One of the reasons I began this blog was my concern that too often we mistakenly identify the present with the past; that is, we forget that the past was different, and assume that it was much like today. On a basic level, most of us understand quite readily that change is always happening: we ourselves change over time, as my growing wrinkles and sagging skin confirm. But we also recognize that what is today an auto parts store was, not so long ago, a grocery store; likewise, what was once an automobile dealership is today a snappy grocery. But sometimes we slip into thinking that the world we live in always looked pretty much the way it looks today. However, as the song says, "it ain't necessarily so!"
A fascinating, local example that effectively documents change over time is Grinnell's Arbor Lake, which today stands on the southwest quadrant of town, adjacent to Hazelwood Cemetery. For someone like me, who only arrived in Grinnell in 1979, it is easy to imagine that there was always a lake there, even in J. B. Grinnell's time. However, as some of you will know, J. B. Grinnell (1821-1891) left this world without ever having seen Arbor Lake, which only came into existence in 1903. Now a little over a century old, Arbor Lake has undergone considerable change over time as various efforts to beautify, re-purpose, and re-construct it have washed over the lake. Indeed, as a 1970 aerial photo of the lake confirms, at one point the lake even went totally dry, making necessary a complete reconstruction at considerable effort and expense.
|1970 Aerial View of Dry Lakebed of Arbor Lake, Grinnell, Iowa|
Iowa Department of Natural Resources (https://programs.iowadnr.gov/maps//aerials/)
Today's post examines the on-again, off-again history of Arbor Lake, reminding us that the past often differs from the present.
| Southwest Grinnell from 1896 Grinnell Plat Map|
As the 1896 plat map of Grinnell shows, at that time there was no lake in Grinnell. According to Leonard Parker's History of Poweshiek County, what we now know as Arbor Lake began life as an extension of local manufacturing sometime soon after 1900 when the Spaulding Manufacturing Company and Paul Meyer purchased from the J. B. Grinnell estate and other locals a low-lying tract of land in the southwest corner of the city. The purchasers' aim was to provide Grinnell businesses—especially Spaulding Manufacturing—with soft water in place of the city's hard well water.
By damming a creek of modest size, a considerable body of water was formed which has since been furnished through pipes for the boilers of all the manufacturing plants of the city, for the railroad engines, Hotel Monroe and for several other establishments (L. F. Parker, History of Poweshiek County, 2 vols. [Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1911], 1:371).
Details are scant, but the lake, which came to cover more than thirteen acres, seems to have been created in 1902, and was certainly in operation by 1903. From the beginning the lake served the entertainment and exercise interests of Grinnell as well as the city's manufacturers. According to a newspaper account, Arbor Lake had its formal opening July 31, 1903 when some 2000 visitors gathered to see torches line a half-mile of lake shore. The Outing Club, a local outdoors association, had erected quarters sufficient to allow some 25 boats to "parade" across the lake. A citizen band performed and fireworks lit up the sky (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 1, 1903). The Grinnell College newspaper noted that autumn that students interested in some fun could "find a nice line of boats [for rent] at Arbor Lake," and one could also buy there "coffee, sandwiches, [and] drinks in season" (Scarlet and Black, September 19, 1903).
That winter the frozen lake—what the newspaper called "the most popular place in Grinnell"—attracted ice skaters (as many as three hundred at a time, the newspaper claimed) who found skating conditions under moon-lit skies perfect (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, December 2, 1903). Locals added a toboggan slide to increase the winter attractions (Scarlet and Black, October14, 1903).
The lake also attracted anglers, because early on organizers had arranged for large numbers of fish to be stocked there. For instance, in summer 1904 the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries deposited 20,000 black bass in the lake (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 6, 1904). Over the years additional fish were added, including a railroad carload of fish in 1916 (ibid., September 16, 1916). Although success seems to have ebbed and flowed over the years as the lake's volume rose and fell, occasionally fishermen reported some fine catches, as, for example, when John Hastings caught a 30-inch long pickerel in 1907 (Scarlet and Black, May 22, 1907).
|Cornelia Clarke Photo (1919?) of ice skaters on Arbor Lake|
But of course a body of water like this also posed certain dangers. Already in 1904 the lake claimed the lives of two prominent Grinnell bankers who drowned there after a boating incident (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, July 21, 1904). George Jacobs, a seventeen-year-old experienced swimmer, drowned in the lake in 1911, the victim of a cramp (ibid., June 5, 1911). But even in winter the lake could be dangerous. During the very first winter the lake was open Mrs. J. B. Bryan fell, opening a significant gash in her head (ibid., January 9, 1904). More tragic was the fate of Grinnell College first-year student, Myron Thompson, who in his evening skating one January in 1914 failed to notice the thin ice beneath him, and disappeared into the freezing water; it took hours to recover his body (Scarlet and Black, January 17, 1914; Grinnell Review, vol. 9, no. 5 [February 1914]:74).
|1906 postcard of the eastern shore of Arbor Lake, showing boathouse, club house, and minimal plantings|
the water has so drained off that the shores and bottom of the lake near the shore present somewhat the appearance of the mud flats of bays and inlets on the seacoast when the tide is out (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, October 31, 1904).
