I was born and raised in a small town in Iowa. It was about the best place in the world to grow up. We had freedom to ride bikes, go to the dump, play in the park, go swimming at the sandpit until Dr. Hegg convinced the townsfolk we needed a modern, cement swimming pool. Our stores downtown were all we ever really needed. Right. That lasted until we got close to our teens.
|Rock Valley Park with our spiffy swimming pool in the background about 1960…|
Once we experienced big cities (to me) like Sioux Falls and Sioux City, we hungered for more. The restaurants, the amazing shopping took some of the shine off good old Rock Valley. I still loved the town. Heck, almost everyone knew everybody else. You went to the same school with the same kids every year. There was a kind of familiarity that was very comforting. I feel kinda’ bad for kids who don’t get to experience that secure, small town living.
|Half of my kindergarten class. I’m top right corner. Went all through school with the same kids…|
So what did we do for excitement? Well, there was lots to do in Sioux Falls and Sioux City. The movie theaters seemed as big as Rock Valley’s whole downtown area. Beside Warren’s Cafe, Ray’s Cafe, Green Acres and Manning’s Parkway Drive Inn, plus bowling alley pizza which was fantastic for 60 cents, we were shut out. The big cities had a dozen different restaurants dedicated to just pizza. New to my Dutch taste buds. They also boasted steak joints, Chinese, Italian, even McDonald’s. Which advertised a meal: Shake, hamburger, fries and change back from your dollar. Wow. Then there was the entertainment aspect. Rock Valley had a bowling alley (it was so cute, maybe 6 lanes), a roller rink above our grocery store, The Cue, and a small theater. And that too seemed enough until we hit our teens.
|The infamous Roof Garden. One cool spot to be in the 60’s…|
My first encounter at Lake Okoboji that I remember is well documented. The year was 1957, I was 6-1/2, Larry 11, Mona was 14. I’m sure Dad had some vacation time coming because he had been working for the Iowa State Hiway Commission about 7 years. But just because he had vacation days did not mean we really could afford a long vacation. We had only been in our house on 15th Street about 2 years. Buying one of the oldest houses in town had its pros and cons. I loved being that close to downtown and school. But the house needed so much work. Dad would just finish a project when a dozen more needed his attention. Not all of the remodeling could be done quickly either. With 3 kids, they had to skimp and save before starting the living room or whatever Mom deemed most important. I believe we went to Lake Okoboji for a day trip. When you’re 6, that 75 miles on 2 lane roads, doing 55, seemed to take a lifetime! We had a great time. Even the folks saw this as a big time event for the Gerritson’s, though none of us would realize the importance of that day until later. We had our family picture taken, right there at Arnold’s Park to commemorate the day. We looked happy. Mom was wearing a dress! The right side of the picture boldly states: Lake Okoboji, 1957. A few short months later, Larry was gone. Killed while riding his bike. Never has a picture meant more me more than the one that was taken that day. Our family of 5, captured in the moment, together and happy.
|Larry, Mona, Dad, me & Mom at Okoboji in 1957…|
I’m not very knowledgeable about Lake Okoboji. I seem to recall we usually called the area, The Lakes. There was West Okoboji, East Okoboji and Spirit Lake. All of northwest Iowa seemed pretty proud of the whole area. West Okoboji is one of the few (7 rings a bell) true blue lakes in the world. It’s very deep and it freezes so hard during Iowa’s frigid winters that they once moved a house from one side of the lake to the other on the ice when we were kids. Slid that baby across.
|John & I, about 1965. He had no car yet, so we walked on our dates…|
Once I hit my teens, Lake Okoboji was IT. Thee place to go in the summer. I suppose you could call it a poor man’s Disneyland. On the south side of Okoboji was Arnold’s Park. Roller coaster, carnival rides, an emporium, junk food eating places. Plus the Roof Garden. Upper level of a building. For concerts. Real concerts with rock bands. Man oh man, it was so cool. Being there made you cool too. Needless to say, I didn’t get there often enough to be cool. But the memories of my day jaunts there remain happy and pretty clear.
