River of Lakes still a local paradise after 60 years

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At the 60th anniversary event for River of Lakes, members of the Irish and Schiffman families enjoyed their time. Pictured (from left) are Lori Irish, Pam (Irish) Myhre, Tom Irish, Ken and Jean Irish, Mick and Sue (Schiffman) Redman, Rob and Mickey Irish. (Submitted photo)

Jean Irish holds their daughter Pam, alongside husband Ken and his business partner Don Schiffman, with a string of fish they caught at River of Lakes in May 1960.

This new sign for the resort was erected this summer adjacent to the Bagley community sign. (Photo by Correne Martin)

Business partners Ken Irish and Don Schiffman stand on their handbuilt docks in May 1960, less than one year after purchasing River of Lakes Resort.

Don and Ken tend to the self-service minnow tanks back in May 1960.

After buying River of Lakes and opening on July 1, 1959, Don Schiffman and Ken Irish stand in front of one of the original cabins—Florida, which was among three others named Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois—in May 1960.

The current River of Lakes campground business is run by Tanya and Bruce Clark and Greg and Shelly Page. Here is the store as it is today. (Photo by Correne Martin)

Jean and Ken Irish are pictured with their son, Tom, and his wife, Lori, in one of the lead cars for the 60th anniversary golf cart parade and celebration.

By Correne Martin

Another day in Sportsman’s Paradise, at the resort known as River of Lakes in Bagley, is one that embraces nature, fishing, boating, camping, grilling and good company. 

There may be more UTVs buzzing around the streets than golf carts or motor scooters, but 60 years after the popular vacation spot got off the ground, River of Lakes is still a reflection of the simple life.

Buying and forming the resort

Friends Ken Irish and Don Schiffman, from Lancaster, saw an ad in the local pennysaver that Art Dearborn had four wooden boats for sale. 

“I said, ‘Let’s go over to Bagley and buy ‘em for duck hunting,’” recalled Ken, of the conversation with his now late friend. “We looked at the boats and Art talked to us about buying his bait shop and cabins too. We went home and talked to the women and they said ‘no.’”

But the business opportunity had caught enough of their interest that they returned and talked price. That same day, the two spoke with a Lancaster banker; then, a couple days later, made a $7,500 deal on the shop, a small camping area, a couple of cabins and the boats. They took over Dearborn’s Resort on July 1, 1959. 

Don remained employed at John Deere in Dubuque and Ken worked part-time as a bricklayer and assistant game warden. Don was the congenial handyman, and Ken was the businessman. Neither was too diplomatic and they tended to do whatever the other desired. The pair, along with Ken’s wife, Jean, took on the new adventure. 

“I wanted to name it ‘The Last Resort,’ but Jesse Mecum (who had purchased the rest of the acreage north of the bait shop) said, ‘you know, this is actually a river of lakes of the Mississippi,’” Jean smiled. “Now, I think the name makes it more of a destination than a resort.”

Surrounded by farm land that Mecum, his wife Marjorie, and Barbara Barr owned, the new endeavor expanded as Ken and Don acquired additional cabins, mobile homes and even a few school houses. They bought parcels of land here and there from the George Harris estate. They developed about 12 acres over the next three or four years. “It was a little every year as our money came in from running the store and renting the lots and cabins,” Ken said. 

In 1962, a year after erecting a 42-boat dock behind the bait shop, the owners moved half of that cabin and, in its place, built a new store. They continued to operate during construction, as visiting outdoorsmen and resort families counted on them for necessities. The Irishes, with their baby daughter, Pam, lived above the store. Their four sons—Gary, Don, Tom and Rob—came later when the family installed their own home on the other side of the resort. 

In the mid-‘60s, Ken and Don brought some men together to dig a pond from what was then a little spring that came out of the ground in the middle of a pasture. 

Ken said, in 1967, they dug canals, and later put in a boat harbor and built two big docks with about 50 boat slips. We made them right on top of the ice,” Ken said. “That really enhanced River of Lakes.”

“Bob Tubbs and Bob Marshall hand dug that harbor. It’s amazing what they did,” Jean noted. 

Also in 1967, Don married his wife, Eileen. They built a home on the road leading into the resort, where they raised daughters Shelli and Sue. 

Around 1968-1970, the business duo leased land from the Corps of Engineers in order to construct a road to a new campground. Ken said, Tubbs dug the bay out, filled it and then raised the roadway numerous times. 

Ken and Don would eventually purchase 110 acres and develop it in sections, really creating an oasis attracting families from far and wide.

A community of togetherness is born

“Every spring, it was like a family reunion. Everybody would come back with tales of the winter,” Jean remembered. 

Ken added, “We went to the fair after Labor Day, and there wasn’t a soul in camp (at that time). Winters were very quiet.”

Having their children grow up within the community of River of Lakes was utopian, the Irishes believe. 

There were times, like the garbage route, where hard work, laughter and eagerness created an extraordinary bond among the kids and families. Every kid in camp would be at the store early in the morning. At least 10 to 12 kids, boys and girls, would ride on the truck around the resort to collect garbage.

“They’d be down at the store waiting for me to get the truck out,” Ken shared. “A lot of girls met their boys here in camp, and many of them went on to get married.”

