Geneva-on-the-Lake: Not even hyphens can ritz this place up

I’m on a mission to get suntan lotion. The strip of stores along the lakeshore seem to offer everything but.

We’re at Geneva-on-the-Lake, a chintzy little resort town along Lake Erie in eastern Ohio that looks like it has aspirations to be Coney Island. The hyphenated name is, perhaps, an attempt to give the town added ritz, but not even hyphens can dress this place up. It’s as if this is the place that carnies come after they retire: they cash in their life savings, leftover game tokens, and unused ride tickets so they can set up shop.

We’re in Geneva-on-the-Lake for the water slides. My mother, who lives not far from here, has brought my son and his buddy over to spend a couple hours staying cool and having fun, and I’m along for the ride. Only after we arrived did we discover that we’d all forgotten to bring the sunscreen even though we all reminded each other to grab it. I head off to find some while my mother supervises the boys, who’ve already grabbed inflatable tubes and made a dash for the long flight of wooden stairs that leads to the top.

The strip feels like a boardwalk without the boardwalk or the ocean. Or the fun. Mom & Dad’s Rainbow Putt-Around is now a deserted concrete slab. A karaoke singer belts out “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille” to an empty food court. A restaurant across the street offers an ominous invitation: “Play the Corn Hole Game Here.”

In front of The Oak Room, a “family-friendly” lounge, hangs a sign with a pair of acorns that look like testicles. I’m not sure my family wants that kind of fun. I’m equally leery of a place called The Fascination—especially when, on closer inspection, I notice the sign says “The Exciting Fascination.” A name of an antique shop a couple doors down strikes me as something a bit more appropriate for the whole experience: These Foolish Things.

I pass a psychic’s shop. “One visit will convince you,” the sign boasts—except the shop is closed. I’m convinced. Must be the psychic didn’t know I was coming.

Eateries of all varieties beckon to hungry passers-by: pizza, ice cream, gyros. There are a surprising number of donut shops. The Firehouse Winery and Restaurant offers “wine slushies!” Yankie’s Country Bar & Grill offers an unconventional way of spelling “Yankee,” with unconventional “country music” blaring at full volume: Tom Petty rocking through “You Wreck Me.”

“Grumpy’s Ole’ Fashioned Lemonade” surely offers the real deal because, as everyone knows, anything spelled “ole’” has to be ole’r than old, which makes it authentically ole’ fashioned. It’s so ole’ it predates what should otherwise be a grammatically correct hyphen in “ole-fashioned.” All the hyphens must’ve been reserved for the name of the town, Geneva-on-the-Lake. That would explain why there are no hyphens, for instance, in Grumpy’s name or in “Vegas on the Lake,” an adult gaming parlor across the street from the water slides.

I walk past a fireworks stand and a big open-sided tent pitched under the shade of a towering oak that offers air-brush tattoos. I hear Bob Marley singing “I Shot the Sheriff” off in the distance. The air smells like lighter fluid; I wish it smelled like barbecue instead.

At the far end of the street, I pass a bar called The Cove. “It’s a hot place for the young people on the weekends,” my mother had told me earlier. “Twenty-six dollars to catch a cab back into Ashtabula.” I don’t ask her how she knows this. The building features hideous portraits painted on the outside wall: Tommy James and the Shondells, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Donnie Iris, the James Gang, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Geraldo, Benjamin Orr, Chubby Checker. It’s like The Cove offered fifty-cent drafts all night long and then gave everyone a paintbrush after last call.

No one sells suntan lotion. “Wish I did,” a couple salespeople tell me, each sounding as if it would be the Best Idea Ever.

I have to give up my parking space and drive beyond the end of the strip, past Adventure Zone and the Ashtabula County Historical Society, where finally I find Club Ned’s Lake Erie Beverage and Sub Shop. The girl at the register sells me a small tube of suntan lotion that she gets from behind the counter as if it’s contraband.

Back on the strip, my same parking space is miraculously still available. The flea market, advertised on one of the overhead banners that stretches across the strip, is right across the street from me, and it’s drawing a lot of customers. I notice another banner farther down that advertises “Thunder on the Strip,” a motorcycle rally coming up in September, but already I notice an increasing number of bikers rumbling through town—a rumble that only increases as the afternoon wears on.

To get to the water slides I have to pass through Woody’s World, a dismal arcade that features a mix of video games like Buck Hunter and eighties-era contraptions like Surfin’ Safari and Dinoscore. There’s one of those claws-on-a-crane games called Big Choice that offers keychains, disposable lighters, bandanas, and other knick-knacks. “All disputes settled with 1 free play,” a sign says.

Many of the overhead fluorescent lights are burned out, and the ones still lit shine through plastic covers faded to amber, so the room’s whole atmosphere feels brown. The place smells musty. A row of skeeball alleys takes up half a wall, and a Dance Dance Revolution Supernova footpad takes up a good chunk of floor space. A shooting gallery takes up the entire back corner of the room where a dusty wax-figure, arms bandaged in tape and gauze, leans over a player piano. The whole scene looks like Deliverance-meets-Wild-West-meets-Lester’s Possum Park, all covered in dust and all dimly lit.

The water slides around back, however, are remarkably clean and modern, and by the time I return, the boys have already made several descents. I pull them over so they can put lotion on themselves. My mom, sitting in the shade with her big brown sunglasses on, watches us, smiling. I turn the boys loose again, then settle into a chair to relax, and Mom and I start to chit-chat.

The small pool at the foot of the slides looks inviting on this hot afternoon, and the unrestrained laughter of kids lightens my mood. I realize how glad I am just to have the chance to spend some time with my son, just as my mom seems glad for the chance to spend some time with hers.

For just a little while, Geneva-on-the-Lake doesn’t seem so gaudy, after all.

7 replies »

    • Went to Geneva on the lake for 25 years. Always family fun. This past Labor Day weekend witnessed 3 loud and proud Confederate flags being flown. We won’t be back. My Ohio grandfathers who fought in the civil war are rolling in their graves. Go back to the South or fly the American flag in Ohio!

  1. Oh, man, you didn’t mention the frozen lemonande at Eddies! I use to bicycle freom a friend’s house in Madison every weekend in college to have a lemonade.

    We ended up on Geneva on the Lake last summer on John’s BMW motorcycle–during Bike Weekend (and I don’t mean bicycles). We were fish out of water–but it was way too much fun (had to be thousands of bikes–no, your parking spot would have been gone).

    Great piece–thanks!

  2. @Sam: No, you don’t. Not it you’re starting out with your tastebuds intact. If it’s REALLY hot, or you are, they’re tolerable (like, say, after a 30 mile bike ride on a 90 degree day). If you’ve had something first that tastes good and you’ve dulled your tastebuds, they’re pretty good. The wine at the Firehouse tends to be Cawtaba-ish really sweet stuff.

  3. Great piece, Chris – made me think of the Myrtle Beach, SC, of my youth – wonderful and tacky all at once – not all Disney-fied as it is now….

  4. I had fond memories, as your Mom probably did, of this place when I was a teen in the ’70’s. Finally made it back last week for the first time in over 30 years. Yes it’s old, yes it’s a bit run down, but you could empathise with us older folk who used to love the time before video games, and the hectic lives we all live now. I was actually pleasantly surprised. And I believe the mural on the outside of The Cove may show quite a few of the artists that have played there. I know The Jaggerz did, and Joe Walsh w/James Gang. Ease up on the old girl. Bet your kids will remember it.

  5. I visited Geneva every summer when I was a kid with my friend Karen and her family. Just loved fashionation. I’m 74 now and. Still love coming here.