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From Holling Lake to the Elmo Club, state park boasts a colorful history

From Holling Lake to the Elmo Club, state park boasts a colorful history

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From Holling Lake to the Elmo Club, state park boasts a colorful history
BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff Gary DeMille holds the Lake Elmo State Park plan map. Photo courtesy of Jim McCracken A photo from the 1930s or '40s shows Lake Elmo and the Elmo Club surrounded largely by empty farmland. Below, Wirth Associates Inc. drew up this concept master plan map to show how Lake Elmo might be developed as a state park. Among items called for were a sports activity area and multipurpose play areas. BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff Steven Bassler, left, and Devan Rodabough build a sand castle at Lake Elmo. BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff Jesse Gonitzke fishes at Lake Elmo. BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff Kayakers enjoy the afternoon on the lake.

This time of year, Lake Elmo is serenaded by the creaky croak of frogs, the giddy chirp of crickets and the twitter of myriad birds, as well as the bustling rustle of the wind through the Russian olive trees, whose black boughs sparkle with iridescent blue-green leaves.

A hiker along the state park's 1.3-mile nature trail may startle white-tailed deer, pheasants, fox squirrels, mallards or raccoons.

Interpretative markers have been added to assist visitors in discovering the wonders of nature.

According to one such posting, "Lake Elmo was originally built as a storage basin for irrigation water in 1906 and continues to serve that purpose today."

However, this one-sentence summation hides a diverse and contradictory history for the 64-acre reservoir originally called Holling Lake.

In her book "Pieces and Places of Billings History," Joyce Jensen describes a more ignoble birth: Holling Lake was an accident "filled by seepage and drainage," she writes.

How much water collected in the spot before is a matter for speculation.

"It may have been a part-time pond before that," said local historian Don Warfield, adding that there certainly had to be some kind of natural barrier holding in the water. But it's clear that most of the lake leaked into existence from a Billings Land & Irrigation canal built in 1905.

That canal included an impressive wooden flume across Alkali Creek and carried water from the Yellowstone River clear to the Billings Bench.

First surveyors in 1915 It wasn't until 1915 that the first surveyors came from BL&I to find out if the spill would serve as a reservoir.

According to "A History of the Billings Bench Water Association" by Samuel Dove, "A survey was made and a report supplied that the present surface (in 1915) of the water covered 65 acres, that if the surface were lowered 4 feet it would have an area of 40 acres making an average of 52 acres which would give one irrigation to 624 acres."

The BBWA, which still runs the reservoir function of the lake, planned to take it over that same year.

Unfortunately for the association, "the (flume) blew down after the transition, and, of course, they didn't have the money to put it back the way it was supposed to be," Warfield said.

The improvement of the lake was postponed until 1920, when BBWA signed an easement on the property with Theodore and Anna Barrett, according to history assembled by BBWA Secretary and Treasurer Gloria Lueck.

The lake's fate The fate of the lake was decided on Feb. 3, 1920, as was reported in the minutes of a BBWA meeting: "The matter of the development of the Holling Lake Reservoir was discussed at some length; it was moved by Mr. Andriessen and seconded by Mr. Winklemen, that we proceed with the development of the reservoir by laying 500 feet of pipe and constructing an earth lateral from the outlet of the same on a lower contour than the present No. 3 lateral extending across lots 3 to 13 inclusive of the Holling Ranch subdivision also that LeMaster secure the services of Mr. Sturling Wood to draw the necessary papers to secure the rights-of-way and that LeMaster proceed with getting the papers executed. Motion carried unanimously."

By then, instead of a new flume, BBWA had built a wooden siphon to transport water across Alkali Creek. This first siphon washed out on June 12, 1937, in a flood.

"The water was 4 feet deep over the top of it," Warfield said, noting that the colossal tube broke free and "whipped around like a snake."

A second wooden siphon lasted until 1951, by which point the leaks had gotten so bad that "it sprayed water from one end to the other," Warfield said. Today, the water is transported underground via a concrete siphon.

Meanwhile, the lake itself was undergoing transitions.

According to Dove's BBWA history, one of the original owners, F. L. Easton, retained the right to run the lake as a resort. In 1929, the owners were the McCrackens.

The farming family hit on an idea that worked: They opened the lake for recreational use.

"They had just an overwhelming response. That's why they decided to erect the night club," Jim McCracken said.

The Elmo Club, named after McCracken's grandfather, Elmo McCracken, was opened on May 12, 1930. It was destined to become so popular that eventually it would dominate Holling Lake's history and even bequeath it a new name: Lake Elmo.

Known for its chicken and steak dinners as much as for dancing, swimming and recreation, the Elmo Club was so popular that, even when the Roaring Twenties came to a roaring halt, it survived as a social center and musicians' hub.

Warfield has fond memories of visiting the club.

"They had a place which served refreshments and had dances and so forth," he said.

Lueck can also remember dancing at the club, which she described as a "famous night spot," in the 1940s.

"I was just a teenager," she said. "It was a fun place to go. I remember it was crowded."

The club had two dance floors, one upstairs and one down, Jim McCracken recalled.

"During the '30s and '40s, it was one of the hot spots. People came from all over," he said.

