How Geneva Got Its Name

The story goes that a lady who was from Geneva, New York named Geneva, Florida.   Emma Van Brunt Wilcox is said to have thought that Harney Cove (what the Geneva area was originally called) looked like her native Geneva, New York.

Mal and Mary Jo Martin on one of their camping trips decided to visit Geneva, NY and see what they could find.  Geneva, NY is in what is called the Finger Lakes Region of west central NY State and is located on the west shore of Lake Seneca.  (The lake is also part of the Erie Canal system.)  Geneva, NY is now a much larger city than our Geneva, but it still has a small town feel.

As Lorraine Whiting had found in years past when she visited Geneva, NY, the Martins also found evidence that there were Van Brunt and Wilcox families in Geneva, NY in the second half of the 1800’s.  An exiting find was the newspaper clipping about the marriage of Emma Van Brunt and her husband, John Wilcox.

But the most interesting thing they discovered was when they decided to have a picnic lunch at the lake.  Standing on the west shore one would have thought that they were looking at Lake Harney.  The lake was approximately the same distance across, the shoreline on the other side could have been Volusia County looking across Lake Harney, and the water was nearly the same color. 

          Can you tell which lake is which in the pictures below?  



Answer:  A. is Lake Seneca in Geneva, NY and B. is Lake Harney in Geneva, FL.  One can certainly see why Emma Van Brunt Wilcox thought that our Geneva looked like Geneva, NY.   When she lived in NY, the census listed the New York Geneva as a “village”.  It is definitely a city now, but we still have our “Village of Geneva”.


NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY... In April of 2002 a letter from a nephew of Emma VanBrunt Wilcox surfaced.  The letter is dated 24 April 1940 and is from J. H. Wimble of Auburn, NY to Kate Flynt Kilbee of Geneva, FL.  The letter is included here in its entirety: 

    #1001 28th Avenue, North
St. Petersburg, Florida

April 24th, 1940

Mrs. William G. Kilbee
Geneva, Florida.

Mrs. Kilbee;

            Your letter addressed to me at Auburn, N.Y. my summer home address, has just been received.

            When I was a boy I visited my Aunt, Uncle and Cousin at Geneva, staying with them for about seven months in Geneva and at that time recall Mrs. Taylor came to my Aunts very often.

            My Aunts name was Emma VanBrunt Wilcox, she was my mother’s sister, and their birthplace was Geneva, New York; My Uncle was married previously, my Aunt being his second wife, and they had one child, Hayward Sudam Wilcox; there was one child by his first wife, Ella Wilcox, she never lived in Florida to my knowledge.  Originally my Uncle and a friend, Adelbert Shipman, came to Florida attracted to that state by the climate, as Mr. Shipman was ill.  At that time the country was very wild, no settlements south of Sanford along the St. Johns River; they built a boat I believe at Sanford and went down the river to Lake Harney and south camping out and hunting and fishing. The climate agreed with Mr. Shipman so they bought a tract of land on Geneva Lake, and my Aunt named the lake and also the town.  Mr. Shipman was one of the original Gas engine manufacturers with a plant in Rochester, N.Y.  Mrs. Shipman came from Newark, N.Y., her father being a doctor, at that point, as I understand, until he came to Geneva to live; and Hermino born in Geneva and she lives at Jacksonville, Florida, her name is Mrs. John Leu.  At that time the Shipman’s only wintered in Geneva.  Mrs. Shipmans father, the doctor, Heath, did not go north during the summer.

            I cannot give you any idea when my Uncle and Aunt died but I think I may have some old letters from my Cousin telling me of his mothers death and possibly in regard to his father’s, these letters are at our Auburn home and when I return this spring I will see if I can give you any further information on that point.  We do not expect to leave here until at least the 20th, of May.

            I am sorry I cannot give you any information that would be of more value; and would be glad to hear from you as you as to just how you make out in your investigation.


(signed) J.H. Wimble


In the past there have been many different versions of how Geneva was named.  Here are the most frequently quoted versions.

 Version #1: The document titled, “History of the Geneva Mail Service”, probably written by Kate Flynt Kilbee, states; “In 1880 Herbert A. Coefield was appointed postmaster and the name Geneva was given to the village by Mrs. Emma Van Brunt Wilcox for her home in Geneva, New York”.  (This is what we have found to be true.) 

Version #2: The book, Flashbacks, by Jim Robison and Mark Andrews, Orange County Historical Society & The Orlando Sentinel, 1995, states; “Allen Morris’ Florida Place Names says the community was named in 1880 for Switzerland’s lake and city.  Local Historians, though, say the community took its name to honor the wife of a railroad man from New Geneva, New York.  In the late 1870’s, Mrs. Van Valkenburg built a home at Harney Cove.  She is credited with bringing about the change of the community’s name to Geneva.”   (We believe this is just an error in remembering the name Van Valkenburg instead of Van Brunt.  There was a Van Valkenburg in Geneva, however, no one knows of them naming Geneva.  There is also no New Geneva, NY.) 

Version #3: The book, Places in the Sun, by Bertha E. Bloodworth & Alton C. Morris, Shorter Printing Co., Gainesville, FL, 1978, states; “GENEVA (Seminole): For the Swiss City because of its similar situation on a lake”.  (This would be anyone’s first guess if they didn’t know.  This would be a correct statement for Geneva, NY, but not Geneva, FL.) 

Version #4: The book, Early Days of Seminole County, 1984, states; “….When in the late 1870s, a Mrs. Van Valkenburg from New Geneva, New York, arrived and built a house, the name Geneva came into use.”  (Probably where the original error came from and restated in Version #2.) 

Version #5: And the wildest version was overheard at our museum open house on the 4th of July, 2001, when a visitor explained to family members that he was showing through the museum, that there was once a family in the area who had 2 daughters named Geneva and Oviedo, and the towns were named after these 2 daughters! 


Based upon the 1940 letter from the nephew of Emma VanBrunt Wilcox and the early writings of Kate Flynt Kilbee, we now know that version #1 is the correct version of how Geneva got its name.  Although versions 2, 3, and 4 are from published sources, all of these publications are incorrect.  And what about version 5?  Well, it might make a good story, but it just ain’t so!   (Andrew Aulin named Oviedo after a university city in northern Spain.)


                                                                                              Compiled by Mal Martin
April 2002

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