It is a three-hour drive — 2 hours and 45 minutes if breaks are omitted — from Wheeling, W.Va., to the West Virginia cottage on the Lake Erie shore at GOTL.
Like the three generations of Harmans and Fishers before him, Dave Harman has been coming to this cottage every summer since the year he was born, 1934. That was four years after his maternal grandparents, David and Ruth Ann Fisher Harman, purchased the simple but comfortable cottage from Dr. George Stoskoph of Lakewood.
“I never have been able to find out how much he paid for it,” Dave Harman says as he and his wife of 54 years, Dorothy, enjoy the comfort and cheer of their lakefront porch on a morning in early August. A retired pharmacist, Dave likes to reminisce about the 40 years he spent in the business, carrying on the tradition that his father started as a pharmacist in New Martinsville, south of Wheeling.
“It was fun,” Dave says, recalling the times he was both pharmacist and a trusted source of medical advice. But the Medicare/Medicaid laws, the competition from the chains and other business pressures sucked the fun out of the business.
“And when it’s not fun, you got to get out of it,” he says.
To Dave and Dorothy, Geneva-on-the-Lake is simply “The Lake” in West Virginia vernacular. And going to “The Lake” for a summer respite is a century-old tradition for Dave’s family. A photograph album documents the Fisher family’s annual vacations to Lake Erie summer resorts and what would become their quest for a place of their own.
“My mother was born in 1901 and (the family) began coming up here on vacation starting in 1912,” Dave says. “At first, they went to Ninevah Beach (in Saybrook Township). I can remember my mother telling us about it.”
Dave’s mother was born in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, and he suspects that acquaintances in that area introduced the Fishers to the cool breezes, fine beaches, dance halls and amusements in Ashtabula County.
Back then, getting to the resort was an adventure.
“They’d take the train (from New Martinsville, W.Va.) to Pittsburgh,” Dave says. “Then they’d take another train from Pittsburgh to Ashtabula. At Ashtabula, they’d take a hay wagon out to Ninevah Beach.”
One photo in the family archives shows the entourage at Kill Care Camp, one of the many campgrounds and resorts that were along Lake Erie during the golden age of resort towns.
By the time Dave started making the trip with his family, they traveled by automobile. But trunks full of clothing and other necessities were shipped ahead to Geneva-on-the-Lake by rail express because there would not be room in the car for all the vacationers and their gear.
The entourage in the 1930s included Dave, his parents, his Aunt Mary Fisher, sister Ruth Ann and cousin Mary Ann Fisher Espy.
“We came up in the middle of June and stayed until the day after Labor Day,” Dave says. “School started the day after Labor Day, but I always missed it because we were closing up the cottage.”
They did not return until the following May. A local person looked after the property in the interim. There was no furnace, so returning for Christmas or even Easter was out of the question. To this day, the West Virginia Cottage does not have a furnace, only a fireplace with an insert that is pressed into service during chilly summer days.
It has not always been the West Virginia.
When Dr. Stoskoph and his wife owned it, from 1916 to 1930, the quintessential lakefront cottage was known as The Marguerite. Several other prominent cottages stood along this section of The Strip.
To the east was Silver Sands, built by Virgil Bogue, proprietor of the Eugobode Cottages (now Abigail’s). Beyond that was the James Cottage, now owned by Larry and Annette Brunner, the Sunset Cottage (original one gone) and the magnificent Shady Beach Annex, still with us.
Dave says his grandparents stayed at both Silver Sands and the Marguerite before they purchased the property. Stoskoph wrote a letter to the cottage’s new owners and said that, while he was very sorry to have to give up the cottage, his loss was the West Virginia family’s gain. The letter suggests that the family also gained all the furniture and other contents of the cottage in the transaction.
The little cottage sat very close to the road, and shortly after purchasing it, Dave’s grandfather did “massive repairs,” including moving it 10 feet back from the road and re-aligning it so the front was parallel with the street. As was the case with most of the cottages at the resort, there was no indoor restroom, although that would soon change. In 1927, GOTL became a village, which allowed construction of a municipal wastewater treatment plant. An addition to the back of the cottage would accommodate a small restroom, with the shower head coming out of the ceiling. Now on the first floor, the small bathroom is the only one in the house and has been called upon to serve more than a dozen guests at a time.
Loss of beach
As with other properties along this stretch, the West Virginia was blessed with a beautiful, wide beach. Dave recalls a time when there was a wide buffer of vegetation, including huge cottonwood trees, between the beach and the cottage. The beach stretched east and west; Dave could walk to Chestnut Grove and never encounter a car.