The Elmo Club "was noted as well for its gambling tables where '21' was dealt by Bob Oliver and Ira Johnson and its bar behind which Chuck Campbell was a regular. Ted Petty, the Elmo's bouncer, was on hand if needed," Addison Bragg said in an historical piece written for The Billings Gazette in 1979.

McCracken sold the club in June of 1945 to Howard Olsen and Bob Porter, and it continued to do well. But the building burned to the ground in 1946. The fire was found in the boiler room, and the building was consumed within two hours.

The club was never rebuilt on the lake because the new owners "didn't have that kind of money," Warfield said. The cost of rebuilding the 140-by-75-foot building was estimated to be $100,000 at the time.

"The club was doing such good business, they were determined not to give up," he said. "They bought out another club on the Billings-Laurel highway, and that was the Elmo Club for a while."

Although the club moved on and eventually folded, the Elmo name stuck, and, by the '60s, the lake formerly known as Lake Holling had became a party scene with motor boats, water skis and even a ski jump.

Gary DeMille, 59, first moved to the area in 1964 as a college student.

"I remember going (to Lake Elmo) on a couple of occasions. It was kind of a rowdy place," he said, adding that, to accommodate all those motor boats, traffic had to be strictly one-way. He couldn't say how many boats were there on average but enough to fill up the lake.

Billings native Candy Bonawitz, who now sells real estate in the Heights, recalled that, as teenagers in the '60s, she and her friends were not allowed to visit the lake.

If you go

Lake Elmo State Park is open year-round from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. The entrance fee is $2 for ages 6 and up.

"Fifty years ago, it was a rockin' place," she said.

However, times change.

According to a history of the lake written for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Park's employees, "The 1970s were a period of rapid residential growth … in the Billings Heights area surround the Lake Elmo site."

Plans were drawn up to develop the area with condos, and the area was graded in preparation. But citizen action prevented the condo construction.

"In 1982, the citizen group, which nominated Lake Elmo as a Coal Tax Park in 1980, formally organized as the Lake Elmo Task Force and continued lobbying for the park," the history reads.

A $1-million appropriation was made by the Legislature to buy the lake the next year.

The plan to develop the lake into a regional tourist attraction with matching community and state funds was one of the first of its kind in Montana.

The 1983 purchase, part of which was funded in trade to the lake's then-owner Lloyd Kimble, included the lake, 10 acres of land on the north shore, a 60-foot strip around the lake and an option to buy the back half.

In 1986, the purchase option was exercised, and the state acquired an additional tract of more than 42 acres for $600,000. Thus was formed Lake Elmo State Park as it exists today.

That same year, DeMille contracted to open a concession stand, run a windsurfing school and rent sail boards, paddle boats and canoes to visitors. The name of his shop was the Surf & Sail.

"It was a real cool scene. When you were out there at sunset and saw all the windsurfers and canoes and everything, it was, like, wow!" he said. "I used to look out there at people enjoying themselves and think in some small way I was contributing."

Park attendance rose from 21,236 visitors in 1983 to 27,057 in 1991. By 1993, after another $300,000 was appropriated by the Legislature for park improvements, more than 42,000 visitors went through the park just between June and August.

Even though overhead costs were such that his business didn't survive beyond 1988, DeMille says he landed on his feet as Rocky Mountain College director of outdoor recreations and is proud of what the lake has become.

"The place has just gotten better and better and better," he said, pointing to improvements in the facility, the trail, as well as wildlife management.

Not long after the state took over and began to improve the land, home prices in the Heights began to boom, and there was a great deal of interest in the area surrounding Lake Elmo.

"There was a real attraction to something that looked like water," Bonawitz said. "I do think the lake has added to the value of the Heights."

"I've driven people around it and shown them the area," she added. "When you're driving people around and showing them the Heights, they're impressed by (Lake Elmo)."

In her experience as a broker for Preferred Property Brokers, the housing boom in the Heights began with higher-priced lots and new construction near the lake. Homes near the lake - many built since 1990 - now sell for upwards of $300,000.

"I certainly think the state taking that over and cleaning it up made building those homes more desirable," she said.

Today, the lake can be enjoyed only in nonmotorized or electrically propelled boats. It's a popular place for fishing and features an accessible fishing pier. The latter, known as Roger's Pier, was donated by the Sport Fish Restoration group in memory of Roger Fliger after he died in 1992.

The lake is stocked with catfish, crappie, perch and pumpkinseed sunfish.

"There's lots of carp in there that come down the channel into the lake," said Lacy Labatte, visitors-services supervisor for the lake.

An equally relaxing pastime is to walk the park's nature trail. The area has a beach, a volleyball court, a picnic area, a visitors center and a pavilion on which more construction is planned.

"We're going to put in a turnaround for catering and parties down at the pavilion … hopefully in July," Labatte said.

The pavilion, a group-use picnic shelter built in 1998, can be rented for groups of up to 250 people for fees ranging from $60 to $150 depending on the size of the group. A cleanup deposit is also charged for parties.

Groups that regularly volunteer to assist in weeding, rock moving and general cleanup at the park include New Day Group Home and the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch.

"This summer we have a lot of Eagle Scout projects going on," Labatte said, adding that the Scouts will be building split-rail fences.

The next big event at Lake Elmo will be Family Fun Day tomorrow, presented by Parents, Let's Unite for Kids and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The park will also host the triathlon event for the Big Sky State Games in July.

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