Tomas Kainaroi purchased his first cottage at Geneva-on-the-Lake in 1936 The Pittsburgh, Pa., resident vacationed at the resort as a young man and decided to get into the cottage business. His daughter, Vula, says the vacation ended with that purchase and the summers have been filled with work ever since for the Kainaroi family.
The cottage was on Francis Drive and was named “Uncle Tom’s.” The family no longer owns the house, but it still stands. Tomas paid $5 down and $5 a month to own the cottage, which was his summer home until being drafted to serve in World War II.
Tomas seldom talked about military service, Vula says. The fact he was awarded a Purple Heart explains his silence. After the war, Tomas married his sweetheart, Maggie, and retuned to weekends at Geneva-on-the-Lake. To make money, he’d rent his cottage and sleep in his car. Profits from the cottage went toward purchasing more property and raising cottages on it.
Vula was the couple’s first child, and when she was born in 1954, he decreed that he would add another rental to his GOTL holdings with the birth of each child (he and Maggie had waited for eight years for their first child). In 1954, Tomas raised the Presidential Drive cottage.
Two years later, he acquired the former Homestead Inn from the grandchildren of Reuben Warner. The old boardinghouse needed extensive renovations. The couple re-opened it as the Lakecrest Hotel, and the property is still in the family, but used for their private residences.
A large purchase of lakefront land and cottages across from Lakecrest was made in 1957. This gave the family 231 feet of beach at a time when there was a substantial beach. In 1961 Tom made news by installing jetties to protect his beach, a move that other lakefront property owners were supposed to do, but did not. Today, Uncle Tom’s still offers a private beach to its guests, although the width is significantly reduced from the 1950s.
A second daughter, Harriet, came along in 1957, and Tomas commemorated the occasion by building the first motel on The Strip. The Seaway Motel offered rooms at the rate of $21 a night.
More properties were added and improvements made with the births of the couple’s other two children, Tammy, 1961, and Tom, 1963. Uncle Tom’s single cottage grew to 15 plus a motel.
Celebrations were held every time the family-owned business reached an anniversary milestone. Guests were given the chance to win a gift basket, a week of free lodging and other gifts.
Tomas died in 2005 at the age of 89; he remained active in the operation of the cottages and motel right up until his passing. Ownership of the property is structured that all four children own and have a role in managing it. During the summer, each child serves a given number of weeks at the property. Vula says her “little sister,” who lives in Florida, takes care of the opening and closing of each season. Grandchildren and even great-grandchildren are becoming involved in the operation.
“It really has kept us together as a family,” Vula says. “I wonder that if it had not been for this business, if we would still get together.”
The business does not generate enough income for the owners to make a living off it; Vula says that, at best, one family might be able to survive on the property’s annual revenues. For while the rental is only May through September, the expenses continue year-around. The family has invested $30,000 in roofs alone during the past two years.
Every year, there is the temptation to sell out, and Vula says they have obtained appraisals and studied options. She knows that if they were to sell, the old cottages and motel would be razed and a condo built by the new owners. But that is not the clientele that Uncle Tom’s caters to; most of their guests have been with them for years, and many are in their third or fourth generation. They appreciate nostalgia and simplicity, as well as a bargain price.
Vula says the cottages are booked a year in advance; the motel is a different story. They have gone to a minimum two-night stay and still struggle with some weekday bookings. She says Thunder on the Strip has given the business a final shot of revenue at the end of the season and helped them raise money for capital improvements.
Visit the Uncle Tom’s Cabins webpage for more history, current rates and availability.
While repeat guests know what to expect of both the cottages and resort town, newcomers can be challenging. “If someone has never been here before, I try to describe this place as honestly as possible, because it is very different,” Vula says. “I want them to understand that we’re not the Ritz Carlton, but we are clean. But if you are looking for quiet on the weekend, this is not going to be it.”
Only three of the 15 cottages on Presidential that the family once owned are still part of their holdings. The motel has nine units and there are 10 cottages on the lake. The family owns the former Homestead Inn across the street; while formerly rented out as apartments, it is now occupied by family members Tom and Vulva as their private residences. Tammy lives in Florida; Harriet in southern Ohio.