“As a kid, I could walk to the Pier Dance Hall along the beach,” Dave says. “(The beach) was beautiful.”
The “big storm of 1977” took a big chunk of the beach and buffer zone. Eleven years later, four property owners, the Harmans included, banded together on an erosion control project. It saved their cottages, but the beach that had been lost is gone forever.
Ownership of the cottage snaked its way through the family tree until David Espy agreed to sell his interest to Dave. The couple’s daughters, Anne Harman of Wheeling and Susan Confair of Camp Hill, Pa., now hold title to the family heirloom.
Dorothy says the cottage has become a reunion destination for the family, which now includes three grandchildren. Dave says they’ve had as many as 14 family members gathered around their diner table.
As it was 70 years ago, the cottage also is a resort for friends from the Northern Panhandle who want to spend a few days gazing at the lake and indulging in the culinary delights of The Strip.
Photos in the cottage’s album show members of a bridge club from New Martinsville smiling for the camera as they prepare for a bicycle tour of The Strip. There are photos of George and Mary Harman, Dave’s paternal grandparents, on the beach, and the Fisher family gathered in front of the iconic, green-striped canvas awnings.
Dorothy says the cottage was built to accommodate guests, but those of a different era. There are four bedrooms, but largest is 10 feet square. Closets were unnecessary back then as trunks served as both luggage and closet. Every square foot of the house has been used for accommodations at one time or another.
“We’ve had 12 to 14 people sleep in this place at one time, on the porch, in the basement,” Dave says.
“It’s family, it’s a second home for us. They just love it here,” he adds.
The changing scene
Because Dave has come to GOTL every summer of his 80-plus years, he has seen much change and made many great memories. He recalls, for example, taking his bride to the burlesque show in the summer of 1961.
“It was pitiful,” Dorothy says. “I’d never been to a burlesque show.”
“They probably had the ugliest women and raunchiest comedians you’ll ever find,” Dave adds.
One performer stands out in his mind, not so much because of her attributes, but the car in which the fan dancer rode in.
“Sally Rand. They had a parade for her and she was in this light-blue Lincoln convertible,” he says. “That was big entertainment.”
Dave also recalls going to The Barn, a bar that was located next to the Sports Center in a barn-like structure.
“That was quite the place,” he says. “It was a lot of fun. It was a big music hall. They had a guy playing an organ in there and people singing songs. They’d call the Bull of the Woods up there and he’d lead songs.”
Dave says his parents favored Murray Cook’s bar, The Swallows, which was located in the rear of the Oak Room.
“My family also went up to The Pier two or three nights a week,” Dave says. “The Casino (dance hall) had been converted to a roller skating rink by then. I remember the organist in there playing.”
Dave says there were several cottages and a large farmhouse across the street from their cottage at that time. The farmhouse provided lodging for the band members who played at The Pier.
Life was much more laid back then. Dave says he’d sleep late and, after breakfast, head to the beach around 10:30 or 11 a.m. His mother would call him up for lunch, and they’d head back to the beach after that. The day would end with a bath, often in the lake.
Like many a child who spent summers at GOTL, Dave learned to ride a bicycle at the track that was behind John Zimmerman’s gas station, near the site of the Visitors Bureau office. Another nearby amusement was the barn that housed ponies and carts that could be rented.
Dave says he did not have an unlimited budget for the amusements of The Strip. He rarely got to go into the arcade, and the family did not splurge on Madsen Donuts.
He made a number of lifetime friends during those halcyon days. They included the Taylor brothers, whose family owned a speedboat and would give Dave thrill rides. “Wed go out into the lake and go around tankers, freighters,” he says. “We ran that motorboat all over the place.”
End of the season
In a less than a month, the Harmans will take down the “West Virginia” sign and put the lock on another summer at Geneva-on-the-Lake. They will make the familiar trek back to Wheeling, watch autumn turn to winter, and prepare for their next maritime vacation, February at Fort Lauderdale by the ocean.
Come late May 2016, and the Lord willing, Dave and Dorothy will be back to The West Virginia. They will dust off the furniture, wash the windows and return the sign to its summer perch under the peak. The swing will be hung on the porch and the backside of the property inspected for erosion damage. After 85 years of coming to The Lake, they can’t imagine summer any other way.
“I’d never heard of Geneva-on-the-Lake (until she met Dave),” Dorothy says. “I love it.”