Don Gregerson recalls memories of life lived in Iowa Great Lakes
It’s one thing to read about history.
It’s another thing to watch a documentary covering past events.
And it’s something else entirely to experience them directly.
Don Gregerson, 89, moved to the Iowa Great Lakes in 1944 and has had a front-row seat to some of the area’s most noteworthy events, worked with some familiar names and met some pretty famous folks.
MOM AND POP RESORTS
Running the candy counter in his dad’s grocery store was Gregerson’s first stint in the service and hospitality industry.
This was in Worthington, MN when he was six years old.
“When people came in to pay their weekly bills — back then people charged everything at their local groceries — so when guys got paid on Friday they’d come in to pay the grocery bill,” Gregerson said. “The penny shelf was on the bottom, the nickel shelf in the middle and the top was gum, chewing tobacco and something else. I had to handle the penny shelf and the nickel shelf.”
His dad, Ralph, was forced to sell the business after being drafted to serve in World War II, but in a twist right before deployment a change in protocols didn’t accept men over the age of 36. However, the purchaser wouldn’t sell the grocery back, so Ralph started looking for a new opportunity.
He would find it in the Iowa Great Lakes.
Other members of the family had run various resorts in the area and soon Gregerson’s own parents would join the club after buying the Lakeview Beach Resort from Charlie and Alma Wilson.
“Our family has had a history in the resort business for sure,” Gregerson said. “So I grew up in the family business, in the era of ma and pa resorts.”
Lakeview Beach Resort, later renamed Gregerson’s Resort, was situated in the area where The Ritz exists today.
“My parents ended up with 22 cabins there and Margie and I had 30 fishing boats,” Gregerson said. “We even seined all of our own bait. We used to go out and bring in gallons of minnows. I’m disappointed I didn’t write down all the things that I learned from Charlie and Emmet Wilson. Those guys could smell where the fish were underwater. When they guided for us they were busy all summer long. The could catch fish every day of the week somewhere on the lake if someone wanted to go out and pay them five dollars for a day of fishing. A lot of those things could have been invaluable stories that were not exaggerated fish tales but actual historical happenings.”
THE ICE TRUCK
One event that many folks with even just a casual knowledge of local history are aware of is the sinking of the ice truck on West Okoboji Lake.
Turns out Gregerson knows the driver of that truck pretty well.
“It was about 1947 or 1948,” Gregerson said. “My dad was helping the Allen Ice Company put up ice in front of the amusement park on West Lake. One thing about my dad is he couldn’t swim. He never learned and had always been afraid of water but he agreed to drive the truck.”
Gregerson has given several talks about ice harvest in the Iowa Great Lakes since first being asked to talk about his experiences back in 2001 while he and Margie served as University of Okoboji Winter Games cheerleaders.
He is likely one of the last folks living to help stock the ice house on West Okoboji.
But at the center of this first and most well-known story is his dad, Ralph.
“I was about a freshman in high school I think and when I came home from ball practice Dad was sitting at the supper table and in the ashtray in front of him was a pile of cigarette butts you wouldn’t believe,” Gregerson said. “He was talking to mom — when he got excited he talked extremely fast — and I found out what was going on.”
That day he had backed up the ice truck to the spot where a crew would attach the harness that was used to drag ice onto the truck and haul it to the ice house.
Ralph wasn’t comfortable with the situation apparently and sat with the door to the truck open.
“The guys putting up the ice teased the heck out of him — saying there’s two feet of ice and it wouldn’t break. But it did,” Gregerson said. “I would have to show a drawing of how it went but when it cracked the weight of the truck caused the ice to go up on one end and as the truck was sliding off Dad jumped over open water to solid ice. When the truck fell off, the ice slid back and you could walk right over where it was sitting. Dad took a lot of ribbing over that and a friend even wrote a poem that was published in the Milford Mail with a little diagram.”
To this day the truck rests on the bottom of Smiths Bay, a popular spot for divers and underwater photographers.
ARNOLDS PARK RIOT
Well before the summer of 1965 and the infamous Arnolds Park Riot, Gregerson had joined the sheriff’s department’s pistol shooting team.
“I had been a hunter and shooter, but I was a terrible pistol shooter. The sheriff wanted me to go to a shoot in Algona because if they didn’t have at least four men they couldn’t register,” Gregerson said. “So I went with and out of 30-some people I was the worst shooter in the building that night, but from that time on I was hooked on handgun shooting and made it a point I was going to learn to do it like those other guys.”
