By Janet Gonter
Like so many things, it all began with a dream.
In 1930, shortly after his first breathless taste of flying as a passenger, 17-year-old Willis Petrie’s dream of becoming a pilot seemed impossible. The Great Depression had begun, and flying lessons cost a prohibitive $25 each. Undaunted, Willis came up with a plan.
The Petries owned a large farm in Robinson Township, and having spent his entire life on the farm, Willis had no desire to become a farmer. But land was plentiful and available. At a low area of the farm, Willis built a dam to form a spring-fed lake. For an entire year, he labored tirelessly on his project. The resulting lake was an amazing 1,500 feet long, 250 feet wide, and 16 feet deep at its deepest point. He named it Lake Steuben.
Word of mouth soon spread that Robinson had a very cool swimming hole, and Willis put his plan into action, charging adults 25 and kids 10 cents to swim. Kids were known to ride their bikes from as far as Sheraden to cool off in the lake. In winter, he charged 25 cents to skate on the frozen lake. Soon Willis had saved enough for his first flying lesson, and before long, he was earning enough to pay for regular lessons. Amazingly, by 1937, he had earned his commercial pilot’s license. He went on to enjoy a long, successful flying career with American Airlines until his retirement in 1975.
Lake Steuben, with its small beach and diving platform, remained a popular attraction into the 1950s. When it was no longer used for swimming, it became a popular fishing spot. For years in the winter, when the ice was thick enough, kids played ice hockey on it. (Rumor has it that sometimes they still do.)
The Petrie farm was sold in the 1980s, and now is crowded with elegant homes in the plan known as Countryside Estates. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has been slowly encroaching, and only about half of Lake Steuben remains today, appropriately flanked by Lake Steuben, Lakeview, and Lakeside drives.
Sometimes you can almost hear the splashing of swimmers and smell the suntan lotion of more than half a century ago when Willis’ dream came true.