Friday, January 1, 2021

Arbor Lake: Has It Always Been With Us?

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 (

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

Nevertheless, from the very beginning Arbor Lake excited Grinnell, and enthusiastic citizens joined hands to make the lake and its environs an appealing recreation site. Much of the early landscaping and decorating of Arbor Lake was the work of volunteers. But the going was tough in the early days. For one thing, almost immediately after having been formed, the lake witnessed an explosion of algae that experts identified as Cladophora fracta. The algae's growth was so spirited that boating became difficult, obliging the Outing Club to undertake expensive dredging that was not fully effective (Bruce Fink, "Some Notes on Certain Iowa Algae," Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Sciences 12[1904]:23). As a consequence, Arbor Lake soon lost its allure, the newspaper reporting in 1904 that the area had been nearly deserted. "The boat house," the paper continued, "is closed except for two evenings of the week and on Sundays, but even at these times the patronage is small" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 9, 1904). Apparently the dam constructed to form the lake also leaked, so that a reporter observed that

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.)
In 1913 the quality of the lake's water provoked investigation. Grinnell's "City Health Physician," Dr. C. E. Harris, along with college chemistry professor, W. S. Hendrixson, conducted an examination of the lake's water. The pair agreed that the water was not suitable for drinking, but that, so long as the lake level was reasonable, Arbor Lake was okay for swimming, although "all swimmers should keep [the water] out of their mouths and should not extend their swim beyond about twenty minutes" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, June 28, 1913). Evidently swimmers followed these suggestions, because we read that that summer a Grinnell College student, Vere Loper, organized "scientific lessons in swimming and in methods of restoring people apparently drowned." Loper told the newspaper that Arbor Lake was "the best for swimming in this vicinity" (ibid., July 17, 1913). All the same, when in 1915 someone observed people drinking water at Grinnell's Rock Island stock yards adjacent to the railroad, the newspaper hastened to observe that the water there came from Arbor Lake, not from the city's deep wells. "There are few people that would think themselves safe in drinking the lake water," the paper concluded (ibid., April 21, 1915).
Professor Walter Scott Hendrixson (1859-1925)

Meanwhile, the city of Grinnell was debating whether or not to take over ownership of Arbor Lake and its adjacent parkland. Newspaper reports indicated that the lake offered some "fine park possibilities," but said nothing about the idea of naming it after the G.A.R., as had been proposed earlier (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, November 5, 1913).  Later that winter the lake's owner, the Grinnell Soft Water company, convened its annual meeting without announcing any change of ownership of Arbor Lake. Quite the contrary, officials apparently invited the services of a "landscape artist" to propose some plans for beautifying the shores, "but no plan has yet been formally adopted," the newspaper reported (ibid., February 24, 1914). In November 1916 the Outing Club announced new ideas for beautifying Arbor Lake. "Wild rice and other food for game fowls [sic] will be planted, and this will make Arbor lake a breeding place for ducks as well as a spawning place for game fish," the paper said (Scarlet and Black, November 22, 1916). The following spring the Outing Club got to work reviving the lake and its adjacent park land. At their March meeting club members agreed to burn off weeds growing around the lake, to install a seine across the lake outlet to prevent fish from escaping, and to lay out spawning beds of water lilies and similar plants (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 15, 1917).

Whether all these plans came to fruition remains unclear, but other significant and long-lasting change did come to the Arbor Lake in 1916. In March Poweshiek County announced the intention of building a bridge "on Washington Avenue, across the upper arm of Arbor Lake, thus making good the finest approach to Hazelwood cemetery that the city affords" (ibid., March 30, 1916). By mid-summer the old wooden bridge had disappeared, and in its place there stood a "fine new concrete bridge." A sewer pipe ran directly beneath the bridge, the construction of which required contractors to temporarily lower the lake level (ibid., July 19, 1916). When the lake rose again after construction was complete, state officials delivered more than 40,000 fish, inflating hopes that soon Arbor Lake would again become an angler's paradise (ibid., September 16, 1916; Ottumwa Courier, October 10, 1916). And beginning no later than 1918, the bridge hosted Memorial day remembrances of naval dead (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 27, 1918).
Postcard dated 1909 of the Grinnell Armory

With World War One as background, Grinnell grew increasingly aware of the possibility of American participation in the war. Surprisingly, Arbor Lake played a part in local preparation. Troop D was put on full duty at the downtown armory where soldiers conducted drills each morning. Afternoons, however, the men  spent at Arbor Lake where they engaged in rifle range practice (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 29, 1917). Nothing indicates the precise location of the practice range, but it stands to reason that the shooting would have aimed toward the rise away from the lake, using the earthen berm to absorb the bullets; if this surmise is correct, lead bullets might still be found in the rise above the lake.
A postcard dated October 24, 1921 shows Arbor Lake and its Automobile Drive
(courtesy of K. C. Cornish)