The Outing Club did not despair, however. At its spring 1905 meeting, the club's 100 members laid out ambitious plans to continue work on Arbor Lake. Among other things, the club intended to apply the so-called "copper cure" to the algae. Members also pledged to plant new trees around the lake, including some weeping willows in the low-lying sections at the lake's south end (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 15, 1905; Selden Whitcomb recalls having seen these willows in his 1912 entry in Autumn Notes in Iowa [Cedar Rapids, 1914], p. 151).
Soon thereafter the club announced that Saturday May 6th and Monday May 8th would be designated "Flower Days" at which time the public was invited to join the club in beautifying the area around the lake, "setting out plants, ornamental shrubs and trees" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 4, 1905). Even during these difficult days, the winter-time frozen lake attracted skaters, the newspaper noting in 1905 that "The usual Thanksgiving skating attracted large crowds to Arbor Lake" (ibid., December 2, 1905). July 4th celebrations also routinely occurred around the lake where fireworks, set off over the lake, were less likely to cause trouble and viewers could line the shore for unimpeded views (ibid., July 5, 1906).
|1909 color postcard of Arbor Lake (looking east)|
In subsequent years the Outing Club continued to improve facilities at the lake. For instance, the building that had begun as a modest club house experienced further upgrades, so much so that in 1908 the organization inaugurated evening dances on the improved floors and porches. The earlier boat house was also enlarged so as "to accommodate the increasing crowds" drawn to the lake (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, July 14, 1908).
Whether because all the effort exceeded the club's finances or because the club had fallen apart, the newspaper noted that in 1910 there were efforts underway to transfer responsibility for the park to the city's park commissioners. The company that owned the lake would have to lease the grounds to the city, but optimists foresaw the lake's grounds as "an ideal place for picnic parties and public gatherings of various kinds." Other volunteers also stepped up to contribute to the beautification. Officials of the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic—veterans of the Civil War—planted "many trees," shrubs and flowering plants, and even made sure that the grass was mowed. There was also talk of naming the park land east of the lake in honor of the G.A.R. (ibid., January 18, 1910). This idea received new energy when in 1913 a G.A.R. member offered $250 toward developing the park east of Arbor Lake on "condition that the city should get title to the property to be kept forever as a park and to be named 'Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Park'" (ibid., May 14, 1913).
The hot weather and drought of summer, 1910 brought another steep decline in the lake's volume, making it "lower than it has been before for years" (ibid., July 28, 1910). That autumn the Ladies Cemetery Association, which was in charge of nearby Hazelwood Cemetery, proposed to sell off a strip of land along the cemetery's far eastern border, adjacent to Arbor Lake. The result, newspapers reported, would give landowners south of the lake access to Washington Avenue. The city council approved the proposal, thereby widening a bit the western edge of Arbor Lake's shore (ibid., October 6, 1910).
|Nora Belle Brown (1888-1971) on Arbor Lake ca. 1910|
Cynthia Levy, Into a World Unknown: A Granddaughter Traces the Lives of Her Ancestors
(Grinnell, Iowa, 2010; n. p.)
|Professor Walter Scott Hendrixson (1859-1925)|
|Postcard dated 1909 of the Grinnell Armory|
|A postcard dated October 24, 1921 shows Arbor Lake and its Automobile Drive|
(courtesy of K. C. Cornish)
|Scarlet and Black, May 5, 1920|
As the summer wore on, additional improvements appeared at the lake. Before June was gone a slide for children had arrived, and there was talk of putting in a merry-go-round to entertain kids. Davis School pupils somehow arranged to acquire a "Giant Stride," which was placed on the hill east of the bath house (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, July 26, 1920). Evening entertainment gained new impetus when workmen installed "a string of lights...along the semi-circular drive on the east shore of the lake" (ibid., June 26, 1920). All this innovation culminated in a grand re-opening of Arbor Lake park July 7. With the promise of a concert from the city band, people were invited to "bring their meal...and remain to listen to the speaking, watch the games, the races and the swimming and bathing" (ibid., July 1, 1920). When rain interfered, authorities rescheduled the reopening for the 14th (ibid., July 8, 1920). Thanks to some local entrepreneurs, Arbor Lake soon offered visitors a ride in an eighteen-foot long motor boat that might accommodate six or more passengers at a time (ibid., July 29, 1920).
|Header to Advertisement in Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, October 25, 1920)|
All this work combined to make Arbor Lake very attractive. As Grinnell boosters pointed out in a full-page advertisement in the Marshalltown newspaper, Arbor Lake "has a fine sanded beach, an up-to-date bath house, spring boards, slides, electric lights and other equipment that make it an ideal bathing, picnicking and fishing resort with plenty of small boats." "We know of no other town in Iowa that is so fortunate as to have such a beautiful and attractive lake," the advertisement crowed (ibid., October 25, 1920).
