LUVERNE — While some of the locals still refer to it as Creamery Pond or Sybesma’s Pit, the gravel pit that is now known as The Lake has become a community hangout — the center of attention for such events as Luverne’s Fourth at The Lake and Get Hooked ice fishing derby.
And yet, Luverne native Mike Davis knows the area can become so much more. The local entrepreneur’s can-do attitude has inspired others to take what was once a blighted area of the community and turn it into something people can be proud of.
“I grew up about a block away from here,” said Davis. Back then, the pond was used primarily for irrigation. “Me and my friends spent our childhood down here fishing, playing in the mud, catching turtles.”
Over time, the area became a dump site. Concrete slabs were tossed out, and dump trucks backed in and unloaded junk. Then, trees began to grow out of that.
Davis, though, could see the diamond in the rough. He looked beyond the blighted area and envisioned one day a water body with a sandy beach, a fishing dock, a campground and even some cabins.
Half a dozen years ago, Davis purchased a four-acre parcel that abuts the east side of the lake, including some lakeshore.
“My original plan was to clean it up and put a shop on it,” he said. “The city had a grant to help out with blighted property. That’s how we started to get the place cleaned up.”
Davis brought in sand and created the beach, and in time the city acquired the rest of the property. Together, they have worked to make the site a usable, enjoyable space for the community and turn Davis’ vision into reality.
A jack-of-all-trades, 42-year-old Davis has combined his life experiences and on-the-job training to carve out a living in his hometown. He has a successful snow removal operation that includes contracts with several local businesses. His year-round job is tree trimming, and he and his wife, Traci, also own five rental properties in the community.
“That’s my 401k,” he quips.
Not too bad for a kid who “got booted out of high school,” he said, blaming that on his lack of interest in school and a rocky relationship with the superintendent at the time. (They get along fine now, he said.)
Davis ended up at vocational school in Pipestone to earn his GED, then was hired by IBP in Luverne. When the plant closed less than a year later, he went to school for auto body.
“I just wanted to learn the trade,” he said, adding he had no interest in running an auto body shop. Ultimately, he landed a job in construction that took him on the road and away from Luverne for weeks, even months at a time. By then, Davis and his high school sweetheart were married and had started a family.
Together they camped in communities where Davis worked, spending a summer in Clinton, Iowa, another in Hibbing, and yet another in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
“That summer, my kids got to play baseball in Deadwood and be on a travelling team,” Davis said. “That fall, I just decided my kids were young and I didn’t want to be the one that wasn’t there. I quit the next day, and we drove home.
“Traci said, ‘What are we going to do?’, and I said, ‘I don’t know. We’ll figure it out.”
“The first year I don’t think I could buy a job in Luverne,” he said. Today, between snow removal and tree trimming, there’s enough work that their three sons are called upon to help when needed.
Traci works as a paraprofessional at Luverne Elementary and is taking online classes to become a teacher. As for their sons, Trae, 20, plans to study HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) this fall; Carson, 18, is studying auto mechanics at Southeast Technical College; and Carter, 15, is in high school.
Trae also hopes to invest in rental properties in Luverne, and between him and his parents, they will continue to transform the diamonds in the rough.
“When I buy a house in Luverne, I’m looking for one that’s not too far gone but needs some serious attention,” Davis said. “We started fixing one and I saw three or four other houses get fixed up. If you can start something in a neighborhood, it’s going to grow. People are going to want to live in them again.
“I don’t believe there’s a neighborhood that’s a lost cause,” he added.
All of the rental houses the Davises own — including their own home — are located along South Donaldson Street, not far from The Lake.
After Davis’ vision for The Lake began to take shape, Luverne Area Chamber Director Jane Lanphere broached the idea of having the site be the backdrop for an Independence Day celebration in the community. Not only would they have fireworks, but family-friendly activities like sandcastle building and water games.
When Lanphere suggested her ideas, Davis was intrigued. At the time, though, there was a lot of cleanup work yet to be done, and he told her as much.
Within days, Lanphere had a construction crew on site removing the concrete slabs and junk. After the city acquired the remainder of the property, the work to beautify the property continued.
Today, a fishing pier juts into the north side of The Lake. The pier was salvaged from Blue Mounds State Park after flood waters wiped out the dam and the decision was made to not replace it.
The city constructed a point on the north side and installed repurposed light poles that came from the Veterans Addition.
“That’s been wonderful — it really lights up the area,” Davis said.
With that work completed, the next big project is the development of a campground.
“The plan is to have two small campgrounds,” Davis said — one northeast of The Lake, and a second at the old Boy Scout Camp across town by the city park.
The campground at The Lake is proposed to have nine sites. Eventually, Davis wants to also have nine, 12- by 24-foot studio cabins on the property.
The cabins will feature a bathroom, kitchenette, full- or queen-sized bed and a pull-out couch. His goal is to have them open year-round.
“If I had my way, I’d be building cabins right now in my Midwest Fire building and then bring them down here to put on footings,” Davis said. “But, you can’t start construction without an OK.”
He has all of his land use permits already, and his next steps are to apply to the Minnesota Department of Health and present a business plan to his banker.
If the project moves forward as planned, David said he will turn the shop — built in 2018 to house his snow removal and tree trimming equipment, but since transitioned into a gathering place for birthday and graduation parties, class reunions and other events — into a lodge.
“I could see a shelter house some day,” he said of his vision. “I can still see ways to improve it — maybe fix up some additional shoreline.”
Davis said the city has also talked of paving the road passed The Lake with asphalt, and the city is already working to get wi-fi installed on its lakeshore property.
Meanwhile, Davis is working to try to get a food truck to park at The Lake on Sundays for part of the summer — another thing to draw people to town and to The Lake.
With the loss of the lake inside Blue Mounds State Park, Davis said the park has already been sending people to The Lake for summertime swimming. Last summer, he saw numerous families come for a day of swimming.
With all of the ideas Davis has for The Lake — and Luverne in general — it’s easy to understand why he was asked to join the board of directors for the Luverne Area Chamber and Visitors Bureau. He currently serves as board chairman.
“It’s been fun — they do a lot of good things,” Davis said. “We spend the lodging tax that the hotels pay. With that money, our goal is to get people to stay the night in Luverne — to attract people to Luverne.”
Among some of the projects they continue to develop are the Rock River Water Trail, a canoe and kayak trail down the Rock River.
“I hope that evolves,” Davis said. “So far with the state, we’ve got one launch in at the city park. My goal in the end is to connect from Edgerton to Rock Rapids (Iowa).
“We were really hoping to get more accesses on state-owned land like Pheasants Forever land,” he added. “I pray that we can catch their eye and keep building this up.”
The group is also working on developing a side-by-side ride that connects many of the smaller towns in Rock County — Kenneth, Hardwick, Beaver Creek and Hills. The first one took place last October, with a big turnout, Davis said, and they are planning a second ride this summer.
“I’m for stuff that’s out of the box,” Davis said of his ideas to promote local tourism. “What can Luverne do better — stuff like that interests me.
“That’s my hobby — to see things happen.”