One of the oldest operating resorts in the Iowa Great Lakes and located in the heart of Arnolds Park, Fillenwarth Beach offers their guests the ultimate summer vacation. Open May 1 through October 3, something is always happening, and laughter is commonplace.
“We are more than just a place to stay and rent rooms, we treat our guests like family, and we get them out on the water,” said Rachel Fandel. “We watch families grow up summer after summer.”
The family-owned lakeside resort provides accommodations of fully-furnished cottages, studios, and apartments located on the lakefront or nearby with West Lake Okoboji access. The 96 units can accommodate between two and 18 people.
Fillenwarth Beach continues to renovate all of their units. In 2020, they completely gutted and renovated 16 units. This past winter, 14 units were renovated with new kitchens. Across the resort, each unit has received new bedding.
“The rooms have a coastal living look and feature a Tom Gustafson drone image,” said Fandel. “We want to stay relevant but comfortable for our guests.”
Where It All Began
The resort is fashioned off three generations of Fillenwarth family ownership and ten decades of experience; first started by Arthur T. (A.T.) Fillenwarth and his wife Sadie. Arthur was a lawyer in Sanborn, IA, and in 1918, he purchased land in Arnolds Park and built a simple cottage for his family to have a place to relax. The “Old Faithful” cottage wasn’t large and had no windows, but awnings and screens covered the openings.
One day a man came by and offered to rent the lakeside cottage for a week. A.T. couldn’t refuse the offer, and the family moved back to Sanborn during that time. After receiving further offers, A.T. decided to build seven more summer rental cottages. Selling out quickly, the entrepreneur realized there was a rental demand for cottages, and he built 12 more lake bank cottages below the first six. By 1930, he had 36 operating summer rental cottages.
His wife Sadie handled the resort’s laundry, reservations and acted as a receptionist. Their son Kenneth, who was born in 1924 at the cottage, grew up immersed in the resort business.
“He would always joke to say he was born in the swimming pool, as the original cottage was later turned into the indoor pool space,” Lynn Fillenwarth said about her dad.
From his early teens, Ken helped build docks, make repairs and show units to prospective guests. His favorite passion was giving guests the Okoboji experience by taking them out on his rowboat, equipped with an outboard motor. In his later teens, Ken enjoyed teaching guests to ski on his Chris Craft, especially the pretty girls.
“My dad was the heart of why we offer complimentary recreational options at Fillenwarth,” Lynn said. “He would say they come to Okoboji to get on a lake, let’s give them Okoboji.”
After being drafted into the Army in 1944 and serving in combat duty in Germany and occupation in Japan, Ken returned to pursue his college education at the University of Iowa. While at law school, he met his wife Ruth, whom he married in April 1950.
Ruth set up her own law practice in Estherville and Ken joined the practice in May 1950, while continuing to assist his father in running the resort. The couple had two daughters Lynn and Julie, who both learned the ins and outs of the resort business from an early age.
“We grew up here, lived our entire lives at the resort,” Lynn shared. “Our staff is family, and our guests are family.”
In 1966, the present Fillenwarth Beach office construction was completed. However, on June 13, 1968, the resort was struck by a tornado, which demolished most of the rental cottages on the main beach. The damage left only the newly constructed office building and the original cottage still standing, both only suffering minor damage. In the fall of 1968, construction began on the present large chateau building on the main beach.
“Through the years, we’ve had our share of tragic events and you have to learn to roll with them. Whether it was the 1968 tornadoes, 1993 floods or the current COVID-19, you need to have stamina, determination, and nimbleness to make decisions that are best for the resort,” Lynn said.
Fillenwarth Beach experienced substantial growth in the 1970s, after purchasing the former Parkview Motel, which created Fillenwarth South Beach. The Cottage Colony was added in 1978, with the acquisition of Gateswood Resort. During this time, “Old Faithful” Cottage was converted into the indoor pool at the Main Beach.
While Ken ran the resort, his wife Ruth continued to practice law in Estherville. “She was his confidante and consultant,” Lynn said. “She also loved helping with the landscaping and flowers.”
Through all the changes, Fillenwarth Beach has strived to keep up with the times. In 1998, the resort rebuilt the 1938 sea wall at the Main Beach. They transformed the old wall into the “Seawalk,” which now provides gas grills for family barbecues, lounges for sunning and viewing of beautiful Okoboji sunsets.
