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Out and About: Spirit Lake, Iowa

posted on January 9, 2009 at 10:54 AM

Many Iowans know Spirit Lake as A.) the namesake of the 1857 Spirit Lake Massacre and/or B.) a top outdoor recreation area for tourists. Interestingly those two things aren’t so far apart today.

In 1891, one of the survivors of the 1857 massacre returned and opened her family’s cabin as one of the state’s first tourist attractions – the Abbie Gardner Sharp cabin. And actually, the cabin isn’t in the town of Spirit Lake. It’s really in Arnolds Park. But don’t worry.

Dan Kaercher, our Out and About correspondent, explains it all.

For starters, you need to know the town of Spirit Lake isn’t actually on the lake whose name it carries. It’s on East Okoboji Lake. Also there are at least 5 other lakes around here and half a dozen or so communities of which the town of Spirit Lake is just one, but it’s the largest.

One of the few more rural communities in the state that’s actually growing, Spirit Lake is a unique blend of the practical and the playful.

The practical part is the manufacturing that underpins the economy here.

For example, Polaris Industries makes Victory motorcycles at its Spirit Lake plant.

And then there’s Pure Fishing. Home grown by a local boy who grew up fishing, it began the Berkley Fly Company in 1937. A young Berkley Bedell started selling hand tied flies, with support from his community.

Berkley Bedell, Founder, Berkley and Company: “They loaned the money to begin with to start my business, when a 15-year-old high school student. They came forth with the money in order to build our big factory that we’ve had. I think the people of this community, and that may not be unique, but I think it is true that we have learned that working together is a lot more fun and you can accomplish a lot more than you do if you just worry about yourself.”

Today Pure Fishing is a part of Jarden, Inc., which recently announced the corporate headquarters would be moved out of state while the manufacturing would stay here.

But whatever happens at Pure Fishing, it’s a good bet this town can handle it.

Spirit Lake knows how to reinvent itself.

Just consider this brand new courthouse. Then walk north along Hill Avenue where there are new businesses in old buildings, many of them with face lifts.

You can buy a book, a meal and much more.

A group called the The Shops of Hill and Lake, named for two streets, is an alliance of business owners who work together to better business, even sponsoring various events. Their customer base includes permanent residents, tourists, and the folks who have homes but don’t necessarily live here all year. Our family has been coming to the region for decades.

I stopped for coffee at Fresh Bistro. In the off-season, owner Jennifer Rettig does graphic design. For her, summer visitors add to the richness of the town.

Jennifer Rettig, Fresh Bistro: “You have very stimulating people coming in and adding to your community. And a lot of these people have year-round homes and they invest in the community. So I think we have a lot of benefits because of being a tourist town.”

At the south end of tree-lined Hill Avenue are Spirit Lake’s schools. The district generates part of its own power with a wind turbine on the grounds, the first district in the state that did so. Pretty inventive.

The High School also sports a new performing arts center that opened in April, 2008. Molly and Tom Bedell, Berkley’s son, donated 6 million dollars for it. Named for their daughter, the Sami Center has a 1,000 seat theater with state of the art lighting, audio, and terrific acoustics.

This is a regional center for groups and communities throughout Northwest Iowa, focusing on both education and entertainment, local and professional.

Terry Miller, manages the Center as well as being activities director for the schools. The Center’s been working on an alliance with the University of Northern Iowa.

Terry Miller, Activities Director: “The alliance will be that we'll be an outreach program for them and we'll be a center for them to bring in entertainment into the Sami Center. It will really benefit Northwest Iowa and hopefully benefit the University of Northern Iowa too. So, so exciting time here.”

The Bedell family also was instrumental in getting Spirit Lake the impressive new Bedell Family YMCA, the nearby Elinor Bedell State Park and more amenities that benefit the whole lakes area.

And Berkley Bedell is the first to point out there are others who make things happen here too.

All that enables Spirit Lake, the town, to offer the best of both worlds: quiet in the winter and excitement in the summer. It’s a “great” place at the heart of Iowa’s Great Lakes.



Tags: history Iowa Spirit Lake


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