the resort community. There were 126 arrested. There were disturbances at Arnolds Park, Iowa; Lake George, N.Y.; and Southgate, Mich.; as well.
Time reported on July 16, 1965, that these “fireworks” collectively resulted in 90 injuries, 800 arrests of youth and $20,000 in property damage.
Fifty years later, GOTL businessmen look forward to a calm but prosperous holiday. If previous July 4ths are any indication, there will be huge crowds, traffic jams and parking headaches as partygoers come out for the fireworks. But, hopefully, all the fireworks will be in the sky and the “riots” will be the kind people experience when having fun.
I was there during the riots. I am curious to know if this was instgated by a group of bikers. I was hit in the rear end with an electrified cattle prod by a police man. I was just walking on the sidewalk. West End of strip.