The rec hall was also an example of this unique, extended family connection for the River of Lakes regulars. “It was the center for kids,” Jean said, “if they weren’t outside enjoying the water, the beach and the big water slide.”

“Growing up there was one of the best lives a person could imagine,” their son, Rob, said. “Meeting all kinds of people. Always playing outdoors. My best friend, I met at the resort, and we’ve been best friends for 50 years.”

He recalled many nights, as a young boy, when his mom would put him in a bath, but then let him go back outside to play—usually in one of “the three best swimming holes around.”

Son Tom remembered sneaking out with friends at night, when he was a kid, and returning past 11 p.m. when the gates were down by the railroad tracks. 

He recounted, “Don was always there, his flashlight would come on and he’d say ‘Thomas, your parents are waiting for you.’”

As for the parents, people were there for one another whenever a home project or random job came up. 

Especially during the frequent flooding, people came together naturally. Ken and Jean specifically reminisced about the record 1965 flood. All the cabin renters, retired policeman Glen Smith and other retirees worked day and night to sandbag, move property, etc. 

“I remember it had rained all day and all night. We were tired and working and, all of a sudden, we heard horns honking. It was 10 high school boys from Lancaster,” Ken reflected. “They worked off and on. One night, there was a leak in the dike; all we had to do was knock on the door to their trailer and they came out and helped. But we got used to the high water.”

The Irish and Schiffman kids were frequently offered up by their parents to help out around the resort too. Ken said his sons regularly helped move and haul firewood and brush, furnishings or project materials. 

“I grew up learning how to be a people person, how to listen and give advice, and to just get along,” Tom said. 

Pam Irish and the Schiffman sisters were assigned their share of duties too, including caretaking and working at the store, among other work.

“In high school, one of my first jobs was renting out paddleboats and canoes,” Sue (Schiffman) Redman commented. 

The kids had plenty of time for leisure though. In the summer, they gathered at the rec hall, turned up the jukebox and played air hockey and pool. They waterskied and did a lot of fishing off the bank. In the winter, Sue said, they often ice fished, ice skated and snowmobiled.

Over the winter, their house was the hangout for River of Lakes kids and their school friends. She continued, “Our parents would move the pinball and foosball machines into our basement. We’d watch three channels on TV and play board games.”

Shelli (Schiffman) McLimans remembers being the best of friends with the Irishes during the summer and then, once school started, becoming “arch rivals” with one another. 

“The tracks divided the school districts. The Irishes went to Bloomington and we went to West Grant,” she said. 

Where the people came from and what they did

Of course, River of Lakes was consistently a hub for fishermen, hunters and tourists marveling at the picturesque scenery. 

For years, the majority of the campers came from the Quad Cities. “There was a radio show there, called Porky and Ponce,” Jean said. “They came to Bagley to bass fish and they’d talk about us on the radio all the time.”

Ken estimated that about 90 percent of the cabin buyers, at one point, were from that region. Now, he said, families and retirees come from all over, including Chicago, but many are also from southwest Wisconsin and around 30 of them call River of Lakes home year-round.

These days, Jean said, there are actually a few four generation families who still have property or station a camper at the resort.

The resort today

Ken and Jean, now snowbirds who drive to Florida every winter, have seen the resort community balloon to close to a 1,000 people a summer, in their day, and still today. 

On any given seasonal weekend, the new campground is filled with 200 units, easily. The remainder of the vacation spot is filled with 200 to 250 units, which are seasonal or permanent, plus a small mass of weekend campers.

The prosperity established in River of Lakes and fellowship of its residents—both permanent and seasonal—was celebrated Aug. 3, with a golf cart parade that featured 34 outlandishly decorated carts, and a 60th anniversary party behind the store. Both original couples were paid tribute with lead vehicles. Memories and old pictures were also shared as longtime friends met up and reminisced. 

“A lot of former campers and cabin owners from Dubuque, Chicago, the Quad Cities and Milwaukee came back,” said Rob Irish. 

“Some of the first employees were there,” Tom shared. “To see my mother cry twice was out of this world. Some of these people they hadn’t seen in 30 to 40 years. The feeling they needed from this event was wonderful.”

“It was an unbelievable example of how people feel about River of Lakes,” Jean said.

Spending their working and golden years in Bagley was a blessing for Irishes and Schiffmans. 

Though Don and Eileen both passed away within the last year, Jean said she felt none of them “would have it any other way.”

“Work isn’t work if you like it and we enjoyed so much of this,” Ken professed.

Ken and Jean, Don and Eileen sold the River of Lakes campground in 1990 to Tom, Gary and Rob. After about five years, their interest was sold out to Bill and Deb Jeidy, from Fennimore. 

“They did marvelous things,” Jean remarked. 

After owning it for about 10 years, the Jeidys sold to Greg and Shelly Page and Tanya and Bruce Clark a couple years ago. The new owners are also working to improve the property, which currently includes a beach expansion project. 

“They’ve put a nice shine on it,” according to Jean.

The Irishes are happy to see changes, new additions and the favorable future direction of River of Lakes. It has also meant a great deal to them that the owners, since them, have kept the name they selected some 60 years ago. 

“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the help of many who loved it here,” Ken said. “We only hope the same for this resort and this community.”

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