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