New lake in Saunders County brings back old memories.

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August 22, 2011 - 7:00pm

Lake Wanahoo, just north of the Saunders County community of Wahoo, is nearing completion. It's designed to provide recreation, flood control and wetland restoration for the area. But for many local residents, the lake's name brings back fond memories of another era, of a place called Wanahoo Park, which included a pool and a unique dance hall.

Wahoo resident Bob Copperstone even remembers a specific polka band that would play there.

"It was quite a wonderful, expansive dance hall, if I remember right," he said. "Everyone came there on Saturday night. It was just jammed. The Six Fat Dutchmen played there; I know most of the big dance bands did."

That's a group Dick Harding remembers, too.


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Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Click here for a slideshow of images from Sand Creek and Lake Wanahoo.


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Local residents relate memories of Wanahoo Park.


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Dick Harding shares more memories of growing up on Dance Island

"There was one group that would come, that dad would try to book once or twice a year, and they were the Six Fat Dutchmen out of New Ulm, Minnesota," he said.

Harding remembers the dance hall well because he literally grew up there. His parents, Earl and Mildred, operated Dance Island from 1948 to the mid-1960s.

"I grew up listening to polka music, although I'm not of Czech heritage," he said. "But it was a wonderful cultural experience. A lot of the people who would come out there were of Czech or Polish heritage, so it was always fun listening to them talk and everything."

The bands that played at Wanahoo Park aren't the only memorable experience. The venue itself is something many in Saunders County remember. Harding describes old photographs of the place, bringing to mind images of something more like an exotic resort.

"That's a picture of the bridge and the moat, and in the background you can see the dance hall," he said.

Harding remembered up to a thousand people attending dances there.

"We had a lot of farmers who would come out there," he said. "A long, hard week of out in the fields and everything, and it was a place they could dance and have a few drinks and see a lot of their friends. So it was a very social place."

Rich Breunig of Wahoo recalled a jammed parking lot once when the Six Fat Dutchmen were playing.

"We decided we'd see where we could park, drove out there, then came back to town and parked and walked out," he said with a laugh. "There was no place to park. The place was just full of people."

While Harding had the pleasure of growing up there, it also meant he was put to work.

"We couldn't sell liquor or beer or anything, so dad sold set-ups, and people could bring their own bottle and beer and everything," he said. "So we sold pop, and my job was to open pop fast so we could sell it."

Dance halls in Nebraska's small towns are a common. But the one just outside the Saunders County town in eastern Nebraska had an uncommon setting.

Filled by a water wheel in Sand Creek, the moat around Dance Island provided all sorts of entertainment for area youngsters. Copperstone remembered a father-son fishing contest as an eight-year-old.

"The one who caught the most bullheads won," he said. "We didn't catch any, but we tried, and I had fun with my dad."

There'll be a new fishing hole soon in the area. Lake Wanahoo, named for the old park, is a Natural Resource District project on the north side of Wahoo. John Miyoshi, Lower Platte North NRD general manager, said it will be operated with fishing in mind.

"There is no wake boating on the lake, (which) means no power boats, no skiing, no jet skiing," he said. "For a lake this size, that's really unheard of in this part of the country."

Fishing will begin this winter or next spring. For now, the dam at Lake Wanahoo is providing needed flood control for the area. On average, Miyoshi said, flooding closes the two main highways in Saunders County two and a half times per year.

"We did close highway 77 and 92 once this year," he said. "We had one extremely large run-off event, a seven-year event, and while we don't completely control all the flooding, there's very high flood damage reduction, especially as we start getting toward the 100-year events. "Saunders County has more bridges than any county in the state, so it was a primary reason for construction."

The project also restores the Sand Creek watershed in the area.

"Places where 30 years ago you could jump across Sand Creek, today it's 15 feet deep," Miyoshi said. "So when we lowered the streambed, the adjacent wetlands also drained with the lowering of the water table, so the wetlands were lost. In fact, 97 percent of the wetland values in the Sand Creek watershed have been lost over time. "

In coming years, the dam will be part of the highway 77 bypass around Wahoo. Some local residents, like Copperstone, are concerned that could hurt businesses in town.

"We're losing a lot of the drive-by trade when the highway skirts around Wahoo, and (we're) kind of counting on the lake to fill in some gaps."

But Copperstone sees the positive of the new lake, too.

"I'm really looking forward to fishing there," he said. "I hope to catch a bullhead, at least, to make up for what I couldn't do when I was a kid. Dance Island is gone, but Wanahoo lives on in the new dam, which is about a half mile away. I hope it doesn't confuse any future historians for that reason."

Sand Creek flows into and creates the new Lake Wanahoo. It's the same Sand Creek that flowed past the old Wanahoo Park, and which supplied the water for the moat around Dance Island. And in the end, the proximity to Sand Creek also led to the end of the unique facility.

"Every time it flooded we had to re-sand and refinish the dance floor, and it got to the point where if there was one more flood, there was no wood left to refinish and re-sand," he said. "And that was pretty much the demise of it."

That last flood happened in 1963. Some say it was a 100-year flood. It ended the days for the dance hall on an island, tucked away in the middle of Nebraska. But while the place may be gone, the memories live on.

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