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Windsurfers line up for the start of a race during the 2009 Windsurfing Regatta and Unvarnished Music Festival. Lake Okabena's low shoreline combines with the area's high wind frequency to make ideal conditions for windsurfing. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)

Worthington's great lake: Lake Okabena is community's playground

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WORTHINGTON -- By people who live in and around Worthington, it is most often referred to as just "the lake."

As in, "Let's walk around the lake," "Take the road around the lake," or "I live on the lake."

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"The lake" is, of course, Lake Okabena, and although it isn't located exactly in the center of the city, it is the centerpiece of many of the local community's recreational activities and endeavors.

"While it took almost a century for Worthington to grow all the way around Lake Okabena, the lake has always been the center of community life," observed former Daily Globe editor Lew Hudson in his 1976 history, "From New Cloth: The Making of Worthington."

Waves of history

Okabena is a Native American name, from the Santee Sioux language, meaning "Nesting Place of Heron." Although there's been some dispute about whether the body of water's proper name is Lake Okabena or Okabena Lake -- an 1882 state geology report referred to it as "Okabena Lake" -- it came to be known over the years as Lake Okabena, and that's the name local citizens seem to prefer.

At one time, however, it had a longer name -- West Lake Okabena. When settlers first moved into this region of southwest Minnesota, they encountered not one lake, but two. East Okabena was located just on the other side of the railroad tracks and U.S. 59/Minnesota 60. According to that 1882 geology report, East Okabena was 15 feet deep while West Okabena had a maximum depth of 25 feet. Eventually, the east lake was drained to accommodate railroad development. A 1914 plat map refers to the area to the southeast as "formerly East Lake Okabena ... now dry, having been drained."

According to Bob Rohrer, who compiled information on Lake Okabena for the City of Worthington's Web site, part of the former East Lake Okabena shoreline is visible from a car traveling on U.S. 59/Minnesota 60, and it can also still be detected on Internet satellite maps.

Unlike its dried-up sister, West Lake Okabena is a spring-fed body, as evidenced by this story related by a dredge operator sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s:

"He had a scary experience during the day's dredging when the front end of the barge pushed up in the water about three feet. He wondered if the dredge was sinking. But, when he went to see, it was apparent that there was water boiling up under the dredge, lifting the front end up. It soon settled down. He reasoned that he must have been cutting through a hard mud cover on a strong spring, and when the cover was breached, it caused a burst of water strong enough to lift the front end of the barge for a while. That winter there was a large area of water halfway between Cherry Point and South Shore that had always previously frozen over, now didn't freeze over. And it now stayed open during winters for many years after this experience."

Prime real estate

From the very beginning of Worthington's settlement, the property along the lake shore has been considered the choicest real estate.

"The city's first family, that of G.J. Hoffman, chose the lakeshore as its home, and lakeshore property from the very beginning commanded a higher price than land back from the water's edge," says Hudson in "From New Cloth." "Within 10 years of settlement, land on the lake was worth a hundred dollars an acre."

Hudson further noted that in 1974, just prior to his book's publishing, one of the last available lakeshore lots on the south side of Lake Okabena sold for $15,000.

"As is customary in northern lake country, the northern and east shores were built up first, because of the advantage of cooling breezes from the prevailing southwest winds of that season and for protection from the northwest gales which prevail in winter," continued Hudson. "The south shore didn't build up until after 1955."

Although there haven't been any lakeside lots available for more than 30 years, the lakeshore is still considered Worthington's most prime residential real estate sector.

According to local Realtor Steve Johnson of Johnson Builders & Realtors, there are 98 homes located on the lakeshore, comprising 785 acres of land. Houses located on the lake generally command a higher price tag.

"There's no question that if the same house on the same size lot was across the street, the lake home would bring considerably more dollars," said Johnson, adding that there is always interest when lake homes come up for sale, although the recent economic downturn may have softened the market. "We have people who have mentioned to us, 'If anything comes up on the lake, please give us a call.'"

While lakeside living may be a luxury confined to some lucky homeowners, Worthington's founders ensured that the general public would have plenty of space available for public access.

"Unlike some communities, Worthington's citizens set aside substantial acreage of the lakeshore for public parks," explains Hudson in "From New Cloth." "At present, some 60 percent of the shoreline is open to the public. At the same time, the fact that the other 40 percent is built up with some of the more expensive homes in the city has created a reservoir of support for lake preservation measures, measures which have been costly.