By the time he quit shooting competitively, Gregerson figured there were only two guys in northwest Iowa he couldn’t beat.
The competitions introduced him to law enforcement and he learned a lot being a special deputy occasionally called to assist in situations when the sheriff wanted backup.
At some point before the Fourth of July the department got information from officers in Minneapolis that members of a motorcycle group were planning to come down to the park sometime around the holiday to tear the place up.
“The sheriff talked with the county supervisors when he got more information and found out this was factual, and got the okay to organize a special deputy force of 50 volunteers,” Gregerson said. “He brought in outside law enforcement people to train us in how to react in mob control, disturbances, riots, whatever you want to call it.”
Gregerson was second-in-command of his particular squad and was one of a handful of deputies to carry a shotgun and handgun, while the rest carried billy clubs or nightsticks.
“So they had us organized with a system that if trouble showed up someone would make the call and we’d head to meet with our group. Ok, the call came and our squad met at our resort and went up to town hall in Arnolds Park,” Gregerson said.
There they received instructions from the sheriff to head to the railroad crossing near where the Central Park shelter house sits today.
A fire truck was under siege and they were tasked with opening the street and getting the truck and firemen to safety.
“We started hollering orders for everyone to get out of there. We hadn’t even crossed the tracks yet and a bang went off — we didn’t know if someone in the crowd brought a firecracker or took a shot,” Gregerson said. “Then we heard another bang and I saw a piece of concrete the size of a softball go sliding by me.”
When he loaded a shell into his shotgun a rioter took notice.
“Someone in the crowd yelled, ‘good God, they’re armed, get out of here,’ and they just started going. We got down to the truck and got it turned around and headed back to the station,” Gregerson said.
After making an arrest of someone kicking out the windows of a telephone booth on the way back, his squad was instructed to head to the water tower at the top of the hill and get everybody moving, into their cars and out of town.
Then someone decided to mouth off to Gregerson’s dad Ralph and things quickly took a turn for the worse.
Instructed to place them under arrest if they wouldn’t comply with orders Ralph reached through the car window and soon was running right alongside it against his will.
“The motor was running and the driver had kicked it into gear. As he took off I hollered at Dad to let go of him, but I didn’t know the kids in the back had hold of his arm,” Gregerson said. “Then Dad went down in a cloud of dust and gravel.”
Given the green light to stop the car, Gregerson said he had the back wheel of the car in his sights but quickly thought better of it.
But when he saw the taillights of the car at the bottom of the hill where traffic was stopped he made a snap decision.
“I did what I was trained not to do and took off on a dead run down that path. By the time I was a short distance from the car someone saw me coming and both of the doors flew open and people started to flee,” Gregerson said. “The driver made the mistake of being the last one out and ran to go around the front of the car and head toward the Roof Garden and we met right in front of the car. I gave him instructions to get his hands up and that he was under arrest, but he made a terrible mistake and drew back to hit me.”
Suffice it to say that the punch never landed and the driver was subdued.
Backup arrived right about the same time as another kid came running up saying he was one of those from the car but that he didn’t do anything.
He was arrested as well and soon the sheriff was on the scene telling Gregerson he needed to hurry back to city hall.
“He told me Dad had to be rushed to the hospital but wouldn’t go without me,” Gregerson said. “When we got to the emergency room our family doctor started examining him.”
His teeth had been busted to pieces but he’d kept them together by keeping his mouth shut.
One arm was broken, both were torn up from being dragged through the gravel and he had to have his tongue stitched together.
“This is crazy,” Gregerson said. “My dad was afraid of needles and shots and said to just sew it on. The doctor said he has to deaden it first, but Dad says, no, no needles, sew it on. After about three of those I thought I better get some fresh air. I knew I would pass out.”
By the time his dad was patched up and they’d made it back home it was somewhere between three or four o’clock in the morning. Just a few hours until daylight and opening up the resort.
He headed straight back to city hall just in time to see the three guys from the car hauled away.
“There’s no way to sleep after a crisis like that,” Gregerson said. “It took the whole family on a weekend day to get everything done and we had volunteers from the cabins saying they’d clean the boats and clean the car wash and everyone at the resort was helping out that day.”
