A farm boy from Spirit Lake never imagined the adventures he’d experience after graduating from Diamond Lake No. 1 in eighth grade.
Bob Boettcher not only impacted countless engineering projects across the State, but he also served as mayor of Spirit Lake from 1979-1989. He served in World War 2 and Korean wars and was the man who designed the sewer system at the Spirit Lake Hatchery and constructed the windy roads at Marble Beach, Christopher Slough, and Hale’s Slough. Bob is a man who loves an avid conversation and enjoys sharing memories about the area on Wednesday afternoons at the Dickinson County Museum.
“Sometimes I wonder how everything came about, because I was just a farm boy,” said Bob, who turns 100 on January 23, 2024. “But the DNR Engineer Chief saw something in me, in my early twenties, and it changed my life.”
This farm boy grew up attending Diamond Lake No. 1 school, a half mile west of their farm place. He had a knack for motor vehicles and worked hard on the farm near Kettleson Hogsback.
After school, he worked at the gas station in Spirit Lake, which was connected to a café. Bob enjoyed meeting the people who would stop for lunch or to get their car fixed.
“When the DNR Engineer Chief came to town, he would eat at the café. I got to know him well. After a time, he said, ‘Bob, would you like to work for me!’”
Bob received a state car and began working for the DNR out of Spirit Lake. He oversaw the trucks hauling rocks to firm up the shorelines. Bob would work ahead to find the rock piles and direct the trucks. In the winter, they used the ice to get rocks to high banks.
“I would always take the first car out on the ice just to make sure it was secure,” he said. “Chief made it the rule that we had to have a foot on the running board and the door open, otherwise we’d be fired. We never lost a truck through the ice.”
While working for DNR Engineering, another local project Bob oversaw was the implementation of a new sewer system at the Spirit Lake Hatchery. In 1955, they built it from the old hatchery building to Bob’s office building, and then onto the rough fish department farther east.
He also built the roads into Marble Beach State Park, as well as Hale’s Slough and Christopher Slough.
“Chief told me to stake it out for the contractor; just don’t make it straight,” he explained. “Park roads are never created straight, as the curves help slow down traffic.”
Bob assisted with projects for the chief engineer for 15 years. After five years, he was promoted to inspector and met with contractors across the state.
“I was 23-year-old and just a farm boy, but suddenly in an entirely new world,” he said. “Working for the DNR was one of the greatest things to ever happen to me. As a farm boy, I was often scared to talk to people. But after working for the DNR, the chief set me across the state to meet with different people, as well as explain projects to groups.”
The meetings began to grow on Bob and helped him to not be afraid of people.
“I shook a lot of hands, and at first, I pretended I was just talking to someone on the farm. But I would do anything for the Chief. I respected him to the point where I would’ve crawled to Des Moines for him. He helped me grow as a person so much,” Bob remembered. “I don’t think I’ve stopped talking since!”
In 1959, Bob resigned from the DNR and purchased Midway Resort on the south side of Big Spirit.
“It was really run down at that point, and we quickly started fixing it up,” Bob shared. “Thankfully, there was a retired contractor in town who told me, ‘I need something to do! I will work super cheap and help you out.’”
The first thing that was remodeled was the house, where they removed the walls and replaced windows and doors. Bob said the contractor would take the lumber from the house and used much of it to fix up the eight cabins.
Despite never running a resort before, Bob and his wife, Eileen enjoyed much of the experience. Each year, they would update new spaces and added a duplex in place of some of the older cabins. They also inherited wooden boats, which they rented out to the public. Every spring, they had to paint the wood and get it ready for water.
“We always said in the spring, after men would take the boats out fishing, we’d find out which boat Grandma would get wet in. We would find out which ones might spring a leak,” he said with a laugh. “But then I discovered fiberglass!”
During that time, people had few boats and fiberglass options were just entering the water arena.
“I discovered Vacation Village had 12 fiberglass boats for sale! The man tied each boat to each other and brought them over from West Lake. When he pulled them up along our shoreline, it was like Christmas that day!” Bob exclaimed.
One of the main issues with owning a resort at that time was bullhead fishing. Despite signs saying, “No fish cleaning in cabins!”, people would clean them in the night and then would fry the bullheads in grease.