|Arnold’s Park Tilta-Whirl. One of the few rides I could stomach…|
Two trips to Lake Okoboji during my teens really stand out. Both were dates with Hubs, but very different from each other. The first one was a cozy, intimate swimming date. But not at the popular, crowded beach near Arnold’s Park. We went to a secluded place called Gull Point on the west side. We talked a lot, swam, ate, made-out and laid-out. Maybe more. That part is probably not something to be shared. But our glorious day had a gloomy downside. My whole life I’ve tanned easily. Mom used to say, “Denise gets brown as an Indian during the summer.” John, not so much. Towards the end of the day of our neat swimming adventure, he was the color of a gorgeous cooked lobster. Feeling about the same as when the lobster gets dunked in the boiling pot. He couldn’t even drive. Honest, he was delirious. (Maybe part love and lust but I was skeptical) So I drove his 1965, 3-speed on the column, maroon Chevy Impala back to Rock Valley. Poor little shit. He had blisters the size of my palm on his back by the time we got to his house. Called Doc Yates who came over immediately. (He always had a soft spot for John). Brought pain pills and cream, and dressed his burns. He was pretty sick for a couple days. Wuss. I looked fabulous in my little white shorts, brown as an Indian. Just saying.
|Pale face Hubs right after we eloped at Channel 4, about 1970…|
The second memorable Lake Okoboji trip was all about Arnold’s Park. The rides, carnie food and Roof Garden. Though The Roof Garden part was dicey. I’ve never been much of a ‘ride’ girl. I could stomach the Tilta-Whirl, bumper cars, and maybe a kiddie swing. No roller coasters. Hubs convinced me to go into the Bug House. He probably just wanted to cop a feel and guaranteed the ride was ‘no big deal.’ The Bug House looked innocent enough. A small cabin type building. Kind of reminded me of a rustic cottage. Old fashioned phone sitting on a little table. Decorated cute and quaint. Little windows with curtains. In the middle of the room was a swing. We stepped up just a couple inches to the swing and sat down. There was a bar on top of the swing that ran through the whole cabin. The dude at the controls came in and strapped us in the swing. Gave us a gentle push. We were barely moving. Maybe a foot back and forth. Very relaxing, lulling, pulling me in. Ready for John’s try at his cop-a-feel. Suddenly, my world turned upside down. Certainly not by John’s ‘smooth’ moves. Literally, I was upside down. And turning greener by the minute. Scratching, clawing, trying to keep my equilibrium, and not hurl all over John, which isn’t very impressive on a teenage girl’s date. I screamed, hollered, cried, and begged to die. When the world righted itself, Hubs grabbed my hand and lead me out of that horror show. I was bent over at the waist, walking crooked and had no idea where I was. I don’t remember if John was worried, embarrassed or laughing. He couldn’t have laughed very long if he ever, ever wanted to cop another anything on me. Ever. Geez, it took a couple hours before I could walk in a straight line again and felt somewhat normal.
|John snapped this the day we went to the Buckingham’s concert at The Roof Garden, 1967…|
That stupid ride. Everything but the swing inside was nailed down. Furniture, phone, curtains. With that cute swing moving so slightly, the whole cabin was turning round and round. I was hanging on for dear life while the building was rotating and I was moving but a few inches. Horrible, horrible ride from hell.
|I get woozy just looking at this place…|
After I righted me, we did get to The Roof Garden. And danced all night to the Buckingham’s. Kind of a Drag, when your baby don’t love you. We had a ball and we were even. John: sick at Boji, 1, Neese: sick at Boji, 1.
|Me & The Hubs about the time we moved to Spencer, 1977…|
The Lakes continued to be a part of our lives when we lived in Spencer during the late 70’s. Not so much Arnold’s Park, Gull Point or Okoboji, though we did take the kids there, and took many leisurely car rides through the area. The high point was at least once a month we went out for supper with John’s sister, Elly and brother-in-law, Dewey. A place called Miller’s Bay. They had a fish fry on Friday’s that still makes my mouth water. Big chunks of Cod fried to perfection, Cole slaw, and French fries. Under 3 bucks. Not kidding. The cook/chef had a long, reddish beard, and often came out to talk to customers, even us some nights. We had some of the best times eating that simple fish fry with Elly and Dew. (Usually minus our kids who were about 7 and 3 at the time. Adam wouldn’t join us for another 18 months.) Taking turns driving, talking about the upcoming weekend, which sometimes included an antique road trip somewhere together. Dewey talking about bowling or basketball. He was really good at both sports. We bowled on a couple’s league with them. Where Dewey would make his own little history bowling a 725 series. Good times that went way too fast…
|Dewey & Elly, about the time we moved to Spencer in 1977..,|