Someone took a photo of Ralph a few days later standing by the boat house with his arm in a sling. The pictured ended up on that family’s Christmas card and they made sure to send one to the Gregersons.
Tornado damage in the Iowa Great Lakes has been well documented with the first recorded twister in the county touching down in 1936 and another major one in 1968 tearing the top off the original Roof Garden.
Gregerson recalls a big storm in 1952 that sent their resort’s fleet of boats all over the lake.
“It was August and we were expecting our first child,” Gregerson said. “The weather was turning bad and tornado warnings were in effect. People from the cabins were lining up to get in our basement where Margie and I lived because it was the only basement around and safest place to hide.”
He and his dad sat upstairs on the sunporch looking back across Highway 71 and the swimming beach toward West Okoboji Lake and could see how bad the weather had become.
“Dad said we better hit the basement and as we made the turn to get there we saw a tree in the lower part of the yard go,” Gregerson said.
When the storm had passed they exited the basement to assess the damage.
Half the boats were gone and the Fred Wilson boat house across the lake where the Okoboji Store sits now had been picked up and dropped at Chalstrom Beach.
A half dozen or so boats were in front of the resort floating bottom side up, so Gregerson and his cousin got to work using a row boat to tow them back to shore.
“The bay was so full of limbs from the trees there was no way you could run a motor, it was a mess,” Gregerson said. “Some of those trees are actually still there by the Ritz but they’re half dead.”
Some folks had apparently hid in the tunnel under Highway 71 as the tornado went through and had quite a tale to tell afterward.
“People in that tunnel swore up and down they saw the bottom of Smiths Bay where that thing was scooping the water out as it went through,” Gregerson said. “Whether that’s factual or not, I don’t know. My dad and I were hiding out in the basement to take cover and the only damage we had was tree damage and minor damage to the boats.”
During the famous 1968 tornado Gregerson’s son was working at a drive-in restaurant at the Broadway Street intersection where La Barca sits now.
“He was working there at the time it went through and took the Roof Garden,” Gregerson said.
THE BEACH BOYS
When Gregerson heard that the iconic California band was making a return to the Iowa Great Lakes this summer he tried his best to arrange a meeting with the remaining original members.
So he called up Jeff Vierkant, CEO of Arnolds Park Amusement Park, wondering if he could possibly get an interview.
“He asked me why I would want to interview the Beach Boys and I told him, well, they about got me thrown in jail, that’s why,” Gregerson said.
So he relayed a story from the early 1960s when the band, then still in their teens, made their first appearance at the Roof Garden.
“They stayed at the old Inn for a few days before they performed and I was the only one in the area at the time that rented out ski boats to the public,” Gregerson said. “These were big 15-foot Crestliner boats painted bright yellow with ‘Gregerson’ on the side. It was $35 a day with an 18 gallon tank of gas — the second tank they had to buy themselves if you did that much.”
The first day he rented one skiboat to the Beach Boys. The second day they rented two.
“The third day I told them I could no longer rent to them anymore. They said ‘hey, we’re good customers, why can’t you rent us a boat?’” Gregerson said. “I told them, well, because Lake Patrol had come in the night before and said the next time they caught you guys cutting it up out there instead of giving you tickets they were going to come issue me a summons and give me the ticket.”
They assured him they would behave themselves and even pay his fine if it came down to that.
It never did and when the Beach Boys brought in their boats on the last day, Gregerson thanked them and went right to work topping off the gas tanks.
As he was going about that business he noticed something shimmering in the sunlight in the bottom of a boat behind the gas tank.
“It was a gold ring with a pretty stone in it, so I hollered up for them to wait a minute since their Rolls-Royce was pulling up to the boat house to pick them up,” Gregerson said. “I put the ring on my finger and leaned on the car window to ask them if anyone had lost anything. They said no and I clicked the ring on the windowsill and one of them says ‘Don that’s the ring my grandma gave me, I thought I lost it in the lake!’ So I said nope that’s my ring, you said you didn’t lose anything.”
After having a few laughs about it, he returned the ring.
“I didn’t get a nickel out of it, but we had some fun and some laughter out of it, so I just wanted to see if they would remember any of that,” Gregerson said. “They said they weren’t doing any interviews due to COVID, but that’s okay. No big deal. It just would have been interesting to see if they remembered anything.”