Wilson Family Captures Local History for Over a Century!

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For over 100 years, a member of the Wilson family has been tracking the ice formation on the Iowa Great Lakes. This love of the water has been a lifelong affair for the family. Moving to the Lakes area in 1889, William Scott Wilson bought the Okoboji Store in 1890 and operated it along with Wilson Boat Works.

From selling boats to ice fishing, everyone from Lou Wilson to present family members Alex and Karl Ewen have all had a passion for the region’s waters, especially East and West Lake Okoboji.

In 1916, Lou Wilson began recording when the lakes completely froze and when they completely opened back up.

“As you can imagine, this would be quite the undertaking when my great great-grandmother Lou began the tradition,” Alex Ewen said. “She would drive all the way around both East and West Okoboji to make sure each lake was completely ice free, which in 1916 was slightly different than in today’s world.”

The data recorded is intriguing and patterns can be displayed through the family’s records. Alex said when you look at the 1933-1939 period and then the late 1980s, which were both drought years, the lakes froze somewhat early. During the late 1990s, the area experienced very mild winters and the lakes froze extremely late.

“Their main reason they started keeping track of the ice dates was their love for the lakes, but it also gave them an interesting hobby to do during the winters, when hunting season closed and before fishing started up again,” he added. “During the summer months, Lou would take her boys out fishing, nurturing their early love for fishing and the Lakes.”

The Wilson family records show that the earliest freeze date for West Okoboji has been November 29 and East Okoboji is currently November 4, while the earliest ice out date for West Okoboji is March 13 and East Okoboji is March 3. East Okoboji's late freeze record was previously January 2, 1933, and this year it froze January 4. West Okoboji's previous latest freeze record was January 13, 2007, and this year it was January 15.

Obviously, the number one factor for making ice is cold temperatures but snow cover also plays a big variable.Snow acts as an insulator so even if the air temperature is extremely cold, the ice underneath will often not freeze evenly.

“For example, this year East Okoboji froze before a five-inch snowfall so that snow cover affects the rate at which the ice underneath will thicken. Good clear ice is always the most desirable since it is the strongest,” Alex shared.

Lou Wilson kept track of the ice from 1916-1931. Her son Zeke Wilson took over from 1931-1993. Kirk Ewen continued the tradition from 1994-2019, and his sons Alex and Karl have been monitoring the data since 2020.

Not only did the family monitor the ice, but they would also spend countless hours ice fishing. Originally, they began fishing with simple metal buckets out in the open, especially before the ice had thickened. In 1950, Zeke started fishing out of improvised “ice shacks,” which Alex said were simple wood houses built on top of ski’s.

“They would be designed to be lightweight, so they could easily be pushed out by hand before the ice was thick enough to drive vehicles on,” he explained. “My great grandfather Zeke initially used a small coal burning stove to heat his shack.”

Before the days of electronic depth finders, fishermen would have to find depth and bottom structure with a lead weight attached to the bottom of the string. Summer was often the time to look for spots and then they would use landmarks to triangulate the location of fishing places to where they wanted to go back later.

The holes were cut out of the ice with what is called “spud bars.” These were usually made from an old car axle with a steel blade welded onto one end and a handle constructed on the other end. Depth would be determined by measuring how much line it took to get to the bottom.

“You would manually chop it into the ice to make your hole. This was long before the days of even manual ice augers,” he added. “This method got to be ‘really’ fun once the ice passed eight inches thick. It was easy to tell if you were on rocks and a little more challenging to tell the difference between sand and mud.”

Ice shacks have changed from homemade wooden designs to lightweight portable ones that can easily be pulled by hand. In Zeke’s days, metal spikes were worn on the boots called “ice creepers,” creating just enough traction to push the shack nearly a mile.

“Aside from these portable ice shacks, the biggest innovation in the last 30 years has got to be electronic depth finders. These have completely revolutionized the sport,” Alex said.

He added that his grandfather’s advice for ice fishing was to find a nice bottom structure like a pile of rocks when looking for fish, “Zeke had a few favorite spots that still produce fish even today. Of course, they are family secrets!”

Alex added that his granddad Zeke was so protective of his spots that he would pretend the fish weren’t biting by stuffing large walleyes down his pant legs when walking back to shore. “Then the other fishermen would think nothing was biting since he wasn’t carrying a bucket of fish,” he said.

When the lakes make ice, they tend to make loud pops and occasionally banging noises, since the ice is expanding. There would be times when Zeke would be fishing in his shack and the lake would make a huge bang causing the water to shoot out of his fishing holes - inside the shack.

“I can’t imagine experiencing something like this because I would be terrified,” Alex said.

Most of Zeke’s life was spent out on the water. His brother Fred took over Wilson Boat Works, but that didn’t mean Zeke didn’t spend countless hours helping him or enjoying time fishing from a nearby dock. Zeke also assisted Roy Smith at the Okoboji Store deliver groceries to Okoboji residents by horse and wagon.

When he turned 18, Zeke worked for Eagle Boat Lines, operating boats on West Okoboji, and in 1923, he worked on the Queen with his uncle and grandfather.

In the spring of 1924, Wilson joined forces with Tom Olson at Okoboji Store, renting boats, loaders, selling boats, tackle and gasoline before operating a bait and gasoline business from the dock near his home, until his retirement in 1972.

“Zeke told us that in 1924, it was 15 cents a gallon, and in 1972, it had gone up to 33 cents,” Alex said. “Boat rentals were once $3.40 a day and that included the gas.”

Alex and his brother still enjoy fishing yearlong on the Iowa Great Lakes, carrying on their family’s love affair with the area lakes. He said they are lucky to have their great granddad’s handwritten notes of all his old fishing spots, even if some of the landmarks are now gone.

He’s also thankful they can continue the tradition started by Great Great-Grandma Lou in 1916, a priceless record that holds great value today.

“I’m proud of my family’s history in the Iowa Great Lakes since 1889. It was a tradition started not to make money or receive attention, but because our family loved the Lakes and there wasn’t a whole lot to do in the winters back in the old days,” Alex exclaimed. “Now, we have this unique and priceless record for everyone to see over 100 years later.”