Peeking Into Lake City's Past

What Happened to Pond Grove Lake?

During the summer season when we drive on our improved roads by beautiful fields of grain, it taxes our imagination to realize that when Ebenezer Comstock (the first settler) came to Calhoun County in 1854, our beautiful farms were covered with swamps, infested by snakes, rodents and wild game.

For several years after Comstock arrived, only a very small percent of our farm land was tillable. In it's primitive condition, most of our present farm land was worthless. It was covered by lake beds connected together by sloughs, the water channels being irregularly defined. No provision had yet been made for draining the marshes.

However, the sixteenth General Assembly of 1853 passed an act authorizing county supervisors to locate and cause to be constructed, levees, ditches or drains where necessary for the reclamation of swamp lands. Farm owners were given legal right to petition the county supervisors for the construction of drainage ditches and reclaim such costs by taxing the lands thereby benefited.

Draining swamp land was an expensive procedure. Fortunately, the land that lays north and west of Lake City and Lohrville has an elevation level of approximately 100 feet above the Raccoon river, making it possible to construct ditches with a minimum of depth, as compared to draining land with less elevation in relation to the river it drains into.

By the year 1910, the worst of Calhoun county's sloughs and lake beds were drained and the land in such areas became productive. Farm owners soon found their five to fifteen dollar land worth from one hundred fifty to two hundred dollars per acre. However, at this time, Twin Lakes, Tow Head Lake in northwest Calhoun County and Pond Grove Lake were left in their natural state.

Lake City's lake was located and confined to one section of land which can be seen today by driving two miles east on highway 175, north one mile, east one mile, back south to highway 175 and west to starting point. On the east side of the lake stood a large grove containing many maple, elm, oak and walnut trees. The lake was called Pond Grove Lake because of its size and the trees.

We are told that before the county's sloughs were drained, the water table was high and our lake was nearly always full of water, with its island showing in the center. However, draining the sloughs north of the lake lowered the water table thereby reducing the size of the lake's deeper area. This caused the rest of the lake to become marshy slough with reeds and cat tails rising above the water (a good place to fish for pickerel or northern pike.)

For many years previous to 1914, our Pond Grove Lake was a favorite recreation spot for our ancestors who lived in southern Calhoun county. We are told that fishing was good and it was a haven for ducks and other wild game. The beautiful grove of trees was a much used picnic area. Sportsmen and vacationers in the outer areas found the grove to be an excellent camp site for fishing and hunting.

Mrs. Helen Curry Wellington, of Lake City, tells the writer she enjoys fond memories of swimming in our lake when a child. She further states that the lake was a favorite recreation spot for the older generation of the Curry and Edmunds family.

I will attempt to give you a mental picture of Pond Grove Lake. First, it was called pond because of its size, being confined within one section of land, and the title portion called grove was named from the large grove of trees on the east shore. The deepest part of the lake was nearest the grove. In some respects, our lake was like South Twin Lake, inasmuch as only a small portion contains deep water in dry years, the balance being a swamp.

The Draining of Pond Grove Lake

It seems that people have never been and are not ever satisfied with things the way they are. When our area had lots of recreation water and wild game, we wanted to change the environment by draining off the surface water. Now, since the marshes and lakes are mostly gone, our government thinks we should have a dam placed on the Raccoon River that would create an artificial lake in Green County and create a return of marshes and sloughs in the river between the new lake and Sac City. Backwater from the dam would form a breeding place for mosquitoes and other pests among the tall reeds, cat tails, tree stumps and other debris sticking out of the water when the river is high and the dam's water gates are closed. As in the early days, such marshes make many acres of farm land non-productive for agriculture. The back-water areas of the Des Moines and Iowa rivers near Des Moines and Iowa City are certainly not a pretty site.

But again I say, someone is always promoting some kind of a change in our living environment.

Back in 1914, a promoter by the name of M. W. Madsen saw a financial opportunity for him and his associates in the acquisition of the section of land containing Pond Grove Lake from the State of Iowa and developing such acreage into privately owned farms. Mr. Madsen was successful in purchasing the lake from the state and proceeded to make his promotion scheme become a reality.

He and his engineer reasoned that by deepening the creek which nature provided as an overflow outlet between the lake and Lake Creek just north of Lake City and by digging a ditch through the shallow portion of the lake to the deep portion on the east side the lake could be totally drained into the Raccoon River.

Madsen was successful in purchasing the lake from the state and thereafter hired a local contractor known as W. J. Bennington to do the work. Mr. Bennington moved to Lake City in 1898, and according his granddaughter Mrs. Sheila Harada, he was the contractor who laid many of the early water and sewer lines for the town of Lake City.

Needless to say, even though the lay out of the land was right for the drainage project, doing the job with shovels purchased from a local hardware store, hiring and managing strong, able-bodied men to power them, made completion of the project a major engineering accomplishment. Supervising a large number of ditch diggers was no small task. Mrs. Harada says her grandfather was a radical prohibitionist who if he learned that a man was a drinker, would fire him on the spot.

After the lake was drained, a section of ultra rich farm land was the result. I remember the late Ed Blair, whose farm was in the lake area, telling me there was peat ground (ancient lake bottom of decayed vegetation) so rich that when dry if caught on fire, would burn consistently like hard coal until extinguished by heavy rain. Lake bottom and drained swamps make the richest agricultural loam. Calhoun County is blessed with many thousands of acres of such rich loam.

It is well for people of all ages to be aware of the truth, that history of our community and the world teaches, in no uncertain terms, that God's creation is a universe of constant movement and change. Absolutely nothing is exactly the same today as it was yesterday or as it will be tomorrow. Time and tide waits for no one.

Young people sometimes fail to realize the need to understand what happened in the past, in order to appreciate the present and prepare for the future. Such is proven in the nation's financial communities, who use sophisticated computers historically programmed to show results of market changes in past years by cause and effect, relating such data to anticipated changes in the future. It is the nature of mankind to follow patterns which are and have been similar throughout the annals of recorded history. It is thereby advantageous for our generation to understand our heritage.

Thus, in spite of the good intention of our forebearers, Lake City became a city without a lake, plus it did not, as planned, grow large enough to become a city. After the lake was drained, old timers told me many years ago that the Chamber of Commerce placed road signs at each entrance to town reading "Lake City - No Lake, No City, just a good place to meet friends and shop on Saturday night." Perhaps one of the changes in the future might be to change the name from Lake City to Calhounville, knowing we were the first settlement in Calhoun county and first county seat of government plus the fact that Lake City is a part of Calhoun Township. Nothing in the future could possibly happen to cause the name Calhounville to become inappropriate. Such is our heritage.