BY: RACHEL WUMKES
People often use the phrase “if walls could talk” when describing interesting events happening at a certain place. Regarding Woodford Island, it wouldn’t so much be the walls doing the talking, but the vegetation and the land itself.
Resting near the Bayside region on the south side of Clear Lake, the 3-acre island is a natural sanctuary of lush trees and thick brush, making it the perfect home for wildlife. A massive rock reef lies just under the surface of the water, every fisherman’s dream as they strive to catch the big one.
The Island was not always such a serene place of natural beauty. Back in its early days, it was just the opposite, actually. A hub of hustle and bustle, the island was ‘the place to be.’
In 1861, the grant of the island land was given by Abraham Lincoln to Mason City pioneer resident Flavius J. Turnure. Throughout the years, the land was sold and purchased a handful of times. In the late 1860’s, the Milwaukee railroad came through Mason City, triggering Clear Lake to become a resort destination for fisherman and hunters around the country.
One of the most fascinating features of this piece of land, is the construction of the Hotel. Built in 1870, the Island Home Hotel was hailed as a place of beauty and social excursions. Being one of the most unusual hotel settings in the state of Iowa, the hotel was two stories in height, built in a Maltese Cross style. Decorators came from Chicago to adorn the building with décor and art. Patrons arrived at the lavish location via a steamboat aptly named “Lady of the Isle.” When she met her fate and sank, she was replaced with the “Island Queen” built entirely of iron. At that time, it was only option for transportation to and from the island.
Attending catered parties at the Hotel was a prestigious honor. I can only imagine the splendor and magnificence of these events, as the island was the focal point of grandeur for the Clear Lake elite. In fact, it has been said the late suppers and dances were held well into the wee hours of the morning.
Along with the hotel, there was another building which housed a bowling alley, ice cream parlor and billiard tables. A racetrack was made around the outside of the island where people could place bets on horse races.
Fueled by a strong wind, the Island Home Hotel burned to the ground in 1875. A second, much smaller, hotel was erected in its place which also burned shortly after its opening.
When the island was purchased by CR Woodford in 1897, a home built by a former owner was already there. They remodeled the home to better suit their family, making it a rustic summer cottage. The building, which held the bowling alley, had been renovated into an icehouse, boathouse, and an apartment by a previous owner. The house remained on the island, garnering years of summer adventures for their family, until it was moved across the frozen lake in the winter of 1953 to Camp Tanglefoot.
Before her passing, CR Woodford’s daughter, Esther Woodford Ashland, documented her fondest memories of growing up on the island in the early 1900s. She recalls spending quality time with her aunts, who had their summers free as they were both schoolteachers, learning to identify flowers, constellations, and learning how to fish. As both aunts were vivid bird watchers, Esther stated she wished she had “charged her memory” of those times as she learned to identify the birds, their songs, and their habits.
On the weekends, however, the island turned into a busy place as family, friends, and many guests came to visit.
“I was especially lucky to be able to spend time at the cottage on the Island as a child,” she stated. “And later, my husband and I lived there the first summer after we were married. It was a beautiful place at that time – trees, but also open grassy areas. Many people seemed to consider it theirs, as they came on foot or wading across from Bayside and in boats. Sometimes they would wander around the outside of the house, staring inside to see what we were doing. Excursion boats brought crowds of passengers to Bayside on the weekends and, when the water happened to be low, a steady stream of people would head for the Island where they would spend the day. We often smiled at the usual scene – a girl sitting on the ground with her back against a tree – a man lying on the ground with his head in her lap.”
In 1971, the island was gifted by the Ashland’s to the State of Iowa on the stipulation it be left in its natural state, and no causeway constructed to make it part of the mainland. They felt very strongly that the island should be used by the people of Iowa, thus, it can be accessed by boat and used for public picnics and fishing. They asked the Conservation Commission to maintain trails and open areas so generations could enjoy exploring there. They have, along with the help of descendants of the Woodford/Ashland families, maintained this wish. The Island is held for public use only and no commercial enterprise is permitted on it.
To this day, the Island remains a focal point of our incredible lake. Over the years, hundreds of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts spent countless hours on the island, exploring and camping. So many people have such fond memories of their youth and spending time on the island.
Riddled with such a rich history, I wish I could have seen it all those years ago. Back in the glory days of Woodford Island.