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Grave Tales: A Shoemaker's Son Becomes Geneva Mogul

George Ekdahl turns 1890s bike shop into a commercial empire.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many thousands of Europeans emigrated to the United States to seek better lives, not just for themselves, but for their children. One immigrant who achieved that dream rests in Oak Hill Cemetery.

Nickolaus Ekdahl was a shoemaker specializing in ladies dress shoes when he and his family journeyed from Sweden to Geneva in 1881. He quickly got a job making shoes for Carl Peterson, a fellow Swede who had set up his own shoemaking business in Geneva in 1870. While Ekdahl’s creations adorned a host of well-to-do Victorian society ladies, among them Mrs. Potter Palmer and Mrs. Marshall Field, he never got past his place in the back of Peterson’s shop until he died at age 60 in 1909.

His son, George, lived an entirely different life. While I haven’t yet found George’s grave, I have found many references to him and his children in Geneva, Illinois: A History of Its Times and Places, as well as local history and genealogical websites. A 4-year-old when he arrived in Geneva with his parents and baby brother Edvin, George left school at age 12 or 14 to work full time at several Geneva stores, including Gillingham’s Grocery at State and Bennett streets. During this time his parents had four other children, all of whom died in early childhood, as did Edvin.

At age 20, the shoemaker’s only surviving child opened his own bicycle shop with John Skoglund in 1897. Six years later, the partners’ ad in the Geneva Republican proclaimed that they also sold sporting goods, watches, diamonds and other items.

In 1904 they moved the store to State and Third streets, where the Merra-Lee stores are now located, and expanded even further. In addition to bicycles, sporting goods and jewelry, they sold newspapers, phonographs and recordings, candy, tobacco and guns. They operated a soda fountain on the first floor and built a bowling alley in the basement.

George and his bride, Amanda Peterson (his father’s boss’s daughter, perhaps?), were the first couple married in the new Geneva Lutheran Church sanctuary. Their 1902 wedding photo displays them in fashionable—and, no doubt, expensive—Edwardian wedding finery. George also had business interests in Chicago: every Tuesday he would take the train into the city, and would take requests to buy items for friends and neighbors that weren’t available in the Fox Valley.

After Skoglund died, George expanded the business and eventually erected his own building to house it at 13 N. Third St. He also owned and operated Geneva’s first Ford dealership, selling Model Ts, Studebakers and tractors on South First Street from 1912 to 1926.

As a pillar of the business community, George spearheaded the second fund-raising drive to build Community Hospital in 1922 and was active in the Chamber of Commerce. He had three children; his daughter, Elizabeth Sanders, lived in Geneva and St. Charles until two years ago, when she passed away at age 96. She, in turn, left two children, seven grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren to continue the legacy founded by her grandfather Nickolaus, a simple shoemaker who came here to seek better lives for his descendants.

Correction: I learned the hard way that an old-fashioned building with the same street address as a historic building is not necessarily the same building. An alert reader informed me that the Martin Block burned down in the late 1970s and was replaced by the building that now houses , Le La Une Boutique Unique and .

I also neglected to mention that David Martin’s historic home at 525 Fulton St. was originally located on the southwest corner of Ford and Third streets. It was moved in 1914 or 1915 to make space for the new Fourth Street School playground.

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