Lake Ivanhoe resident works to magnify first Black-owned community's place in Wisconsin history
Lake Ivanhoe, about an hour’s drive from Milwaukee, has a rich, and little-known history that’s about to be recognized with a state historical marker.
The community was created by a small group of Black businessmen from Chicago in the 1920s. They wanted a safe place for Black families to spend summers during an era when racial tensions and segregation were increasing in Chicago and segregation still had a firm grip on the country.
Today one of the community’s most ardent supporters is resident Peter Baker.
The Chicago native was introduced to Lake Ivanhoe in the 1960s, when as a preteen his friend’s grandfather took the boys for a day of fishing.
Baker remembers the day like it was yesterday.
“Until today I remember everything about it. I remember exactly where we fished and pretty much to the spot. It would be tight over there,” Baker says.
He couldn’t wait to tell his parents about it. “I said mom, 'it was an all Black community,'” Baker recalls.
Baker thinks it was more enthusiasm that motivated his mom to take a look at Lake Ivanhoe. She was a nature-loving school teacher, active in the Civil Rights movement.
“She had been fired from the Chicago Board of Education by Mayor Daley for leading one of the largest protests of the the double-shifting of African Americans at the school I was going to at that time. She had to drive out to Chicago Heights to teach, she couldn’t work in Chicago any more. She hated that drive… she was just not a person who really loved driving,” Baker says.
One weekend after his fishing adventure the Baker family paid a visit.
“They had trouble finding it, they finally found Lake Ivanhoe... And literally they saw for sale signs on houses and they put money down that weekend,” Baker says.
The Baker’s bought a house before they were living there full time.
“And at 11 years old my mother would literally bring us down here with a tent and we’d sleep here all night, with a flash light and I got a dog and turned him into a hunting dog and fishing,” Baker says. “How could life be better. There wasn’t even traffic in the community.”
Baker went to high school in nearby Lake Geneva. He calls it a unique experience.
“There were 13 African Americans at Badger [High School] in the year that I was there. By junior and senior year with the ability to drive we did have friends that we would go to visit sometimes and hang out with, even though everything stayed out here in the community,” Baker says.
“I started working in the factories right after high school. And to make a long story short, I was going to build a garage for my boat and I decided to build an apartment above it,” Baker says. That led to a home building and landscaping business.
It’s clear Baker loves the community, but he didn’t explore its history until he was in his 40s.
It was then Baker learned a childhood friend of his, when in 8th grade, wrote a report about Lake Ivanhoe’s roots.
“Listening to the elders. So they told her this story. She wrote this report and one of the teachers told Samuel Gonzalez that he needed to look at it,” Baker says.
Gonzalez was a young history teacher in Lake Geneva.
“So he [Gonzalez] reads it over and says, wow this is interesting,” Baker says.
Lake Ivanhoe became the subject of Gonzalez’s 1972 master’s thesis “A Black Community in Rural Wisconsin – A Historical Study Of Lake Ivanhoe.”
“He went down and talked to the families. They brought out the pictures and showed him,” Baker says.
Baker didn’t put the dots together until the late 1990s.
“So here’s what happened. I called and told him [Gonzalez] could I have the paper work and I read it and I said this story has to be told,” Baker says he began sharing the story with anyone who would listen.
“I had my daughter, she was proficient enough to do a power point. We had the pictures to go along with the speech. We drove up to Madison and did it at the Wisconsin state Historical Museum or Society. There were probably eight people in the audience,” Baker says.
Baker set his sights on having an official state historical marker at Lake Ivanhoe.
“I don’t remember the first historical marker I saw. It could be the one where the train stopped in Lake Geneva or I could have read something. All I knew was this needed to go. It could have got information when I gave the speech at the historical museum,” Baker says. “That would have been one place that I thought would have said, ‘wow’!”
Then earlier this year, the Wisconsin Historical Society reached out to Baker.
A three year grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation is funding the installation of historical markers in Lake Ivanhoe and nearly 40 other historically marginalized communities.
Lake Ivanhoe has evolved over the years. Today many more homes fill its three-road-wide and eight-blocks-long area than when the Baker family moved there. Now Black families are in the minority.
Baker loves the place no less today than when he first cast his line into Lake Ivanhoe.
He looks forward to it official state historical marker designation, but Baker wants more for the community to thrive, “Because I want to live in this community for as long as I can. I’m hoping it works out that way. I love this community,” Baker says.
Correction: - On air, we stated Peter Baker first visited Lake Ivanhoe with his grandfather. It was Baker’s friend’s grandfather who took the boys on the Lake Ivanhoe fishing trip.