"... Worthington citizens considered it money well spent, because the lake is the city's playground," Hudson continued. "(City founders) Prof. Humiston and Dr. Miller made a walk around the lake the first day they visited the site of the future city. The raft they built to cross the west inlet was the first watercraft launched by white men on the lake."

Commerce and recreation

The proximity of Lake Okabena to the city of Worthington has long offered both business and recreational opportunities.

For many years during the winter, the Worthington Ice Co. harvested blocks of ice from the frozen lake, storing the ice in a facility close to the lake or taking advantage of the railroad's proximity to load it up for use in the refrigerated rail shipment of foods.

According to the Nobles County Historical Society, more than 45,000 tons of ice were taken from Lake Okabena during the years of the ice harvests, which peaked in 1940, declined and finally ceased in 1956.

The lake was also a source of energy -- steam power.Electric power for parts of Worthington was generated as early as 1895, and a public power plant was erected on the shore of Lake Okabena,on the site that is now known as Sailboard Beach. Power now comes from alternate sources, and no longer does a giant smokestack cast a shadow over the lake.

The other commercial enterprises that cropped up on Lake Okabena were intertwined with its recreational possibilities.

The first bathhouse was erected in 1901 in the vicinity of Centennial Park, but was considered too far from town to be successful. In 1904, a recreational association was formed to construct more accessible public facilities. A bathhouse, constructed at the foot of Second Avenue, proved to be so popular that it was immediately doubled in size.

"Docks, piers and diving platforms were added, and by 1909, the association boasted nine boats, a bathhouse, facilities for 'water baseball' and full waterfront equipment," writes Hudson. "Boathouses were built and a second-floor dance pavilion was put over the bathhouse."

Sometime after World War I, the prime swimming area was switched to Chautauqua Park, where it continued until about 1955, when beaches were developed at Centennial and Slater parks, according to Hudson. The bathhouse, however, continued standing until sometime around 1965, when its deteriorated state prompted demolition.

Chautauqua Park has the distinction of being the city's first recreational area, named after the Chautauqua programs that were offered there during the summer months from 1906 to 1931.

"In a day where there were no radio or television, and when movies were still in the early stages of perfection, the stage was still the dominant entertainment medium," writes Hudson. "Towns like Worthington were a long way, however, from Broadway and State Street. Chautauqua was the only way the citizens could obtain theatrical entertainment.

"... Families brought their tents and camped out in the park. A dining hall was built near the pavilion to serve the campers. The program was varied and included lectures, drama, music, comedy, magicians, jugglers and all sorts of entertainment."

In the 1920s and '30s, several high-powered cruisers plied the waters of Lake Okabena, offering rides during those warmer months.

"In 1926, H. Tyerman brought a speedboat from Arnolds Park, the 30-foot 'Disturber II' with a passenger capacity of 20," detailed Hudson. "A six-cylinder engine provided it with sufficient power to thrill Sunday afternoon riders from the Chautauqua Park dock. That same summer, Tellander-Hagge Motor Company, the Ford dealer, launched a 22-foot cruiser powered by a Ford engine. Advertising plus fun!"

Worthington's "playground' was and is open all year round. Fisherman continue to drop their lines in Lake Okabena even during the winter, and sails -- attached to ice boats -- were once a common sight on the lake's frozen surface.

"The Nobles County Historical Society has photos of a number of beautifully rigged iceboats," explained Worthington resident Bill Keitel, who lives across from Sailboard Beach just below the downtown business district. "They were the most amazing, the sleekest and fastest human-powered crafts in the world. Iceboats with lanteen sails were able to amplify the wind speed and reach speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour. Nothing at that time, and even today, could match the power, speed and grace of these boats.

"The sport of iceboating on Lake Okabena fell off sharply at the start of World War II," Keitel added. "There was a calamitous and fatal iceboating accident due to high wind speeds; after the war, interest in iceboating waned."

Setting sail

Today, sails are once again a common sight on Lake Okabena, during the warm weather months, as Lake Okabena has become a prime spot for windsurfing. About a dozen years ago, Keitel and co-conspirator Jeff Hegwer recognized that the local lake had conditions that were perfect for harnessing the wind for recreational purposes.

