Des Moines Lake History

Des Moines Lake History

Des Moines Lake Name

Des Moines Lake was originally known as Sucker Lake.  In the early 20th century, lumber barons from Des Moines Iowa came to our area in search of white pine to build Victorian houses. Some of these businessmen, including those from the Gilcrest Lumber Company, built summer cabins around the lake. As time passed, the allure of crystal clear blue water and majestic landscape had brought more and more Iowa residents to the area. At some point, the name was changed to Des Moines Lake.

Des Moines Lake. Drone Photo by Jacob Juers

Beautiful Lake Des Moines

The following is shared by Clarisse Paron, a cabin owner since 1958.

My husband Joe and I discovered Beautiful Lake Des Moines when we were 19 and 20 years old, a few months before we were married, in 1958. We came from Saint Paul Minnesota and driving north on 77, we were on our way to look at a lake lot for sale on Deer Lake. Joe mistakenly turned right instead of left onto Highway H and we ended up in Webb Lake… there was the Main Store, a post office, and a bar. We were greeted by Genevieve Johnson, the postmaster. She introduced herself and welcomed us to Webb Lake Wisconsin. We told her we were looking for lakeshore property on Deer Lake and she said her husband Ivan had property on various lakes and would be happy to show us what he had for sale.

Ivan showed us a lot on Webb Lake, but it was not the swimming beach and clear lake we were looking for. He then took us over to Beautiful Lake Des Moines… and incidentally, it was always referred to as Beautiful Lake Des Moines back then. Ivan and Genevieve lived on Des Moines and Ivan said he would give us $100 if we could find a clearer and cleaner lake. As we swam, we could see the bottom so we knew this was the place we wanted. We bought the lot, 100 feet, for $12.00 a foot and we are still there, 63 years later. While it was a lot of money back then, it was the best $1200 we ever spent.

We had a Folbot… a canvas type kayak, which we used and portaged over to Long Lake to go to the Lamplighter, another place to eat and dance. We also frequented the Cabaret, but it was known as June’s Country House back then, until it was sold and renamed The Cabaret. It was built by Ivan’s father and many dances and parties were held there. Each year, Ivan hosted a private party on the weekend before Memorial Day weekend, for all the people who had homes and cabins on Beautiful Lake Des Moines.

We watched while he did his dance on snow shoes and everyone enjoyed a lavish feast of smoked trout with all the fixings. Great memories! It really was the beginning of the Lake Association on Beautiful Lake Des Moines.

We were told that previous to the public landing on the lake, folks would use a private landing not far from Roamers Inn, or launch their boats at Brooks Resort. Ivan told us the DNR would not stock the lake with fish unless we had a public landing. So a public landing was made where it is now, by filling in the channel there. Formerly you could boat through to Long Lake.

Clarisse & Joe Paron
Joe Paron with Clarisse’s Father and Joe’s Friend

Brooks Resort

Brooks resort was owned by Elsie Brooks and was a well-known resort on the northwest side of our lake at one time.  There were six cabins to rent on a weekly basis.  Many lake residents who have bought cabins somewhere on our lake stayed at the resort when they were children.  The resort cabins are now individually owned.

The Cabaret

Ivan Johnson built the Cabaret and then sold it around 1958.  He is doing the “Snowshoe Dance” to commemorate the sale.

Stepladder Skiing and the Green Disc

The following is shared by our treasurer Mike Schafhauser.

In the late 60s, I was friends on the lake with a Johnson girl (who used to own the property that Jodie Milbert owns now) and one of the Diesner girls. One of them had a manufactured disk for water use. We’d be getting close to the 3 o’clock end of the skiing hour and would push the time a few minutes because the speed limit was 8 mph after 3 and the boat speedometer said we were legal. Not sure how much the disk cost but it was too much money for our house so I cut one out of a piece of half inch plywood. One side is still painted the same green color of our old dock while the other side had to have a peace sign on it given the times.

Not sure how it started but my Uncle Joe Paron and I started a competition with how many spins we could do before getting dizzy or losing our balance and falling in. Being guys, the competition quickly escalated to coming around to the dock and having someone hand us a wooden kitchen chair to sit on and then eventually stand up upon. Next came a wooden rocking chair with another round to get a magazine and hold the rope between our knees.  The last was the five foot step ladder that banged the heck out of your shins going up it so we grabbed some rubber pipe insulation from my Dad to cushion the step fronts. If I wasn’t on the top, I could go outside the wake but never could get out and back from the top. I think the most spins I could do was three on the top. People have asked if we ever got hurt and honestly no. If you fell off the ladder, you were far enough up that you went out not down. Hoping next summer to start a new crop of grandkids on it. It’s still in the basement, waiting for new and creative uses for it.

