Tag Archives: Lake Okoboji

Paradise In The Midwest

Photography by Provided

Some migratory Omahans make a tradition of flocking north to the freshwater oasis called Okoboji. This historic, former Native American encampment and hunting ground turned settler outpost and sport-commercial fishing haven in northwest Iowa features natural, glacier-carved lakes and plentiful beaches.

Okoboji, a 200-mile meander from the metro, has been an Iowa Great Lakes resort area for more than a century. Arrival of railroads in the early 1880s connected Dickinson County’s lakes region to the outside world as never before. Hotels stores, boatyards, and other attractions sprang up, catering to train and steamboat travelers. The Okoboji Store dates back to 1884 and Mau Marine, which used to be called Wilson Boat Works, has operated since 1884.

The lure (then and now): pristine waters, plentiful fishing, and getting away from it all with friends and family. Okoboji has survived high and low water levels, floods (including the Great Flood of 1993), droughts, the Great Depression, world wars, and cultural shifts.

Patterson Cottage, built late 1800s. Became known as “The Haunted House.” No longer standing.

Parasols and two-piece swimsuits gave way to Raybans, bikinis, and shorts. Big band swing bowed to rock ’n’ roll. Instead of transistor radios and hard-bound books, sunbathers now sport smartphones and Kindles.

As the area gained popularity, homes sprouted and amenities grew in this Great Plains getaway. A steady stream of cars follows I-29 or Highway 71 toward tranquility on any weekend during the summer. The area includes a chain of six lakes and 70 miles of shoreline that welcome about 1 million visitors annually.

Water sports abound. Beaches and docks attract sunbathers. Picnics, backyard barbecues, and house concerts lazily unwind. Campsites and nature trails offer roughing-it adventures. Local locales offer amusement, from roller coasters to theatricals. Plentiful dining spots and bars complete the scene.

Many making the pilgrimage own lake houses there, thus making them part-time Okobojians. In the post-war era, parents of the baby-boom generation built small cabins. As those baby boomers came of age and made money themselves, they bought the smaller homes and remodeled them or tore them down for new homes. The part-timers mix easily with “originals” and “old-timers.”

Denny Walker of Omaha long ago fell under Okoboji’s spell.

“There’s a real charm to it. You drive past cornfields and all of a sudden you get up to Okoboji and you’re struck by the beauty of it—the lake coves, the oak trees lining the shores, the clearness of the water, the clean beaches.”

Walker’s enchantment goes back to family vacations as a kid. He now shows his children the magic.

“My dream was to have a home in Okoboji, and now I’m living my dream,” says Walker, who built a cottage-style lake house with a big screened-in porch a decade ago.

His ’Boji fever sometimes starts before the season. Walker has hosted a “launch party” in Omaha at the hangar for his business, JetLinx, with Okoboji vendors and wares, as a season warmup.

He’s also among pilgrims with deep stakes who give back by serving on local boards.

“I’m really involved in the community up there,” Walker says. “It isn’t a job for me, it’s a passion, it’s a love for Okoboji.”

He is involved with beautifying the area and growing the art center’s endowment.

He also leads the fundraising campaign for the three-phase, $12 million restoration of the Arnolds Park Amusement Park. The first phase was completed last year, with more parking and upgraded bathrooms. The Maritime Museum expansion is nearly complete. The Iowa Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame will be upgraded. And the historic Roof Gardens is slated to be restored next.

Floete Mansion became the Okoboji Club. Built in 1911, destroyed by fire 1951.

The vintage Arnolds Park Amusement Park celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2015, and it continues to serve nostalgic fun with its traditional midway, classic rides, wooden roller coaster (The Legend is one of the world’s oldest wooden roller coasters, built in 1930), and Nutty Bars (the first Nutty Bar stand opened in 1945) much to the delight of all—including Omaha transplant Morris Caudle, who is watching a new generation experience the park with fresh eyes.

“My grandchildren, ages 12 and 14, announced to me [on Easter] that they had saved up their money so they can buy a season pass to Arnolds Park,” Caudle says. A 2018 season pass ranges from $90-$160. “They were really excited…I was really pleased.”

Caudle splits his time between Charleston, South Carolina, and the Okoboji home he built in 2007. Before building a home, he kept a condo at Okoboji. He’s board chair for the art center, which, he says, “is a major part of the community with its robust programming all year long.”

Omahan Julie Sudbeck comes from a family with roots going back four generations in the Iowa Great Lakes of Okoboji. Sudbeck grew up around the family business, White Oaks Bait Shop, which her parents bought in 1974. Julie herself worked as waitress at Koffee Kup Kafe at age 14, riding a moped to the job, and the next year as a “gas jockey” when her father was the general manager of Wilson Boat Works.