"Some simple research reveals that Lake Okabena is transected by two of the largest wind generator fields in the world," Keitel explained. "The lake sits high on the landscape, and the banks of Lake Okabena are quite low. This allows the prairie breezes that sweep this region full access to the surface of Lake Okabena -- hence, some of the best inland sailing in the Midwest and beyond. Though the lake is small in size, it has an appeal to sailors that can't be matched."

Enthusiastic about sharing their lake with other windsurfers, Keitel and Hegwer, in cooperation with the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, spearheaded the effort for a new festival in Worthington -- the Worthington Windsurfing Regatta and Unvarnished Music Festival -- which has drawn sailors, musicians and spectators to Worthington for the past decade. The 11th annual festival will be June 11-13.

During its short tenure, the Regatta has attracted sailors from across the continent and even a few international competitors, has become a U.S. Windsurfing National Race Tour event and played host to two national championships. An offshoot of the Regatta, called the Midwest Speed Quest, brings sailors to Worthington on a more frequent basis to try and record the fastest speed of the season.

"On the ocean or on large bodies of water, sailors enjoy a solitary sport," Keitel said. "On Lake Okabena, that sport is available to spectators because of its size. Many sailors recognize this lake as a virtual race track because of its positioning and height on the landscape. The sailors have also enjoyed the recognition they have received.

"Lake Okabena holds a special place in many people's lives. ... Lake Okabena has many attributes, but it has always been brimful of promotional sailing possibilities," concluded Keitel.

Looking to the future

Worthington residents have always recognized that Lake Okabena is their city's most valuable resource. In a community survey compiled in 2000, residents named the lake as the city's No. 1 asset, according to Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Darlene Macklin.

"We're very fortunate to have a lake right here in our community, and it is definitely one of our best assets," she said. "When we give tours of our community, visitors are always surprised to find out we have a lake here in town."

Taking cues from that survey, community promoters have since tried to focus attention on the lake whenever and wherever possible.

"Ever since the survey, we've tried to promote the lake more than in years past," Macklin noted. "You'll see it featured on our billboards, the visitor's guide, in brochures."

While promoting the lake brings new people to town, preservation efforts are necessary to ensure that future generations of residents and visitors can enjoy its waters and shoreline. In the past, that "reservoir of support for lake preservation," as Hudson called it, included dredging the lake and extension of sanitary sewers. More recently, the effects of agricultural and residential runoff have become topics of concern.

About three years ago, a group of citizens banded together to form the Lake Okabena Improvement Association, an organization dedicated to seeking and defining areas of improvement for the lake.

"Actually, Bruce Kness and I were sitting together at a supper one night somewhere, and we started talking about the direction of the lake, what can a person do to help with the water quality, that kind of thing," explained LOIA board member Genny Turner. "Bruce said what really needs to happen is we'd have to get a lake association, as far as what an individual could do. With Bruce being a lawyer, we were able to start talks of what it would take, filed for a tax status as a non-profit organization, came up with official bylaws and a board of directors."

The LOIA board currently has 12 members, all with a keen interest in preserving Lake Okabena and making it a better place to live and play.

Turner, her husband Jason and their children have lived on the south shore of the lake for 10 years.

"It's something that's in my face every day," she said about living on the lake. "If you're not an avid user, you just see it when you use it. But for someone who lives on the lake, it's your picture out your window, what you see every day."

So far, LOIA has worked on what Turner calls "smallscale projects," such as placing garbage cans around the lake perimeter.

"We've begun working on larger tasks this year," she detailed. "We've hired a consulting firm, which is helping gear us in the right direction and will hopefully speed up the process of cleaning up the lake in a constructive manner. ... We're 12 people, and each one of us has a fulltime job; it's all volunteer. We decided in order to be proactive and accomplish something in a decent amount of time, we had to seek out further powers. We're working with the city, the county, the watershed, keeping them in the loop the whole time. We want to be the voice for the lake, not necessarily the decision maker. Our job is to be an active voice for the lake, a little bit of a lobbying group."

Turner hopes that the efforts of LOIA, coupled with a desire to protect and preserve the lake instilled in all local citizens, will ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy what Lake Okabena has to offer.

"I began to value the lake more as we had children and see the joy it brings to them," she said. "To be able to go in your backyard and play and swim .... that made me appreciate it 20 times more. I'd like to think that my kids can have their kids come back here some day and enjoy the same things that they've enjoyed."

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Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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