Lots of crazy times with water skis. Starting backwards on trick skis, double skiing on one set of skis, nailing a wet carpet runner to the dock and starting from 30 feet toward shore on the dock. That one came under the “Hold my beer” category. Still too much friction and pulled right out of the skis and on my belly across the carpet runner. A fair amount of rug burn on that one.

It’s great to see little kids skiing again. It’s great exercise and a lot of fun. Thankfully my Dad was a patient driver. The good news I suppose from his side was that it was for only 4 hours a day with skiing hours from 11 to 3. Things got a bit crowded on the lake with shorter hours, but the boats were a lot smaller and no PWCs.

A last use for the disk that I was reminded of. Years ago there was a space station that was going to crash “somewhere” into Earth. We put a big target on the disk and set it up on the beach leaning against the ladder like an easel with a “Welcome Skylab” sign. We lined up the lawn chairs on the beach, tied pots on our heads for helmets and were waiting to toast its triumphant return to Earth. Can’t remember where it landed but it wasn’t Lake Des Moines.

Roamer’s Inn Resort 

Joe’s Bar and Roamer’s Inn Resort are an important part of Des Moines Lake’s history.  This narrative and accompanied photos are shared by the descendants of Joe Merkle, the original owner.   Nancy McMahon Troost (daughter of Carol McMahon, granddaughter of Henry and Selma Merkle, great granddaughter of Joe Merkle) and Dawn McMahon Mueller (daughter of Lee McMahon, granddaughter of Carol McMahon, great granddaughter of Henry and Selma Merkle and great great granddaughter of Joe Merkle) provided this information and early photos.  They still enjoy Des Moines Lake.

Roamer’s Inn Resort was started in the 1920’s by Joe Merkle.  He operated Joe’s Bar which is the structure across from Glider’s Bar and Grill.  This property was built in 1918.  It is now a private home

Roamer’s Inn Resort

Joe rented some cabins on the lake.  It is not known how many or who built the cabins.  His clientele were mostly fishermen.

 Cabin #6 picture from 1930
Joe Merkle (on the left) and Henry Merkle (on the right) with fish caught
Pictures of Henry and wife Selma on the shore of the lake

Roamer’s Inn Resort

Joe’s son Henry and his wife, Selma, and their children Helen, Carol and Russell soon joined him in the mid-1930’s and eventually took over the Roamer’s Inn operation.  They built more cabins themselves with the help of friends.  Joe’s Bar became their house and Joe died in 1936.  The children all married and Carol and her husband Harold remained to help run the business and eventually took over the business.  All of the cabins were numbered one to eleven.  Cabins #8, #9 and #10 were torn down.  They ran the resort and bar into the 1970’s.  The Merkle and McMahon families retired over the next few years.  The cabins were sold in groups or individually.  Almost all of the cabins are still in use although they have been remodeled, some significantly.  The land where cabin #10 was located is now owned by Joe’s great great grandson, Pat McMahon and his wife Ann.

Cabin 10
Cabin 1
Cabin 4
Cabin 5
Selma Merkle, daughter Carol McMahon, and granddaughter Nancy McMahon Troost
Harold and Carol McMahon tending bar in Roamer’s Inn Lodge
Inside of one of the cabins
Lee McMahon by one of the resort’s wooden boats

Roamer’s Inn Lodge

The structure where Gliders is located was called Roamer’s Inn Lodge and was completed in 1949.  It became a combination beer bar, general store and living quarters.  It was sold in the 1960’s to Bud and Connie McFarland.  The McMahon family moved back across the street.  Subsequent owners of the Lodge were Bumps and Betty Kuester, Roger and Andi Fontaine, John and Pat Angell, Lunker Lodge’s owner and Glider.  The structure has also been called Lunker Lounge and Glider’s Bar and Grill.

Roamer’s Inn Resort

The shoreline of the lake looks quite different from the early days of the first cabin owners.

Carol with the Des Moines Lake sign
Des Moines Lake Shoreline
Des Moines Lake Shoreline
Des Moines Lake Shoreline
The float plane would come to the resort and give rides.

Roamer’s Inn Resort Brochures

The Sound of the Magical Rooster Tail

I started skiing in high school with friends and high school boyfriend Steve and family in the Detroit Lakes area.  We really bonded in the joy of all water sports including slalom skiing which were both of our favorites.   There really is nothing like having 2 feet in the ski and riding the edge on a calm day.  For me when I  am on edge throwing up that wall of water my ski makes a whirling noise.  It’s magical!   

I am now 52, but plan to slalom ski for 20 more years…God willing.  I would like to emulate Peggy Foyt who was still skiing at the age of 70.  

See you on the lake at 10.


Beth Ihry