Siouxland Observer


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

On The Okoboji
The Lakefront Cabins

On a small lake in northern Iowa the summer passes by with little notice from the outside world. But when it gets hot and humid, the trees bake and the sand burns the feet of visitors. Like most lakes, East Lake Okoboji does not warm as quickly as the surrounding land. During the day, and during the night, those close by enjoy cool breezes blowing off the water.

Like any lake, the heat of the day races upward from the trees, earth and sand surrounding the water, and as the moist air climbs skyward, the cooler air on the lake rushes inland. The water, even in shallow lakes, takes longer to heat. Thus, it often keeps those living nearby cool. When the cool air rushes in, or is swept inland by the wind, the surface temperature along the shore is several degrees cooler. It is always the same. Except on the most horrible of days and nights.

On a recent journey to East Lake Okoboji, the memory of a lakefront cabin (where I spent my childhood growing up) sparked when a car flashed its lights coming down a hill by Storm Lake, Iowa. In the distance, the headlights hit my face as I traveled down a highway to the memory of a cabin called Hiawatha. I remember camp lore held Hiawatha was named during girl's camp after a poem written by Longfellow. None of us boys knew if this was true, however, but to be honest I don’t remember anyone caring much.

YMCA Camp Foster Boy's Camp Photo in Hiawatha Cabin
Hiawatha was a lakefront cabin at YMCA Camp Foster, on East Lake Okoboji. As a boy, I hopelessly fell in love with this cabin and the camp.

Across from the cabin in an undeveloped area, I still remember watching cars come over a hill several miles away. Every night the beams from headlights hit my face. It often woke me up. But on the occasions I was still awake (listening to the water lap against the shore), I would watch and wondered where the lights were going or coming from, and what the people behind them were doing.

Of course, if you have ever journeyed to the Iowa Great Lakes you would see the lakes are nothing compared to their namesake; some would be surprised by the size of the smaller lakes, but the area is truly unique for Iowa. The Roof Garden Ballroom on West Lake Okoboji, for example, once attracted the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers and even Johnny Cash, according to a blog called The Daily Globe.

In those days the Coney Island-style dance hall was housed in a two-story wooden structure. It was so rustic it had to be cool. It is even rumored that BJ Thomas came walking into the venue once for a pre-show rehearsal and said: "Boys, I'm going to be a big star."

BJ had just come from New York, apparently, and had signed a deal to sing the title song from a movie coming out in the fall, "a western," BJ said, "with Paul Newman and some guy by the name of Robert Redford called ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’"

"And I want to do the song tonight."

According to the post on www.chiefsplanet, BJ opened a briefcase and tossed out sheet music; the band rehearsed "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

“But the thing that blew me away,” author "kcfanintitanhe" wrote, “was the fact that the sheet music was in Burt Bacharach’s own handwriting....  That night at the Roof Garden we played it, and as far as I know, I was the first bass player to ever play that song live.”

I remember stuff like that seemed to happen all the time, and a story like this just another chapter in the endless lore of the lakes. I remember that summer, or one just like it. You could feel the excitement in the air.

In 1972, my last year at Camp Foster, the camp offered coed sessions.  The coed camp that year ran for three weeks, from July 2, 1972 through July 23, 1972.  The lakefront cabins, Minnehaha, Hiawatha and Nokomis, were cordoned off for girls only, and the older boys were assigned to Fox, a cabin originally built for the youngest campers.

Teenage boys had trouble in Fox, as I remember, and several counselors in training (CITs), assigned to sleep in the overcrowded cabin, got into trouble with a camper who brought contraband into camp. They were all fired.

Leaders justified the "girls only" decision by explaining how the isolation of the lakefront cabins would help keep boys from unexpected visits.  I knew many of the leaders well, and especially the girls' program director.  I accepted what was happening without concern.  The directors, and others, told us it was best, and it seemed a good start. 1 

We all worked hard to make the transition as smooth as possible during those first few years; for me, the fine tuning could come later....

