One of my favorite musical productions is "The Music Man." We lived in Mason City for 25 years and were acquainted with Meredith Wilson, the writer of this production.
The play moves right along but one of the songs from that production is an emphasis of this article, "Know the Territory." St. Ambrose in the Fourth Century wrote, "When in Rome do what the Romans do," which is also the theme of this article. The Iowa Great Lakes is a magnet. People come here for many reasons and they are more than welcome. Over the years a pattern has developed; visit, rent and then buy a place on the lake. We followed this procedure and many of our friends did the same.
Teaching history for 36 years instilled a fun activity of seeking the facts or truth. Unfortunately society changes and what was accepted 20, 30,100 years ago is probably not "politically correct" in our present society but some things do not change.
There are certain expressions and truths about the Iowa Great Lakes that are accepted and people coming into the Lakes Area should know some of our traditions and "go with the flow." The following are some that one should be aware of so as not to offend us old geezers or get you labeled as a "newbie." My mother's family was one of the first pioneer families in Dickinson County and an aunt of mine considered you a newcomer if you hadn't lived in Dickinson County for at least 60 years.
Learn how to spell Okoboji and pronounce it correctly. Natives pronounce it as if the last two letters are "ja." Also be aware that we have a time honored university here at the Lakes. The University of Okoboji has the largest campus in the U.S.A., probably more alumni than any other university or college, more counselors (at least one in every bar), everybody graduates and if you need more information go to the Three Sons in Milford.
Unique to the Iowa Great Lakes is the use of the word "cottage" to describe your dwelling on the lake. "Cabins" can be found in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Colorado but you own a "cottage" at the Iowa Great Lakes.
Property on the Lakes is expensive and it is not correct to label a $2,000,000 dwelling a cabin so call it what it is: a cottage. If you want a "cabin" go to Minnesota or Wisconsin but here at the Iowa Great Lakes we have cottages.
There are 22 lakes in Dickinson County so be aware that Spirit Lake, East and West Okoboji, Lake Minnewashta and Upper and Lower Gar are not the only lakes but a tip of the lakes. Also be aware that most of the forenamed lakes empty out through the "Outlet" which is northeast of Milford and empties into Mill Creek. Go visit this area and find it is a great place to predict and/or watch the rise and fall of the lake levels. The lakes in Dickinson County are natural lakes so expect the lake levels to rise and fall. The Outlet Dam does some controlling of the lake levels and lately has been improved to keep out the flying carp. Another truism is that the lakes flow into Mill Creek and any attempt to change that assigned name is not correct.
Mill Creek has a historic past being the home of one of the first ventures in the area, the building and operating a flour mill on said creek. It is also the beginning of the present name of the city of Milford. The present city of Milford is not where the mill was because when the railroad came through the area it was one-half mile north of the mill and the town moved to take advantage of the railroad. I suppose, by all rights, the present city of Milford should have been named New Milford or North Milford.
The early steamboats traveled from West Okoboji via East Okoboji through three swing bridges to reach the Isthmus at Orleans. Big Spirit Lake's water level is higher than the Okobojis and it is still a mystery why there is no outlet. The early pioneers in the area called the body of water from the Spirit Lake Swing Bridge (Highway 71 bridge today) Spring Lake. It should be returned to the original name, Spring Lake, as it is really a separate body of water.
Every town or area has their peculiarities and the Iowa Great Lakes are no exception. The isthmus or land between East and West Okoboji is a history story all by its self being a dividing line between north and south Dickinson County. The natives refer to that area as the "grade." The old timers referred to the same area as the "drawbridge" with a smile or snicker.
It seems that early in our Lakes history the steamboats traveled the lakes and needed to have some way to have the bridges open for navigation. A gentleman came up with a plan to build a "drawbridge" over the 30 feet of water connecting East and West Okoboji. His design was to raise and lower the bridge so steamboats could navigate between the two lakes. It was built but required so much time and effort that it was a total disaster. It was considered a joke to the local inhabitants. The "draw bridge" was soon abandoned and replaced by "swing" bridges.
I was born and raised in Milford and in those days I recall that fishermen caught lots of pickerel. You never hear that today, so have the pickerel disappeared or do they have another name? Are the pickerel and the pike the same fish? I do know that fishing was fairly easy years ago. Many times groups of people from Milford would go up to the Lakes on a Sunday afternoon, go out on Millers Bay in several rowboats and get enough fish to fry later in the day.
In order to be a member of the Okoboji Clan you must have a nutty bar and at least one ride on the Queen. Another rite of true Okobojians is to go to your favorite vintage point, either by car, golf cart or boat to view the Fourth of July fireworks and of course with lots of popcorn. Get your sweet corn at either the Farmers Market or at the Methodist Church in Arnolds Park from the Graettinger farmer.
Full moon means a trip to Park's Marina and it is a must to go to the Taco House. Old time residents love to go to the O'Farrell Sisters restaurant and a trip to Tweeters is also a must.
The flea markets are also on the list of activities for true Okobojians on holidays and a must is a drive around the lakes. Do you have your Okoboji University sticker on the back of your car? If not, get one from the Three Sons store in Milford or the Park. A stroll through the Park is also on the list and be sure to visit the Iowa RockNRoll and the Maritime museums in Arnolds Park. A trip to Spirit Lake to visit the Dickinson County Museum will give you valuable information about the history of the area. You thought that you could just buy a cottage at the Iowa Great Lakes, sit back and relax. I realize I have left out a few "must" sayings and activities concerning the Iowa Great Lakes but don't despair, you will learn. Keep at it, but remember, "When in Rome do as the Romans do."