Lynn and Julie continued to learn the resort business, while also following in their family’s footsteps of becoming attorneys. Lynn joined her mother at Fillenwarth and Fillenwarth in Estherville, as well as her husband Richard Meyer. Julie practiced law in her early years but decided to eventually help her father in the running of the resort.
“Julie made the place more upscale. She had great taste and was an artist herself,” Lynn shared.
Initially the resort was decorated in mid-20th century modern, and Julie brought Fillenwarth Beach into the 21st Century.
“She also did a really good job of making sure the staff was better trained, whether it was adding triple sheeting or providing daily maid service,” Lynn said. “Julie was also a driving force in the community!”
Unfortunately, Ken passed away in 2014, and Julie’s short life was taken by metastatic breast cancer in 2017.
Lynn is the last living Fillenwarth, who has cut back from her law office hours to assist staff like Fandel and Lisa Kraus.
“I have a striving desire to keep this place successful, but the tasks are much easier when you have staff that also know the business thru and through,” she shared. “We are one big family and have many staff members who have worked here for 15-30 years. Even college students come back year after year.”
Ready for 2021 Summer Fun
With multiple unit updates over the winter, Fillenwarth Beach is excited for the 2021 season. Lynn said advanced reservations for the season were extraordinary.
“It’s early to have a waiting list at the beginning of April,” she shared.
Reservations can only take place a year in advance and are only taken via phone or email. Staff will take the reservation and use a paper copy for reference, a method Lynn’s grandparents also used.
“While we do put everything online, seeing it all in one place is actually beneficial. We can see how to make it work for a family to stay a week, even if it means moving from one unit to another. You can’t see that online,” she explained.
The resort also only takes check or cash.
While COVID-19 impacted them greatly last summer, the resort was able to recover some profits towards the end of the season.
“There were actually some good changes we implemented last year that we are going to continue, as we wondered why we hadn’t done them sooner,” Lynn said. “We are always looking for ways to improve.”
Complimentary Recreational Options
Fandel has this year’s arts and crafts planned, which are available daily for both children and adults. Throughout the week, there are Monday Night Live Band Acquaintance Nights, Wine Tasting Hours, and Chocolate Tasting Events.
The resort provides guests with an indoor and outdoor pool, as well as complimentary daily boat cruises. Fillenwarth’s Sun Runner boats have become familiar images on West Lake Okoboji. With sun-drenched decks and complimentary beverages, the two custom-built 49-foot Kenner cruise boats are a favorite among guests.
“The kids call it the cheese and cracker boats, while adults call it the cocktail cruise,” Fandel explained.
The resort also offers guests the “History” cruise, which is an hour-long event on a 24-foot Sea Ray. The “Million Dollar Home” Cruises are a relaxing boat trip viewing elegant homes along West Lake Okoboji.
Following in Ken Fillenwarth’s tradition, water skiing lessons are provided for beginners. Experienced drivers also take the Pro-ski boats out for veterans. Lynn enjoys helping with sailing ventures, taking out the 28-foot E-scow sailboat for guests. There are also paddleboats, canoes, and rowboats available for use.
Other areas of the resort provide activities like ping-pong, pool, and video games. Movies, board games, and playing cards are also available. There are tennis courts and pickleball located on the South Beach property, along with a second basketball hoop. There are playgrounds located at Cottage Colony near the outdoor pool and a second is next to the indoor pool. The Main Beach Dock also hosts a basketball hoop and tetherball, while sand volleyball is near the outdoor pool.
“Guests can be as active or relaxed as they see fit,” Lynn said. “From simple relaxation on the docks and decks to busying the schedule with full-filled activities. With our fully-furnished kitchens, many guests will make most of their meals but will also enjoy a night out at a nearby restaurant. Fillenwarth is in the heart of Arnolds Park, allowing easy access to so many activities.”
The Fillenwarth’s have seen many changes in the resort business. Gone are the simple summer cottage that were only “air conditioned by God.” All updates made each year are always emphasized on guest comforts and taking care of the “Fillenwarth Family.”
“Being we are a family resort; we draw in families and this is very important to us. We have families who come year after year, asking for the same unit at the same time,” Lynn said. “We make change for the better, while respect what has been done in the past. At the same time, always working together with the same goal.”
It is easy to see why Fillenwarth Beach can be trusted to provide a great Okoboji vacation – they’ve had 103 years to perfect fun!