Memories of Lake Panorama's Early Days
By Susan Thompson
Over the last 14 years, I’ve written perhaps 200 feature stories for this Lake Panorama Times newspaper. While everyone I’ve interviewed has been interesting, my favorites are those who have tales to tell about Lake Panorama’s early days.
Roger and LaVonne Martin, who will celebrate their 68th wedding anniversary August 21, are my latest “favorites.” LaVonne is 88 years old, and Roger will turn 87 on August 27.
LaVonne grew up east of Des Moines. She attended the Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls. Her first teaching job took her to a kindergarten classroom in Redfield. Roger was a high school senior, and caught her eye. “It was really love at first sight, and sort of scandalous, because I was practically engaged to someone else,” she says.
LaVonne tells the story of how they became Lake Panorama lot owners before there was a lake. “We had seven kids, and we loved to travel. In the summer of 1969 we took a long trip to Mexico, and then back up the coast of California,” she says.
When they arrived back home, there was an invitation in their mailbox to a free dinner at Tiny’s Horse & Buggy Restaurant in Adel. The Martins, who were living on a farm near Adel at the time, decided to attend. After the meal, there was a presentation about plans to build a dam on the Middle Raccoon River to form a lake. There also was talk of two golf courses, community beaches, a shopping area, and an airport. And there was a sales pitch to get in on the ground floor.
“We had about $1,000 left from our summer trip, so decided to go the next day to take a look,” LaVonne says. They drove west of Panora to what was in the late 1960s the main entrance to the lake development. At the guardhouse, they were met by a salesman and taken down a hill on a narrow dirt road to look at some offshore “B” lots, near where Shady Beach was planned.
In 1968, an engineering firm had used a laser beam to establish the water line. There were stakes in the ground showing where the water was expected to eventually come, once the dam was built and closed. The Martins decided to buy a lot along what they were told would be a a small cove where they and others on B lots could keep their boats.
The couple put in a concrete pad, built a boathouse, and bought a boat. They were able to take their boat up the river almost to the small settlement of Fansler. Yet there was no lake in sight. “We were young and foolish,” LaVonne says. “We just did it on faith. We thought it would work out, and it turned out to be even bigger and better than we ever imagined.”
Construction of the dam began in spring 1969. At 5:30 a.m. on June 8, 1970, the dam gate was closed and Lake Panorama began to fill. Originally it was thought it could take a month for the lake to reach its planned depth, but it was more like a week. “We could stand on our cement dock and watch the water rise,” Roger says. “It ended up exactly where the stakes showed it should be.”
For the first couple of years, the Martin family enjoyed Lake Panorama from their lot. The West Lodge had been built in 1968, and included a restaurant and swimming pool. “We’d go there every Saturday night to meet up with friends,” LaVonne says. “Sometimes there would be potlucks and bingo. Both of our daughters worked as lifeguards at the pool. There were lots of parties, lots of social times.”
One day LaVonne saw a for-sale sign on a waterfront lot in Horseshoe Cove, just down the road from their B lot. The Martins purchased the lot in 1973 and began to build a house, which was finished in 1974. They named it Martin’s Vista.
For the next 20 years, LaVonne lived in Martin’s Vista nearly fulltime while Roger stayed at their Adel home and farmed, coming to Lake Panorama on weekends. LaVonne did a lot of volunteer work, helping install and maintain flowerbeds at all three of Lake Panorama’s beaches.
On weekends, the Martin children, plus plenty of relatives and friends, would arrive at Martin’s Vista. Boating and waterskiing and swimming were on the agenda. “It was like Grand Central Station,” LaVonne says. “We were having such a good time.”
The Martins were some of the original hosts of the Eye Opener, a New Year’s Day tradition started decades ago. The invitation-only get together first was held at The Port, and moved in recent years to the Lake Panorama National Conference Center. The Martins continue to be one of the hosting couples for this annual event. “We had no idea it would last this long or get this big,” LaVonne says.
Another thing the Martins enjoyed about Lake Panorama was golf. Roger began playing as soon as the two golf courses opened in 1971. As more women started to play, LaVonne became interested. In 1977, Roger bought LaVonne a set of golf clubs for their 28th wedding anniversary.
“I loved playing golf at both courses,” LaVonne says. “Some of us ladies used to travel around to other courses to play in tournaments. I kept playing until my arthritis got the best of me.”
Roger continues to play at least three times a week. He has a regular group at Lake Panorama National, plus he plays in the 3 p.m. Wednesday men’s league. He also plays in the Panorama West Thursday morning men’s league.
In 1990, the couple sold their Lake Panorama home and moved back to the farmstead north of Redfield where Roger was born and raised. Roger’s father had built a two-story brick house there in 1952. After his death, the couple built additions on all four sides of the house, using lumber from an old barn.
They own farm ground at three locations, and have it rented out, although Roger helps out where he can. “I’ve farmed all my life. When I wasn’t busy farming, I took on other jobs to help make extra money so we could travel,” he says. Those extra jobs included helping at the Adel Sales Barn, selling tickets at the Iowa State Fair, and working as a carpenter in Redfield.
The couple continues to enjoy their large family. Two children live in Iowa, with a son in Adel, and a daughter in Monroe. One son lives in Alaska, with two sons and a daughter at Lake of the Ozarks. One son is deceased.
“We have 14 grandchildren, 23 or 24 great-grandchildren, two great-great-grandchildren and probably more on the way we don’t even know about,” says Roger. “It’s hard to keep track. They are scattered all over the world.”
The couple continued to own that first offshore Lake Panorama lot until just last year. “We enjoyed our life at Lake Panorama,” LaVonne says. “We met so many nice people, and we’re still enjoying their company today.”
In response to a question, Roger says he wasn’t surprised at how Lake Panorama has grown since its early days. “I knew it would grow,” he says. “People with kids began to move in, and the kids would grow up and also want to be here. Why would anyone want to move to Des Moines when they could live at the lake?”