Community Builds Life Around Lion-Built Lake

Lions in their natural habitat sleep a lot. And they don’t like water. However, members of the Washington Lions Club in Missouri seldom nap. And they like water so much that they built an 11-acre lake and gave it to the city.

The club is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year and Lions Lake—which was built in 1955—continues to be the crown jewel of the park system in this river city of 14,000 located just west of St. Louis.

In 1954, when the club was just 15 years old, members asked the U.S. Soil Conservation Service to design a lake on city-owned property formerly occupied by a farm. The park commission and city council quickly approved the Lions’ pledged donation of US$7,000 toward construction of the lake.

Washington was a factory town in the ‘50s, and in 1954 the average factory wage in Missouri was US$1.73 per hour. A Blue Cross/Blue Shield family healthcare premium was US$2 a month. Raising US$7,000 may have deterred other service clubs, but not the Washington Lions.

A front-page news story in the Washington Missourian on March 3, 1955, gave them a leg up as the club announced it would conduct a house-to-house canvas to collect white elephant items for an auction. Merchants and residents donated hundreds of items, netting US$915. Other club fundraisers included game night, a second white elephant auction, a rodeo, and a professional wrestling match.

When the lake was formally dedicated on May 20, 1956, more than 14,000 fish were released. At the time, the lake was surrounded by farmland with only one quarter of the shoreline planted with trees. Over the years, Lions and the community have made improvements that have slowly turned a simple lake into a destination.

“Lions Lake is of special interest to local birders and has earned a reputation of attracting unusual birds—like loons and trumpeter swans— from time to time.”

Today the lake is rimmed with giant sycamores and other mature hardwoods, evergreens, shrubs, and flower beds. The city added a walking trail in 1989. Over the decades, the Lions funded construction of four picnic pavilions and a playground.

Lion Jerry Jasper, who served as the city’s Director of Parks and Recreation from 1979 to 2005, was deeply involved in the lake’s largest renovation. “In the early nineties, we took out 800 truckloads of topsoil, completely emptying the lake,” he says. “So much sediment from nearby farmland had drained into the lake that the shoreline was sloping, and algae had become a huge problem.” They cut the banks at a 90-degree angle and armored them with rocks and fencing. When the project was finished, the Lions offered to buy a fountain to keep down the algae and to keep part of the lake from freezing in winter so geese would have fresh water to drink. On its 40th anniversary in 1995, Lions Lake was rededicated.

Vince Borgerding was club president in 1995 when the fountain was proposed. “I really had to fight for that fountain at a city council meeting,” he says, noting that an electric fountain in a lake would add significant costs to park operations. But they won the debate and the club spent US$10,000 for the new fountain. It lasted 22 years. “When it broke, I got phone calls from people all over city asking me what the Lions were going to do about it,” he says. Last year the club paid US$27,500 for a new fountain and presented it to the city to install.

Lions Lake is now the centerpiece of the town—a destination for major family and life events. It’s the site of first dates, engagement photo shoots, and weddings.

No single public property in Washington attracts more visible wildlife. It is home to geese, ducks, turtles, muskrats, toads, frogs, squirrels, and fish. Deer, eagles, and snakes are there, though they keep a lower profile.

Great Blue Herons, with their stealthy fishing tactics, present regal silhouettes throughout the year. “Lions Lake is of special interest to local birders and has earned a reputation of attracting unusual birds—like loons and trumpeter swans—from time to time,” says Donald Hays, who has taught college-level bird biology classes and is a U.S. Geological Survey Breeding Bird Surveyor. The gazebo at the lake is a favorite spot for prom photos and small weddings, and an accessible fishing pier draws people of all ages and abilities, including Jimmy West, who lives in a nursing home across the street from the lake and undergoes regular dialysis treatments.

West has studied the Lake for years and knows when the fish might be biting. On those days—in spring, summer, and fall—he loads his fishing gear on his motorized wheelchair, drives across the road to fish for a few happy hours.

James Feltmann, Sr., 93, is the club’s oldest and longest serving member. He believes club membership continues to be strong because members welcome men and women with various skills and backgrounds. Interested persons must participate in at least two fundraisers before being proposed for membership. The strategy seems to be working. Washington Lions Club, has a current membership of 183, making it Missouri’s second largest club.

In the past 20 years, the club has donated more than US$750,000 to various local charities, but their most prominent contribution will long remain the lake.