“My wife would go to clean the cabin and you can just imagine the smell! She finally said, ‘I can’t do that anymore,’ and I didn’t blame her. The smell was so bad at times,” he said. “We decided to sell the resort and I got involved with a Ford Dealership in town.”
For the next 57 years, Bob sold and maintained vehicles. From Ford to Dodge Chrysler to later used cars, Bob enjoyed meeting new people and helping them find the right car for their family.
“I loved going to car auctions and there was never a day I dreaded going to work,” he said.
Bob’s Auto Sales was built in 1969 and was located across the street from Central Bank. Bob was always busy, and his garage was often a place where locals came in to visit.
“There was one particular day that stands out to me. Fred Weber came over and said you should run for mayor. I said, ‘I’d think about it!’ But before he left, I agreed,” Bob remembered.
On January 3, 1979, Bob became the next Spirit Lake mayor. Shortly after taking office, the Des Moines Register called him and asked about the city’s plans for their upcoming centennial.
“I remember thinking, ‘WHAT!’ I immediately called Bob Cornell and within thirty minutes, a group of us guys were meeting to brainstorm,” he said. “I also remember thinking I’m just a farm boy and now I’m the mayor of centennial year!”
The group of local businessmen began planning and often met in the hospital’s basement. They ended up hiring an organization that did a lot of the legwork and oversaw volunteer committees. There were many activities, but highlights were a big parade, a pageant depicting the area’s history and a variety of memorabilia for sale.
Bob was mayor of Spirit Lake from 1979-1989, which he found to be a rewarding experience.
“I really enjoyed giving back to a community I love,” he shared. “When you have the right people in the right place, you can do anything.”
In 2019, Bob retired from his used car dealership and sold the property.
“I was so sad to see the building go down!” he shared.
Bob misses many of his lifelong friends, especially a group of local businessmen who would take a fishing trip to Canada every year. From Berkley Bedell to Bob Cornell and Blaine Hoien, there were 11 men who enjoyed the outdoor adventure.
“It was super organized, and we’d pile into a couple of vehicles and have an amazing time together,” he said. “I miss our talks! They were such good friends.”
He’s thankful for the time he had with his friends and feels blessed to have grown up in the Iowa Great Lakes area.
“I always tell myself how lucky I am to grow up here – to live here. Plus, if there is nothing to do, then go fishing. We live in such a beautiful area,” Bob said.
The advice Bob would give to others, especially the younger generation, is the same advice he gave his son Ron growing up.
“Always stay on the good side of people. Pay attention, speak to them and get to know them,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better son and daughter-in-law, so the advice must have worked.”
Attending Country School
In the 1930’s, there were 21 students who attended the Diamond Lake No. 1 School on the northwest side of Spirit Lake, near what is now Kettleson Hogsback. The school was a half mile walk for Bob and his siblings.
“We were big for a county school,” Bob shared. “The largest school in the area was by Montgomery.”
Grace Kettleson was the Dickinson County Superintendent and oversaw all the schools throughout Dickinson County. For a time, Bob’s father Emil was the director of Diamond Lake No. 1 and supervised the school’s teacher.
The teacher would manage grades first-eighth in one room, providing teaching and programming for each particular grade. The older girls would often help with the younger kids throughout the day.
“There was a designated time for each grade, where the teacher fully focused on your age,” he explained. “Then we had to complete assignments throughout the day.”
A coal stove surrounded by a jacket heated the building throughout the year. As the coal burned down during the day, they would put the ashes on top towards the end and bank the fire; then it would be ready for the next day.
“Once the stove was started in the year, we rarely let it go out,” Bob said.
Everyone brought their own lunch each day. The teacher would put food on the stove’s warmer to heat it up. If the weather was good, they would eat outside. There was a recess in the morning and afternoon.
“The boys would always go outside and play. Often the girls would stay inside and talk, but if it was really warm, they would come out and play too,” Bob remembered. “We would play on the backside of the school. Often, ‘Capture the Flag.’ You had to be really sneaky to get to the other side.”
In the winter, they would bring their sleds and use the hill for sledding.
Almost 100 years of countless memories and adventure; Bob has stories galore and he’s always happy to share. Contact the Dickinson County Museum at 712-336-5928, if you’d like to learn about a specific topic from Bob.