Local Milwaukee Road History
DINING IN ANOTHER TIME
Don Clasen, Lake Country Reporter Newspaper
May 20, 1999
A visit to the Union House restaurant in Genesee Depot gives diners a taste of life 138 years ago.
Built a year after the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad tracks were laid just north of Genesee, running between Waukesha and Milton Junction, travelers arriving from Chicago welcomed a stop at the former Union House Hotel.
The establishment, built by Irish immigrant Patrick Lynch in 1861 gave passengers bound for Waukesha’s therapeutic springs a chance to freshen up and stay overnight before continuing their way by horse and buggy.
"It was built as a place for travelers to stop," Patty Robinson, who, along with her husband, Curt, has been proprietor of the upscale restaurant the past decade. "Trainmen could wash up in rooms upstairs."
Genesee, which later became a town, "faded away as Genesee Depot blossomed."
"Genesee was the hub on a hill south of here, "she said. Remnants of the original settlement remain south of Hwy. 59 on Hwy 83.
"The trains went around the hill on lower ground," said Patty. As a result, the center of the town shifted and clustered around the rails.
The restaurant’s name is Civil War related, according to Patty. In later years, the hotel and restaurant went by other names, including the Union House Inn,
"As the largest public building in Genesee Depot, the Union House with its second story ballroom, also functioned as a social gathering place for area families," wrote Marty Perkins, curator at Old World Wisconsin in 1990.
"Due primarily to the influence of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad, the settlement immediately thrived as an agricultural service center," Perkins went on to say in an historic menu once provided by the Robinsons. "Soon a grain elevator, woolen factory, general store, blacksmith shop and post office joined with the Union House Hotel to comprise the major components of the local economy.
While many of these local landmarks have succumbed to the ravages of time, the Union House continues to proudly serve as a tangible link to the community’s past."
Under the headline "Trains were Center of Life in Young Genesee Depot", an article published in the centennial edition of an area newspaper: "By the 1890’s Genesee Depot was a thriving community with homes surrounded by picket fences.
It was a village of dirt roads and paths, two stores, a blacksmith shop, shoe shop, lumber yard and of course, the depot. Everything revolved around the coming and going of the trains.
Stomping, sweating horses were tied at the long row of hitching posts along Mason’s (store) picket fence waiting for trains to come in. Shouts of laughing and tussling children rang in the autumn air as they boarded the 9 o’clock train for Waukesha High School or Carroll Academy."
Today, rails remain a short distance from the front porch of the Greek Revival building that houses the restaurant.
"Wisconsin and Southern Railroad trains still pass through two or three times a day" Patty Robinson said. Crowds gather, she added to see the Great Circus train wind its way through the town en route from Baraboo to Milwaukee each summer.
The old railway depot which once was located a short distance from the Union House has been moved south along Hwy 83.
The Robinsons say the structural "integrity" of the Union House has remained virtually the same over the years despite the addition of steel siding and a new porch deck. Several of the original porch posts remain.
Gone are the second floor hotel rooms, which Patty said, "were big enough for a bed and a wash basin." In later years the upstairs became a ballroom. Since the Mukwonago couple took over, however, the area which today is used only for storage, was the site of private parties.
"No one has lived here for at least 25 years, " she said.
"We’ve stayed with the turn of the century theme," said Patty who does the restaurant’s bookkeeping and is the pastry chef.
She also collaborates with chef John Mollet to prepare the menu for the restaurant’s country gourmet cooking.
Before the couple took over in 1989, the building had been vacant for about five years. The last restaurant was more of a short order eatery and place to play pool.
The couple remodeled the restaurant before reopening and displaying old pictures on the wall to whet the historic appetite of the curious.
About three years ago the Robinsons replaced some of the older dining tables with comfortable leather booths..
"As business has grown along with the area," said Patty, our clientele has become a little more sophisticated."
But although making the restaurant a "little more upscale," the rural tradition is maintained. "It’s still country," said Patty. "Casual diners come in blue jeans,"
"We offer leisurely dining," she said. "We book tables for two hours. That gives time for an appetizer and wine. If you want to go to a movie we can get you out faster."
"The clientele wants to relax and enjoy."
The Robinsons are proud of their selection of imported as well as domestic wine. "We have won the Wine Spectator Magazine Award of Excellence for seven years," she said.
Many wines come from small vintners. "It’s not what you buy at the grocery store," said Patty. In some instances the Union House receives a small portion of a select stock of only ten cases sent to Wisconsin, she said.
The menu offers a wide variety of items besides its Friday night fish fry. "You can always get a steak here. (A New York strip is priced at $28.99) And our barbecued ribs are popular." Said Patty. "We always have fresh fish."
"We always have a wild game entrée, " she added. Ostrich, rattlesnake, antelope and kangaroo have been used.
"People get tired of having the same thing" said Patty, who suggests that diners call ahead for a reservation on Fridays and Saturdays.
In recent years the Union House décor has included hand carved figures and animals including six-foot-tall wooden Indians. Patty says she ran across the items
and gets them on consignment from a woodworker in Illinois.
Diners occasionally come to the Union House with a craving and leave with a carving. For example, a wooden carving of a zebra for sale at the restaurant is priced at $2500.
Patty says the carvings add to the décor which is changed frequently.
"At Christmas time its like walking into Santa’s workshop," she said.
Want a bite of history to go with a meal?
Patty says she heard that President Polk and Abraham Lincoln’s wife are among the celebrities who have stopped at the Union House. "I can’t confirm it, but that’s what I heard." She says.
Patty can attest to one aspect of history. Her father, Clarence Bundy, was Genesee Town Chairman in the 1960’s. His picture is among those displayed on the walls of the Union House.
The walls also include several original playbills from theatrical performances of the late Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne in the 1920’s. "Alfred Lunt got the train to Chicago here," said Curt.
In the later years the famous actor and actress resided at their nearby estate, Ten Chimneys.
The Union House has also received a number of rave reviews.
Among them is one written by Old World Wisconsin’s Perkins nine years ago. It said, " Today diners have the unique opportunity to experience the same warm hospitality, , delectable meal offerings and courteous service that Patrick Lynch provided his customers in this setting over 125 years ago."