A Centenarian, a Shovel, and a Glass of Chardonnay

Bernadine received a shovel for her 100th birthday, and that was fine with her. As soon as she blew out her candles and put down her wine glass, she was ready to dig in. The centenarian has been cheerleading efforts to expand the park facilities behind her house for years, and the Story County Conservation Department has given the project the go-ahead. As Kyle Munson of the Des Moines Register reported, this is just one of many interests on Bernadine’s agenda.
Bernadine (Dakins) Schaefer is the matriarch of the family that provided land and a subsequent lake for the camping spot that has been a mainstay for the small town of Zearing for decades. Now the area will expand with a watershed and conservation focus, and the camping facilities will be improved. The wind turbines that churn in nearby fields will provide some tax revenue for the project, and the locals hope it will spur the economy in a town hit by the financial downturn and farm depopulation.
Every small town needs a Dakins Lake—at least they used to. I grew up three miles north of the lake, but I haven’t been there much lately, so I’m not sure small rural lakes serve the same purpose they used to. In the early ‘60s, it was a spot to take the kids so they could thread squirming worms onto barbed hooks and then toss lines with cork bobbers into the algae-tinged water. We might snag a blue gill or two, but most visitors didn’t count on catching enough fish to cook over the campfire—hot dogs and smores were usually on the menu.
I heard the lake attracted many swimmers and ice skaters earlier in the twentieth century, but by our teen years, it had become murky, with water weeds dominating the north end. We Boy Scouts might camp there on occasion, but the only swimming I heard of came from the Polar Bear Club. A few of the older scouts had a “secret society” that included only those who would dare swim across the lake when the air temperature was near freezing. The chilly conditions made them swim the hundred yards or so at a brisk pace, but another factor weighed more heavily. To receive the “Polar Bear Award,” the swimmer had to be in his birthday suit, and since the lake was home to a certain number of snapping turtles, the guys said they swam using a nervous single-armed side stroke.
Most of us used the park for a meeting place during high school car cruising days, while campers from around central Iowa continued to pull their vans and camper-trailers in for weekend visits. Now they’re planning to install real campsites, showers, and a playground. They’ll probably stock the lake with bass, and there is some talk of bike paths that connect with other routes in the state. It sounds like the type of project that keeps the pulse beating in out-of-the-way rural areas, and the town has a strong-willed senior citizen to thank for it. Here’s hoping Bernadine has many more years to sip her afternoon glass of Chardonnay on the back porch as she looks across the field to the lake that carries on her family’s name.  by dan gogerty, (photo, RonJames–special to DMRegister)

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