At this point the lake's owners, the Grinnell Soft Water Company, assumed a more active role in the management of Arbor Lake. At first, the company signaled only an interest in having the lake generate more revenue. To that end, in May 1922 the company appointed Hugh Bennett, then manager of the town's Colonial Theater, to act as manager of Arbor Lake. Bennett told the Scarlet and Black that he envisioned using the lake to help "put Grinnell on the map," and to that end he planned to advertise the lake widely, and put on special events during the summer, all with the goal of attracting "thousands" to Grinnell (May 27, 1922). But the next spring the Soft Water Company changed course, abruptly announcing that it intended to close Arbor Lake "as a pleasure resort and camping ground" (Scarlet and Black, April 11, 1923). Officials of the Commercial Club and lake enthusiasts were caught by surprise, and hurried to try to stave off the closing. Meetings between the concerned parties promptly led to an agreement that would keep the lake open for the next three years, "provided Grinnell people are sufficiently interested to subscribe the funds necessary to keep the favorite summer resort in operation." In other words, the Soft Water Company wanted revenue from the lake, and also wanted to be relieved of the costs of maintenance (ibid., April 21, 1923). A committee of local worthies set out to raise $1500, judged enough to cover rental and upkeep for a year; the first year's payment was due by May 15 (ibid., May 5, 1923). To judge by reportage, the lake's proponents did not make the May 15 deadline, as a May 19 story in the Scarlet and Black noted that "much remains to be done." "The lease cannot be signed," the paper continued, "until there is definite assurance on the part of Grinnell people that the funds will be available." Failing to meet the funding target threatened to see the lake "revert to its old state of disuse and public neglect..." (ibid., May 19, 1923).
Apparently the lake and park survived this challenge, although news about Arbor Lake grows scarce after the 1920s. As before, the lake and surrounding parkland attracted visitors, including numerous picnickers. Even in the lake's earliest days many college classes and clubs convened celebratory picnics at Arbor Lake, but the high point of Arbor Lake picnics occurred in 1926 when the Farmers' Union convened its members at Arbor Lake Park. An old photograph, evidently long folded over, reveals hundreds gathered in the park land above the lake.
|Farmers' Union Picnic at Arbor Lake, August 27, 1926|
Clearly the fence did not stand for long; testimony confirms that the lake remained a popular recreation site in the 1930s, by which time many of the trees and bushes planted in earlier decades had blossomed into a lovely, shady backdrop for picnics. Lucille "Sid" Potts (1910-2007), who grew up in Grinnell, told interviewers that in the 1930s "Arbor Lake was tremendous. We would have lots of picnics down there...the beach was full...it was the place to go" (https://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/grinnell:23314).
|Photograph of 1934 Picnic of the Tarleton Family at Arbor Lake|
Despite Potts' enthusiastic recollections, inattention continued to undermine the health and beauty of the site as the Depression dominated local concerns. Newspaper accounts from spring 1940 indicate that fundraising had begun "to rehabilitate the lake and surrounding grounds." Succeeding to the work of the Outing and Commercial Clubs at the lake were the Grinnell Jaycees, who in 1940 arranged a one-dollar-a-year lease of the lake from Grinnell Soft Water company (Marshalltown Times-Republican, May 27, 1940). To update the park, volunteers installed new benches, picnic tables and a bath house, as well as a new parking lot. The grand reopening took place on July 4, 1940, guests enjoying band music, a tap-dancing contest, swimming events, and a bathing beauty contest (ibid., July 2, 1940).
Throughout the 1940s both townies and college students frequented the park. College student Curtis Harnack (1927-2013) recalled that in spring 1945 many students enjoyed "blanket parties at Arbor Lake" (Curtis Harnack, The Attic: A Memoir [Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1993], p. 137). Audrey "Bunny" Howard Swanson, who graduated from Grinnell College in 1943, told alumni interviewers in 2012 that in warm weather she and her college friends might "borrow a couple of bikes and the fellows would pedal us out to Arbor Lake" (https://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/grinnell%3A19423). The lake was such an attraction that when some Mexicans arrived in town in July 1944 to help harvest seed corn, the first of them went directly to Arbor Lake to cool off with a swim. Unfortunately, one of the visitors drowned, and is now buried in Hazelwood's potter's field.
|Postcard of Arbor Lake ca. 1940-50|
By this time Arbor Lake had become more than a playground or leisure resort. As the Scarlet and Black noted, beginning in 1931, the city took water from the lake and ran it through Iowa Southern Utility's boilers where it was purified and super-heated, then pumped to the college and funneled into the college's hot water pipes. Students complained that the hot water that originated from the lake regularly generated a terrible smell (March 22, 1941). According to student reports, the lake's boiled water induced "physical and mental nausea" among the collegians who turned on the hot water tap (ibid., April 16, 1943). How this experiment ended the record does not make clear.
|Grinnell College Students Picnic at Arbor Lake, 1953|
|1960 Aerial Photograph of Arbor Lake|
|Marshy bog of Arbor Lake, 1974|
(Scarlet and Black, September 13, 1974)
|Newspaper Clipping of Arbor Lake Clean-up, May 2001|
(Grinnell Herald-Register, May 10, 2001; courtesy of K. C. Cornish)
|Grinnell Herald-Register, May 4, 2006|
(clipping courtesy of K. C. Cornish)