Concerns about the quality of the lake's water occasionally resurfaced in public discussions. For example, in 1918 the Grinnell City Council, worrying about the limited supply of well water, contemplated adding lake water to the city water mains if an emergency required it. But Grinnell College professor W. S. Hendrixson strongly opposed the scheme, pointing out that the city mains might be adversely affected for the future by even a brief addition of lake water (ibid., March 6, 1918). The following year newspapers reported that the town's Commercial Club took an interest in Arbor Lake, and in June 1919 the club sought the opinion of experts on the water's healthfulness (ibid., June 27, 1919). Having received an encouraging report, the Commercial Club announced its intention of reviving Arbor Lake as a resort (ibid., July 9, 1919), thereby luring to town potential customers of the city's commerce. A. C. Dickerson, who operated a plumbing business in town, donated "400 feet of rope for a safety line for swimmers and [called] for empty kegs to be donated as buoys" (ibid, July 18, 1919). That autumn the club completed "grading of the driveway on the east side of Arbor Lake and thru [sic] the G. A. R. park" [the first time when this zone was identified in this way-dk]. The club hoped to enlist volunteers to contribute cinders to cover the drives and level them," as has been done for the former mud drives in the cemetery" (ibid., October 13, 1919). Later reports indicate that the Club intended the drives for automobiles rather than pedestrians, envisioning a time when "the lake will be encircled by a good auto course" (ibid, April 12, 1920). Additional proposals envisioned "two permanent bath houses, the sanding of the bathing beach, the stretching of the life line for the safety of bathers," and more grading of the drives along the lake shore (ibid., April 29, 1920).
Scarlet and Black, May 5, 1920

Perhaps Arbor Lake never received more attention from the town than it did May 7, 1920. Under the label "Community Day," organizers summoned "the whole town" to work on Merrill Park, a new park in north Grinnell, and on Arbor Lake on Grinnell's south side. According to the Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, "banker, preacher and merchant peeled his coat and labored hard" all day. Beginning at 7 AM automobile drivers shuttled volunteers to the two parks where work went on into the evening. At Arbor Lake volunteers put up a bandstand on the eastern shore and "sand was brought in by the car load and spread over the mud beach made bare by the drainage of the water the night before." Teams of horses lowered the high bank so as to widen the driveway and fill in lower spots along the lake. In addition, "A heavy post was set on which to have a light out in the lake for evening sports" and "a roomy pen ...[for children] was enclosed with woven wire so that they may play in the water in safety to their heart's content" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 8, 1920). The Social Service League, which organized the event, pronounced the day a great success, and predicted that "Community Day would be made an annual event" (Scarlet and Black, May 8, 1920).

After the big volunteer effort, carpenters got to work on a two-story "pleasure house" with a bath house at each end of the main floor. A concession room was cut through the building's center, making available "delicacies of various sorts." The building's second floor was intended for spectators and picnickers driven indoors by rain. Plans called for porches on three sides of the structure, including one facing the lake (Scarlet and Black, May 26, 1920). With this sort of investment officials decided to name a permanent caretaker, selecting Harry Case, who was to "look after the general neatness of the grounds and keep his weather eye out for any mischief that thoughtless ones might plan." In return, Case would have the right to the concession stand and its income (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, June 9, 1920). A college professor, L. D. Hartson, was appointed to serve as life guard and first aid instructor every day from 4 PM to 8:30 PM (ibid., July 6, 1920). Workers also installed a 75-foot life line and moored a boat intended exclusively for the life guard (ibid, July, 12, 1920). Later in the summer the Red Cross offered free swimming lessons and sponsored prizes for swimming proficiency within age groups (ibid., August 2, 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
Within a half-dozen years, however, the threat to close Arbor Lake came to life. A 1931 article in the Scarlet and Black reported that when the lake's owners failed to sell, they installed a fence around the lake and closed it to public access (April 11, 1931). When the fence came down and why remain a mystery; perhaps once the pandemic eases we may learn from the Grinnell newspapers how Arbor Lake was spared.

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 was the place to go" ( 

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" ( 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

In post-war Grinnell Arbor Lake continued to attract picnickers and exercise enthusiasts. But evidently the lake also suffered from inattention again, because a 1960 aerial photograph reveals that by that time the lake had lost much of its former volume, revealing mud flats along all shores of the lake. According to a newspaper account, Arbor Lake became so badly polluted in 1949 that officials prohibited swimming. The following year a railroad tank car spilled ammonia into streams feeding the lake, killing off most of the lake's aquatic life. By 1969 the situation had grown so acute that it seemed best to drain the lake dry (clipping from the Grinnell Herald-Register May 1974). 

