Near the Tulip Bend of the Red River in northwest Fannin County lies another reminder of how early Twentieth Century Texans sought relief from the blistering temperatures of the long, hot days of summer.
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At the turn of the last century, on the present-day site of Lake Fannin, a smaller body of water was created by impounding the flow of a natural spring in the area. In 1902, there was a two-story frame house with a detached cookhouse near the lake that served as retreat for Bonham families escaping the summer heat. A local resident named Beulah Harvey, whose family owned the land that eventually became part of the Lake Fannin project, cooked for the visitors staying at the “country club.”
Fast forward to the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created a shopping list of alphabet agencies to deal with an economy struggling with the Great Depression and with an increasingly desperate population struggling just to survive. The mandate of one of those agencies, the Rural Resettlement Administration, made it the single agency dealing with work and relief efforts in America’s rural areas. With the aid of Congressman Sam Rayburn of Bonham, Fannin County landed one of the largest RRA projects in the country. The centerpiece of the effort was the building of Lake Fannin.
Less than a decade later, Rayburn would be instrumental in the creation of another lake in North Texas. It would be a lake whose boundaries would spread far beyond a single county or a single state. Its name is Lake Texoma.
Like the Denison Dam/Lake Texoma project that would be completed during the 1940s, construction of Lake Fannin was a project that put people to work and put money in their pockets. Before the lake and buildings were finished, more than four hundred workers, mostly drawn from the relief rolls, would be getting paychecks and spending the money with local merchants.
Lake Fannin was an ambitious undertaking. Plans called for a seventy-five-acre lake, a lodge, bath house, caretaker’s house, sixteen vacation cabins, a latrine, fire pits and a boat house, all on the west side of the lake.
The centerpiece of the project was the lodge on a bluff overlooking the Red River to the west. Built of locally quarried stones with timber roof beams, it served as a dining hall and gathering center. Pine paneling covered the interior walls and two large stone fireplaces dominated the room. Fireplaces were also a dominant feature in the cabins on the lake.
Lake Fannin Park, which opened in the summer of 1938, proved to be a popular recreation spot from the very beginning. One report says 2,000 cars drove down the narrow road to the lake the first week it opened.
On July 22, 1940, the Bonham Daily Favorite wrote: “The entrance…resembles a scene plucked from a travel folder and placed in a perfect setting of rolling hills. Many thousands visit Lake Fannin during the summer months, play in its inviting waters, dance in its lodge, breathe its invigorating air and go home refreshed and ready for another struggle with a workaday world.”
The opening of Lake Texoma, the end of wartime travel restrictions, the boom of new cars and the growth of power boats and recreational boating gradually took their toll on Lake Fannin. The Forest Service closed the park to the public in 1954. Over the next few years, the property was leased to a variety of groups, including a Fort Worth church that ran a summer camp for teenagers each year.
In 1970, Congress tried to revive the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps with the Youth Conservation Corps. Over the next decade the YCC occupied the camp, but in 1980, the effort folded and the Lake Fannin complex was left to the solitude of the forest.
For a time, there was still an onsite caretaker, but he left in 1991, and the lodge, cabins and other buildings became targets for vandalism. It looked as if Lake Fannin and its buildings and its history would be swallowed up by the encroaching wilderness.
It was not to be. The dawning of a new century brought new hope for the camp on Lake Fannin, when a volunteer group of county residents began working to restore the site and put it back into public use. Under a U.S. Forest Service volunteer program called “Passport in Time,” the Fannin County group, joined by volunteers from all over the country, is now working to restore the lake and the camp to what it was when it opened to the public in 1938. The site is now listed with the National Register of Historic Places.
When the operation to save Lake Fannin, its buildings, and its history began, the first order of business was shoring up the lodge. “It was still in pretty good shape, but it had to be dealt with,” said Gabe Parker of Ivanhoe, president of the local volunteer group.
“Then we went to the bathhouse. It had some serious issues that had to be addressed, and then the latrine. In that time we also worked on the septic system, so in essence, that’s the physical plant that’s needed to support just being out here,” said Parker. He said the latrine is now operational with hot and cold running water, showers and restrooms.
Once restoration of the lodge and latrine was completed, the lodge began to book events. Today, the bookings at the lodge include weddings, receptions, family reunions, banquets, parties and even a comedy/mystery theatre in the fall.
With the latrine finished, the Passport crew moved on to cabin restoration. Originally there were sixteen, each with a stone fireplace, screened porch and sleeping accommodations. Four of the cabins have been restored. When the work is completed, eight of the cabins are expected to be fully restored.
“Eight of the cabins are not in shape to be restored,” Parker said. “The area will be cleaned out and then turned into a picnic area.”
In the cabins now open for viewing, visitors can marvel at the simple rustic style of the dwellings, the original design of the fireplaces, the “cross ventilation” above the windows, and the original hammered-metal hinges made by blacksmiths on site.
Located north of Ivanhoe, the Lake Fannin Park is open from sunup to sundown Friday, Saturday and Sunday and most days during the week from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. The grand opening for a four-mile-long bike trail is slated for early May 2009.
Parker said that within the next year or two the group expects to have at least five of the cabins available for rental. Work on the former bathhouse is almost finished. Parker said he expects that by summer the bathhouse will be available to rent to small groups.
Parker estimated that 75 percent of the total restoration project is complete. Still to be restored are a couple of cabins, the boat house and a few more campsites. He said he expects all the work to be completed by 2011.
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