The Lily Lake

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on April 19, 2019

The Lily Lake


Another body of water that played a role in my young life was a lake we simply called the Lily Lake or more casually, “the lake.”  Like the Gräwel, the lake was close by.  It has an interesting history.  When the Amana people first settled the area, there was no lake.  It was simply a low spot in the landscape and had, on occasion, been a hayfield.  That changed in the 1860s, when the Amana Society’s elders decided to build a millrace to power two woolen mills.  The seven-mile-long canal they constructed ran right next to the low spot cum hayfield.


Like its name implies, lilies populated the lake.  Being a gardener and a horticulturist, I feel the need to add that these lilies are technically not water lilies but American Lotus lilies.  Water lily pads float on the water’s surface, lotus lily pads stand on stiff stems above the water.


In any event, shortly after the canal was constructed, there was a breach in one of the dikes, causing the water to flow into the low spot, flooding the 170-acre field.  Voilà, a lake!  It’s only about two feet deep, but wading into it causes you to sink into just as many feet of muck.  The lilies are thought to have been planted by the Meskwaki, a Native American tribe living about 50 miles to the west.  They used to harvest the tubers for food.


The lake was a favorite fishing spot for me and my friends, but it was a challenge to cast your line among the lilies.  We tended to fish in the springtime before the lilies emerged.  In the fall, the lake became a favorite spot for duck hunting.  Blinds dotted the water and hunters deployed decoys around them.  As a young boy, Dad sometimes took me along to his blind.  I would help him set out his decoys at the beginning of the season.  Otherwise, it was pretty boring, sitting in the blind waiting for a flock of ducks to appear.


In the wintertime, if the conditions were right, the lake became a gigantic ice rink.  We would all carry our ice skates to a spot on the lake that had good ice.  The first order of business was to build a fire to warm us up during and after an afternoon of skating.  Someone usually brought marshmallows to roast or even a large metal coffeepot containing either coffee or hot chocolate.  It was a social event that I always looked forward to.  Even adults would bring their skates and skate with us.


A few duck hunters left their blinds in the lake during the winter.  It was a gamble, because the shifting ice could damage or destroy them.  One winter day my friend, Jack, and I hit upon an exciting idea.  We wondered what we might find in the blinds that were stuck in the ice.  Sans skates, we headed for the lake.


The first blind was a disappointment.  It was completely bare.  But the second blind offered up a forbidden treasure:  A forgotten half-gallon of grape wine.  Containing alcohol, the wine was still liquid despite the cold temperature.  We were both underage, so this would be our first experience with an alcoholic beverage.  What excitement!  And no one would ever know!


We passed the jug back and forth and reveled in our find.  Before we knew it, we had finished the whole half gallon.  As we were partaking, a familiar car drove past slowly on the road that ran along the lake.  “Is that our car?”  “Sure looks like it,” Jack responded.  We both ducked down behind the walls of the blind.


We were getting woozy now.  I didn’t feel so good.  Jack didn’t either.  We thought it best to head for home, hoping to make it to our respective bedrooms and crash on our beds.  In order not to be detected as we headed back to our homes, we followed the frozen Gräwel,staggering and falling frequently.  If we could make it up this hill, we decided, we’d each be about a block from our homes.  When we got to the hilltop, we both broke into a staggering run, falling frequently.


I made it home and tried to sneak into my bedroom without anybody seeing me.  I thought I was home free--until I reached my destination.  Mom was lying on MY bed, reading a book.  She gave me The Look.  “Did you have a good time?”  I don’t know if the car we saw was really ours, but somehow the message got to her.  Most likely someone else in the village had seen us and called Mom.  Without another word, she got up and left the room.  I was really nauseous now.  My younger sister appeared in the doorway.  “Mom told me you might need this,” she said as she handed me a familiar large metal bowl.  And none too soon.  I nearly filled that bowl to the rim.  My sister offered to take it to the bathroom and flush its contents down the toilet.  On the way, she yelled downstairs to my mother, “Mom, it’s purple!”

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About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at

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