1960 Aerial Photograph of Arbor Lake
By 1970 the lake itself had disappeared, weeds and bog prospering where fifty years earlier swimming, boating, and ice skating had prevailed. But there was hope. In 1969 the Poweshiek County Board of Conservation took out a ten-year lease on the land surrounding the lake, and the City of Grinnell, which had become owner of the lake in 1964, "contracted to remove the accumulated debris and silt from the lake bed and initiate a continuing program of algae control" (Grinnell Herald-Register May 1974). Over the next few years, county and city sparred over the extent to which each was honoring its commitments, but gradually the lake and its surrounding park land revived (Grinnell Herald-Register, October 16, 1975; ibid., March 1977), thanks to contributions from both the county and the city. 
Marshy bog of Arbor Lake, 1974
(Scarlet and Black, September 13, 1974)
As had always been true of the area around the lake, volunteer organizations played a prominent role in cleaning up park land. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, church groups, and volunteers from local businesses all played parts in cleaning up the park. The silted lake bed itself and its eroded tributary streams presented a more difficult problem. Despite having drained the lake, officials found it impossible to get heavy equipment onto the boggy lake bed for several years. Only in 1977 did workers complete the job of returning the lake to its original size and depth, having trucked out some 63,000 cubic yards of silt. The lake's tributaries had also been refashioned in ways intended to slow down siltation of the lake.
Newspaper Clipping of Arbor Lake Clean-up, May 2001
(Grinnell Herald-Register, May 10, 2001; courtesy of K. C. Cornish)

Since that time the quality of Arbor Lake and its adjoining park land has quietly deteriorated. The Arbor Lake Watershed Visioning Plan of June 2000 recognized that the lake, badly silted before 1970, required yet another comprehensive dredging, but not before addressing other issues in the lake's watershed. Some of these matters—including local agricultural practices and the associated nutrient runoff—remain difficult to solve. Nevertheless, volunteers have made great progress in cleaning up the lake and parkland. Particularly notable has been the work of the Karla and K.C. Cornish family, who in 1998 initiated an Arbor Lake clean-up day that became an annual event in Grinnell. Beginning with just three helpers, Arbor Lake Cleanup day continued for more than a decade, enlisting hundreds of volunteers to help clear the lake of tires, picnic benches and other detritus, and also to trim and control the trees that lined the lake shore. Unwanted brush, fallen branches, and abandoned trash also were hauled away. 
Grinnell Herald-Register, May 4, 2006
(clipping courtesy of K. C. Cornish)

This overview of Arbor Lake's history proves that there is no straight line from the past to the present. Early photographs of boats and buildings on the lake shore are hard to reconcile with the bare, somewhat wild appearance of Arbor Lake today. Likewise, images of hundreds of people picnicking or swimming in the lake contrast with quiet, relatively unpeopled life at today's Arbor Lake. Over the past century spells of prosperity and popularity alternated with hard times that demanded new expenditures and new efforts at revival. In this way, Arbor Lake reminds us that the past is often much more complicated and varied than it might seem from our present perspective.

PS. I am grateful to Karla and K. C. Cornish for sharing with me their files on Arbor Lake; I appreciate all that they and local volunteers have done to revive the lake and park. Many thanks, too, to Tom Latimer, who in a former life was director of Grinnell's Parks and Recreation department, and who loaned me a copy of his paper on the history of Grinnell's parks. Finally, in this era of covid lockdown when I have been unable to access the microfilmed back issues of the Grinnell Herald, Grinnell Register, and Grinnell Herald-Register, I am also indebted to the Library of Congress's "Chronicling America" database of scanned newspapers. I could not have written this post without access to back issues of the Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, which for many years included a section that reported on Grinnell news.


  1. As, what was my second (Nyanza was first until Eurasian Milfoil invaded), my favorite place around Grinnell to fish, I really enjoyed this article! I would LOVED to have seen Arbor in it's prime rather than the shape it is in now.

    Again, very good and very well written article! Really enjoyed it :)

  2. Maybe it would make more sense to let it return to its natural state.

  3. Very interesting article! Thanks, Dan!

  4. Very interesting article! I wish we could make this a viable lake going forward. If there is anyone willing to help, I would as well!!!

  5. We cannot thank Dan enough for his extraordinary efforts in chronicling our local history.. I think it fascinating that newspapers of the early part of the twentieth century were regional in coverage, not unlike tv stations today.j