On the Record with... Liz Nelson and Dona Willard

ISLAND LAKE – Tours started this summer to take visitors and residents through the winding channels and curves of Island Lake.

The tours, which are open to the public in exchange for a recommended $10 donation a person, are a partnership between the village of Island Lake’s Lake Management Committee and the Historical Society of Island Lake.

Liz Nelson, a member of both groups, thought up the tours and teamed with the historical society’s secretary, Dona Willard, to run the tours, which use pontoon boats volunteered by residents.

Island Lake was established in 1929 in an area that was just rolling farmland, a gravel pit and Mutton Creek, according to a history provided by the historical society. The Great Depression stunted initial development of the community but eventually more families settled in the area or built summer lake houses there.

The village of Island Lake was incorporated in 1952, and Joseph Willard, Dona Willard’s father-in-law, was its first village president. The village took ownership of the 80-acre lake in 1975 and eventually established five public beaches and a boat dock at Eastway Park.

Reporter Emily Coleman sat down with Nelson and Willard at Eastway Park where the boat tours launch to talk about the tours and the lake.

Coleman: What was the goal? What was your thought behind establishing the tours?

Nelson: People who live here and have lived here for years say, ‘Oh, we have a lake. Oh, we have islands.’ I said, ‘The name of the town is Island Lake. And we have two islands not one.’ People don’t know. I thought how incredible is this. The women in the office, who have been here 15-20 years, have never been on the lake. They know we have a lake, but they’ve never been on it.

I thought we have to expose the lake. I’m on the Lake Committee. People need to know we have water and that it’s accessible. People think it’s private. This is a public park. Anybody in the world can come here and use the water.

Willard: When Liz came to us, I had heard that Wauconda had boat tours and someone in Fox Lake has boat tours. ... I said what I think is interesting is how scenic, how beautiful this lake is, and the long history of trying to keep a small town working.

You have to have enough people to support the community, but not too many that you have 52 water skiers in this little bitty lake. It took us many, many years to where I think it is the ideal situation.

Nelson: Dona knows everybody and every house and the history of the tornado that came through. It’s just interesting, so we sort of made our own little conversation.

Willard: But it changes every time because your passengers – we’ve discovered – are more out-of-towners than they are Island Lakers. People talk to their friends and they go, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know Island Lake was here and [how] scenic and beautiful it is and the wildlife.’ We found our tours that go out at dusk are incredible. You see turtles and herons and birds, everything. You see all the ducks. I love it.

Coleman: What’s your favorite fact or story that you tell on the tour?

Willard: Everybody wants to know about the house on the island. They find it very interesting. When this was developed, they sold the lots, but they kept the title to the island. They sold it – and I understand got a good price for it – to a couple from Evanston I think who thought it would be really cool to live on an island until they built the home and discovered what a pain in the neck it is to live on an island.

It was OK for a summer home, and most of the people at that time were summer homeowners. They were not year-round residents. Many of them had a great deal of money, and they didn’t care that they could be out here a few weekends or just in the summer. They could afford a summer home.

Then the house was vacant, and the village said, ‘Let’s hire somebody to watch the house. We’ll develop it into a park, and we’ll have a field house and all kinds of activities.’ They hired a nice young man who lived there for years. They had big dreams but not a heck of a lot of money. They rented it for a while.

We drained the lake one year because there was a drought and the water was half gone anyway. The fire department drove their truck out there and practiced. They set fire to the house.

Coleman: What do you hope to do with the donations from the tours?

Nelson: Last year we did not shovel the lake anywhere except a few people did their ice rinks, but they used to shovel a big hockey rink right here. We are proposing this year that we shovel.

But last year because not many people shoveled snow – we had a lot of snow and it was cold – and so we had fish kill, [a] big time fish kill. If there is no snow on the ice, the fish can get oxygen and breathe, but the snow blocks it. We are now pushing to have this area and Veterans Park definitely done, but we have five beaches on the lake and we’re looking for permission to get five beaches shoveled.

And now they’re trying to raise money to replace the fish.

Willard: For the historical society, it’s not enough money to do what we really like to do eventually, which is to have a building to keep as a museum, but we are acquiring more and more documents as the old-timers pass I’m sorry to say. It’s all history.

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