According to an article in the Spirit Lake Beacon. May 6, 1971 (read here), the coed program for boys and girls was designed for parents who wanted their sons and daughters attending camp at the same time.  The program ran July 11 through July 24 that year.

The Lake Park News reported coed camp lasted three weeks in 1972 (as remembered), and still had sessions for both boys and girls separately.  The girls' camp ran from June 4 through July 1, and the boys returned to camp and the lakefront cabins July 23 through August 19.  In 1973 another week of coed camp was added,

During some of the first coed sessions, someone joked in a handout, "Believe It or Not: Camp Foster YMCA 1971," that there had been "No pregnant campers (we think) during the first sessions of coed"— coed sessions were officially offered, according to the Spirit Lake Beacon, in 1971.  

(The Milford Mail reported that all summer camp sessions were coed by 1977.)  

In a comment on this story, a man named Patrick said the girls had been the sole occupants of the lakefront cabins since the first coed camp.

"It's great to hear how the tradition of girls living in the lakefront cabins started," Patrick said in his posted comment.

"Girls still have the pleasure of inhabiting the lakefront cabins," he said, "but the boys have the coolest place in camp, called tent city. ...  Today, lakefront campers may not be awoken by headlights from an oncoming car across the lake, but by the headlights on boats passing by."

On the YMCA Camp Foster website, I recently did a search for photos and found little was recorded from so long ago. This photo is from 1969 or so, taken during girl's, or perhaps boy's camp, and was in a photo album of mine. It can be enlarged simply by clicking the image.  (It can be enlarged again as well on the Blogger site.)

I remember my friend and I were trying to come together as we gathered for this photo when Eric Wilkening, the camp's caretaker, stepped up on the log.  I am in the top row, and the girl's program director, Sue, is standing next to Eric, the older man in glasses.

The earliest staff photo I have was taken in 1965.  Mr. Holt directed the camp when this picture was taken, but John Adams took over the camp in 1967.  Just click the photo to enlarge it.

When I was a camper, the lakefront cabins weren’t winterized. Nokomis, Minnehaha and Hiawatha all had wooden frames and flaps to cover the screen windows (we propped the flaps open with sticks). If it rained, or if it got cold, we had to go outside to close the flaps to keep out the weather. That is why in the top photo it is so dark inside Hiawatha, the flaps were closed.

The guy front and center (in the first photo above) is John J, a friend from Sioux City. I remember we use to joke about how much better off we were for the bad food and cabins (not at all like those "rich kids" at the camp on the other side of the lake!).

It was a blast. And while boys no longer live in the lakefront cabins, it was great growing up there.  During YMCA Camp Foster's 100 year anniversary (in 2012), no one mentioned the cabins much when surveyed about their best memories of camp.  But I sure loved growing up there.  

Simply, those cabins, next to the lake, were the crème de la crème for us boys.  I hope boys will again experience the frontier feel, and the tradition, of those old-style log cabins. 3

Editor’s Note:  We thank Jane Nielsen, Josh and Patrick, who wrote comments for an inquiry, and "contest," seeking answers regarding the lakefront cabins (did the boys ever return?).  It appeared multiple times on a community board at, an online magazine.  Patrick won the $25 gift certificate, but did not claim the prize.   

To learn more about Camp Foster, please visit this link.

The decision most likely came from the "executive committee."  At a meeting February 18, 1971, the group met to discuss purchasing a nearby farm, naming the new staff quarters and finding money for a proposed storm shelter.  E.  Hoover served as president, but was not in attendance.  The meeting was called to order by Mr. Adams.  C. Pletke served as recording secretary. 

In an email a former director wrote (shortly before the Forster Centennial) that the first coed session was in 1970. However, at least two staff members do not remember a coed session in 1970.  If forgotten, it would have been a test run.  The official roll out was 1971.

3 The cabins were air conditioned, circa 1989 (reference here).