Home to approximately 1,380 residents and 600 residences, Geneva is a small town with historic charm. It was originally founded as three separate towns: Alexander (1838) was named by Charles Lindley for Alexander Hill, an early settler in the area; Buffalo (1853) was named by David Studebaker; and Limberlost (1842) was taken from the surrounding swamp. The 13,000 acres of treacherous swamp and vast forest was named after Limber Jim Corbus, who went missing. His disappearance prompted calls of "Limber's lost!" The Limberlost name still survives today in the surrounding swamp area and many local businesses. Geneva itself officially became a town in January of 1874, and its name was taken from a railroad station in the area, the first documented use of the name Geneva in the area. Of course, like the origin of many American towns, Geneva was most likely named for a settler's hometown in Switzerland.
With traces of it still found all over the town, Geneva origins are firmly rooted in the railroad. At a time when America was constantly exploring and expanding West, the railroad proved a more efficient and effective manner of transportation. In the early-mid 1800's before the three original towns were incorporated into Geneva, a railroad and namesake station were located at the intersection of Line St. and Railroad St. This rail line proved its importance during the 1800’s oil boom, particularly when the Geneva oil fields gained full operation in 1892. Between the oil fields, railways, and timber and saw mill industries, Geneva’s population exploded to a peak of 3000 in the 1890’s. However, everything the early inhabitants of Geneva created was nearly lost on June 11, 1895, when a fire broke out and destroyed many of the old buildings and businesses. It was at this point, when they could have allowed themselves to be wiped off the map, that the Town of Geneva demonstrated its ability to persevere. It was this commercial and economic fortitude that lead to Geneva's consideration for the county's main town.
Instead of giving up and relocating, the Town of Geneva rebuilt. A new railway station was put in at the intersection of Line St. and Washington St., where the current Bank of Geneva stands today. This became the terminal station for a new rail line running both passengers and goods between Geneva and Bluffton. Wood structures were banned on most of Line St., and brick, stone, and iron was mandated for all future buildings, including the 24 buildings completed in 1895 to replace those lost. As a result, the downtown area is mostly brick and has survived well into the 21st century. This area, located on Line St. from Decatur St. to Railroad St. (144-455 East Line St.), was added to the National List of Historic Places in the United States on March 21, 2002. Due to the proximity in time of the contruction, many of the structures feature similar architectural designs. They reflect Romanesque Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, and Commercial Development. Although many of the buildings’ habitants have changed throughout the years, their predecessors’ marks, as well as a few businesses, have remained:
- The Shackley Wheel Company created spokes and headings in the early 1800’s; location unknown.
- Now the library, 305 East Line St. was built in 1906 and was originally the Independent Order of Odd
Fellows. At other points in its history, it was a skating rink, hardware store, furniture store, and
undertaking establishment. This was the last building constructed during the commercial and economic boom in Geneva.
- Now a United States Postal Service Outlet, 416 East Line St. was once divided between Shamrock Hotel and a bank. This building was one of the few that survived the 1895 fire that destroyed most of the town.
- Located at 144 East Line St., M.E. Hutton’s Carriage Shop, built in 1895-96, had two former tenants: from 1899-1925, it housed a theatre, and became a washing machine manufacturing company in the 1930’s.
- M&M’s Market and Meat Shop, located at 305 East Line St., has always been home to a market during its tenancy.
- 451 East Line St.’s first floor was constructed circa 1898; the second floor was added circa 1930, when it became the Star Theatre, a business that lasted well into the mid-2000’s.
- The only business that has never changed names or occupancy during its 134-year history is located at 340 East Line St. Briggs Hardware was built in 1882, has always remained Briggs Hardware, and was another building lucky enough to survive the 1895 fire.
Other businesses once located in the downtown core include heading factories, hoop mills, lumber yards, tank factories, bath houses, barber shops, hotels, and saloons.
Compared to the exponential growth in the early 1900’s, Geneva disproportionately lags behind in economic and commercial development. This is due largely in part to the oil lines being pulled in 1933 and 1934 and the subsequent World Wars. However, the Town of Geneva has merely shifted gears to environmental concerns, once again proving their persistence. Today, Geneva is the official #1 Bird Town in Indiana. The nature preserve, located on the southeastern side of the Hwy 27 and 116 crossroad, is home to Cranes, Warblers, and the nesting American Bald Eagles, allowing visitors to view these and other birds in their natural habitats. Geneva prides itself on its commitment to legally protecting and preserving ecosystems and natural habitats of native birds, ensuring the community is well educated on the subjects. (For more information on Bird Town Indiana, including the criteria to be met, please visit Indiana Audubon Society.)