She and her parents moved to Omaha in 1987, but by 1989, they secured a summer place up north. After it flooded in 1993, the family rebuilt. Family members come from near and far to gather, often for long, lazy weekends before heading back to work and activities in Omaha. Julie can even take her great-nephews to the Koffee Kup Kafe for grilled ham and cheese or BLT sandwiches like those she once served to patrons.

Summers in Okoboji are a time for them to renew familiar bonds with shared activities.

Tudor House, Des Moines Beach. Still stands.

“It’s very rare somebody goes off to do their own thing,” Sudbeck says “It’s more like, ‘What are we all going to do?’ And that’s just it—we make the plans together, and we want to. That’s what it’s constantly about—the lake and your friends and family. You just can’t replace it.”

Speaking of their place on the lake, Sudbeck explains, “Where we live, there’s a whole shoreline of family dwellers. It’s their children and grandchildren. Everybody has a houseful. That is the common denominator—friends and family.”

Years of escaping to the lakes have fostered strong feelings of attachment to Okoboji. Sudbeck’s kids have never known summers without it.

“My children would be devastated if we didn’t have the lake house,” she says. “It’s a huge part of their life. I don’t think they’ve missed a Fourth of July in Okoboji.”

Caudle likes the rituals that accompany life there.

“Our lake season typically starts with the melting of West Okoboji, usually in mid-March or early April,” Caudle says. “Lake gulls show up for a feeding frenzy, joined later by white pelicans. It is a challenge to time our arrival just before the lake ‘turns over’ to see this spectacle of nature. As the days start getting longer and warmer, the opening process begins. Each family member has duties, and it is a race to see who gets their checklist completed first.”

After that, daily rhythms set the schedule. Caudle also appreciates the therapeutic value of the place.

“Old-timers feel there’s a magic to bathing in the lake. I do that from time to time. It’s a good cure for a mild hangover,” he says, adding, “I don’t need my blood pressure medication when I’m at the lake immersed in that tranquility.”

That laissez faire attitude transfers to even the most basic of needs. Dinnertime could be anything from a backyard barbecue with the family to a progressive dinner between many lakeshore residents.

Like Denny Walker, Caudle says he’s “made it a point to befriend the locals, understand their priorities, particularly the environment.”

Those priorities and those friends are part of how Okoboji keeps its charm. It’s a step back to a simpler time, and, after three decades of engaging in activities and making friends, Caudle says he and his wife “are more than just ‘summer people.’”

As far as Caudle’s concerned, Okoboji will be in his family for generations to come.

“That’s the plan. We would like our grandkids to have their grandkids to enjoy the things we do there.”

Same for Walker, whose kids and grandkids already relate summer and holidays to time in Okoboji. He can’t imagine a better sanctuary: “It’s a trip back in time. It’s a wonderful family place filled with memories.” 


Visit vacationokoboji.com and arnoldspark.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

 

The McBrides

July 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Caroline McBride sobbed as she left midtown Omaha with her partner, M.J., and the last load of their belongings from their midtown home. She was so happy there.

The tears quickly subsided as they arrived at their new home.

“It’s pretty easy when you are greeted with strangers bearing champagne,” M.J. says.

McBrides4The couple now live in The Rows at SoMa, a group of rowhouses along Leavenworth between 11th and 13th streets. Bluestone Development approached them about moving.

Bluestone owner Christian Christiansen was looking for buyers of his new development off the Old Market, and a mutual friend suggested he contact the ladies.

“When we bought down here, it was dirt and not much else. We really had to trust and go on a wing and a prayer,” M.J. says. “Everything they promised has come true.”

Christiansen promised great people (in the neighborhood) and quality workmanship (in the building). The couple appreciate the diversity of The Rows’ residents. Their neighbors range from millennials to folks in their 60s, from single people to married couples.

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Caroline and M.J. welcome all the new friends. Caroline has even joined the board of the homeowner association, which hosts wine nights on Wednesdays.

“They’re great,” Jerre Tritsch, current HOA president and a retired lawyer, says of the couple. “They’re fun people. Very positive. We love having them here.”

“There’s always an eclectic group of people and dogs,” Caroline says.

Walking around the neighborhood, Caroline greets everyone by name, and they smile and say hello back. In fact, the only complaints that the couple receive follow M.J. starting her Harley-Davidson motorcycle before 7 a.m.

The wine nights take place in the community garden, which features two crescent-moon shaped benches on a paver patio. The garden includes 14 planting beds, available by a lottery system. The landscaping and gardens are all organic.

It’s also beautiful, in part, thanks to Keep SoMa Beautiful, a group started by the community that walks through the streets to make sure the sidewalks are intact and mess-free.

“Overall we’re looking to encourage an attitude of participation in the community,” says Tritsch. “Don’t wait for a contractor or management company to do something. Pitch in and help, because that helps to build relationships within the community.”

