Lake CoMar Recreation Park

Photo, circa 1925, courtesy of Margaret Vance

Generations of Story County residents visited nearby recreation parks to beat the summer heat.  Loya Durrell, whose family lived north of Ames (1720 Grand today), is pictured enjoying Lake CoMar in the mid-1920s.

One of the many artesian wells in north Story County was located on the C.H. Watkins property and became known as Watkins Well or Watkins Lake, as seen on the 1914 Iowa Geological Survey map portion below.  The spring produced so much water that the vicinity was used as a recreation area as early as the 1880s.  When purchased by Fred Corneliussen and Seward Marvick in 1914, the lake was renamed CoMar after their two names, and was enlarged into a swimming and boating facility that drew visitors from a wide area.

To view many photos of Lake Comar and to learn more about this early recreation area, read Lake Comar by Katherine Munsen and Steve Corneliussen.  The Farwell Brown Photographic Archive contains some Lake Comar photos from the 1920s and 1930s, courtesy of Steve Corneliussen.

This portion of a 1914 U.S. Geological Survey map shows Watkins Lake

Ames Daily Tribune, June 26, 1950

LAKE COMAR, ONCE STORY RECREATION CENTER OF 80 ACRES, NOW FOR SALE

STORY CITY - It hasn't been properly noted on the world's marts, but Fred Corneliussen, of Story City, has gone off the gold (fish) standard.  The finny beauties planted in the waters at Lake Comar, south of here, in 1931, by a friend of Corneliussen, prospered in the clear, cold well-fed waters.  And Corneliussen, who had prospered at many things, prospered right along with the goldfish.

The fish, during the depression years, "helped keep me going," the Story City man says as he looks back on a career which was linked so closely to the recreational activities of thousands of Story countians during the 25-year period from 1914 to 1939.

"I'm getting a little older and I just don't like to work as hard as I used to have to," the Story City man says as he tells you that the 80-acres in the old recreational area are for sale.  Along with those 80 acres will go an undetermined number of gold fish -- and an interesting history of recreational activities which started when Corneliussen and S. L. Marvick, 417 Welch avenue, Ames, bought the 80 back in 1914.

The two men drilled some wells -- artesian -- and found swimmers and would-be swimmers flocking in.  In 1915 two small bath houses were built for the swimmers who used the small lake for their activities and in 1916 check rooms were built.  It was about 1918 that Marvick sold out his interest to Corneliussen.  In 1920 that the latter built a pool for swimmers -- and was off to the races.

"There was a lot of money in the 20's," Fred recalls.  "And I expect that I got my share of it out there at the lake.

"One day in 1925, 1,700 persons went swimming in the lake.  At least they went into the water.  Probably a lot of them couldn't swim."  Corneliussen prides himself that thousands of persons learned how to swim at Lake Comar.

"Nowdays," he says, "most of the beginners at swimming are young people and boys and girls, but at Lake Comar when we first started, we had hundreds of adults who were learning.  I guess we were pioneers in swimming in Story county, so to speak."

Time being what it is, the 20's took a full 10 years to run out, and then came the 30's and the end of the big money at the lake.  "It's a matter of record that Fred always provided plenty of entertainment for his customers.  There was swimming for those who wanted to swim, golf for those who wished to try the 9-hole course on the grounds, baseball for the baseball fans.

On special occasions, such as the Fourth of July, Fred splurged.  From the Ames Daily Tribune and Evening Times of 1925 come this sample bill of fare for celebrators:

Baseball - Ames vs. Story City
"Speaker of the Day" - Rev. Hawley of Ames
Horse Shoe Pitching contest
Dancing from 5 to 6 and from 7 to midnight
A Fine Display of Fireworks at Night
Skating Rink Open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Boating, Merry-go-round, Novelty and Refreshment Stands, Plenty of Drinking Water
Come Early and Stay All Day.
Bring Your Picnic Baskets.
Meet Your Friends Here.

And during the 20's the people of Central Iowa did flock to Lake Comar, not only for Fourth of July and Labor Day celebrations, but throughout the summer months.

But with the 30's and the depression, improvements in automobiles and road systems, in radios, attendance at the lake fell off.  There were other places to swim, more things to do.

Fred gave it a try though.  He gave away automobiles as attendance prizes right and left, brought in highly-paid entertainers (world champ swimmer Johnny Weismuller and Amateur Showman Major Bowes among them).  Still the net profits at the end of the years grew increasingly smaller.

click to enlarge

It was in 1932 that Fred found he had some aces in the hole -- or some aces in the swimming hole, if you like.  The year previous, a friend of Fred's planted some gold fish in the swimming pool.  This friend put just 20 fish in the pool, and when Fred drained the pool he found that the 20 had produced prolifically. 

These off-spring Fred put into the lakes.  By 1935, he was selling $5,000 worth of gold fish each year and by 1942 the mark had moved to $10,000.  In 1938, Fred quit pushing the lakes as a recreational center and was spending most of his time in selling fish.

He sold them to chain stores throughout the midwest, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Peoria, Lincoln -- all of those cities were outlets.  But during the war, help became increasingly hard to get, the job of getting the fish out of the lakes into tanks and hauling them around the country became just too much for the manpower Fred had on hand.  Gradually, the goldfish business also dwindled.

Fred sold a few fish out of the lakes this spring, but nothing like in the peak years.  "Now," says Fred, "I would sell the place.  I have lots of other things to do here in Story City."  The 'lots of other things' include keeping accounts for various business concerns, working on the books at the Story City sales barn and making out income tax returns for the residents of Story City and the area's prosperous farmers.

2006 photo shows a portion of the former Lake Comar recreation park.

Dayton Park was another Story County recreation area.