The first row house the couple lived in was a two-bed, 2-1/2-bath townhouse in the middle of the development. The 2,200-square-foot home looked out over the community garden. Sitting on one of the benches in the garden, a visitor would hardly know the heart of the Old Market lies a quick stroll down the street.

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“There’s a sense of openness by the total privacy that’s built in,” Caroline says.

The couple specifically wanted to live in one of the homes facing Leavenworth Street and the Old Market.

In 2009, they acquired one of The Rows’ eight 2,500-square-foot homes with three beds and 3 1/2 baths. They liked the floor plan, which is longer and includes more windows.

“One of the first questions people ask is about windows,” M.J. says. “Are you covering them? Are you leaving them uncovered? What about the kitchen?”

The creative couple, who established and operate Rebel Interactive agency, found an appropriately creative solution—sheer panels with black squiggly details running down them. The contemporary design fits well with their home, which includes brightly colored artwork and furniture throughout.

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The couple appreciate that art is a part of SoMa. The garden features a sculpture commissioned by Bluestone for the area. The community also features an art gallery that doubles as a commons room and is available to residents at SoMa. Caroline and M.J., who have been together since 1997, used the gallery to celebrate with their friends and neighbors following their marriage in Iowa in September of  2013.

This urban-living development embraces people (and pets) of all types. Amenities such as snow removal and lawn care help residents leave home with peace of mind.

“A lot of people are attracted to SoMa because they travel quite a bit,” says Tritsch.

The McBrides count themselves among those travelers. They spend many weekends at Lake Okoboji with their black cat, Reo, and Boston terrier, Bella. They also travel to Key West, Florida, once a year to stay at their time share, and to Arizona to visit M.J.’s mom.

Their travels always end back at their row home in Omaha.

“We love being close to Bemis and KANEKO,” Caroline says. “It’s nice being right across the street from world-class creativity.”

M.J. smiles brightly as she thinks about her downtown life.

“I’ve enjoyed living other places, but I love living here,” M.J. says. Encounter

Visit omahadowntown.org for more information.McBrides1

Memories, Tradition, and Families

May 26, 2016 by
Myron Roker

Myron Roker

World War II ended 70 years ago, but Myron Roker still feels the pain of battle. He served with 324th Infantry Regiment of the 44th Infantry Division on VE Day. The 93-year-old now lives in Glenwood, Iowa, and still carries shrapnel from a wound sustained in France. His hearing is almost gone, stolen by explosions in war.

But the most painful wound he carries is the loss of friends in combat.

“Freedom is not free,” says Roker. “We have to pay for it. Those are the heroes. The wounded and the ones that gave their lives.”

Memorial Day has a deep, personal meaning for Roker.

“I lost a close buddy over in France to one of our own mines. Sometimes I still tear up,” Roker said.

He and his wife, Karen, spend Memorial Day at the graves of family members in their hometown of Clatonia, Nebraska.

A Family Tradition of Service

Thomas Shimerdla

Thomas Shimerdla

Thomas Shimerdla’s family has a proud military tradition. When he was fighting in Vietnam, so was his brother. His father served during World War II in the 14th Army Air Force. His grandfather fought in France during World War I.

When Shimerdla was a youngster,  Memorial Day meant visits to cemeteries with his father and grandfather to honor veterans.

Shimerdla enlisted in the U.S. Navy Seabees when he was 19. He spent two years serving in Vietnam, a war that took more than 58,000 American lives. “I lost classmates in Vietnam. I think about them on Memorial Day,” he says.

He fought in the devastating Tet Offensive in 1968 that turned Americans against the war. Many who fought faced danger in Vietnam and disdain in the United States.

For Shimerdla, Memorial Day is about spending time with his children and grandchildren.

Before suffering injuries in a motorcycle accident in October, he was part of the American Legion Riders, and rode with them to a cemetery on Memorial Day. “I was proud to be there, honoring soldiers who were killed,” he says.

The motorcycle enthusiast also rides with the Patriot Guard Riders, formed to provide shield from harassment at the funerals of “Fallen Heroes.”


Tradition and Family

Susan and Bill Eustice with son Sean

Susan and Bill Eustice with son Sean

Susan Eustice says tradition is a big part of her holiday. She agrees that time with family is what Memorial Day is about. For four generations, her family has spent Memorial Day at Lake Okoboji.

“My mother was six weeks old when she first spent the holiday at the lake,” Eustice says.

Her mother’s paternal grandparents, the Rectors, built a home at the beach. Eustice is also related to the Clarke family, who were among the first families to settle on Okoboji’s Omaha Beach.

This year Susan and her husband, attorney Bill Eustice, plan to enjoy  fireworks, boating, swimming, sailing, biking, and dinners with family members. He and his band, The Firm, will perform at the Barefoot Bar.

They haven’t missed a Memorial Day celebration at Lake Okoboji in three decades. For them, the day is about tradition.