Warm weather means time for Lake Wawasee
From a grand hotel to plenty of indoor, outdoor activities
April 28, 2021
The first time I walked into the Oakwood Resort in Syracuse years ago, I expected to be so inspired by an antique portrait of a woman resembling a young Jane Seymour that I would figure out a way to travel through time, just so I could have a tragic love affair with that woman.
If you don’t understand that obscure movie reference, I can’t really blame you. It’s the plot of Somewhere in Time, filmed at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.
The Oakwood Resort
The Oakwood Resort resembles the Grand Hotel, but the Grand Hotel was built in 1887 and the current incarnation of the Oakwood Resort opened in 1996.
I don’t want to go back in time to 1996. I remember it too well.
The Oakwood Resort is meant to evoke the sort of resplendent lakeside hotels that were ubiquitous in Syracuse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those hotels are long gone, although interesting remnants remain.
My day trip to the Syracuse/Lake Wawasee area started with breakfast at the Pier and Back Porch, the Oakwood’s Restaurant.
The Oakwood serves a great breakfast on the weekends. Be sure to ask for their cheesy hash browns, which are not cheesy in the hokey sense, but cheesy in the dairy sense. They are imbued with the finest cheeses available and would be called classy hash browns, if there were any justice in the world.
The Oakwood got its start in 1893 as a Methodist retreat. Methodists went there for “spiritual edification and physical recreation,” according to the Oakwood website.
Nowadays, the Oakwood has no specific religious mission or affiliation. A version of that mission was taken over by Chautauqua Wawasee.
Yes, there is an official outpost of the venerable Chautauqua movement (which started on Chautauqua Lake in New York in 1874) in an office at the Oakwood Resort.
Its director, Mark Knecht, is hosting Syracuse’s first film festival at the Pickwick Theatre on August 7. It will consist of vacation videos shot in that region.
“This will either be very cool, or a bust,” he said.
Syracuse-Wawasee Historical Museum
My next stop was the Syracuse-Wawasee Historical Museum.
Visiting a popular lake community and seeking out its historical museum might seem to you like going to Las Vegas and seeking out its quilting museum.
But a historical museum can give you an idea about why things are the way they are today.
Also, I am a nerdy sort of person.
I spent the night before my visit looking at old newspaper clippings about Syracuse and Lake Wawasee, so I had a lot of questions for the museum’s director, Jamie Clemens.
For example: Was Indianapolis pharmaceutical mogul and Civil War vet Colonel Eli Lilly responsible for having gotten the name of the lake changed to Wawasee from its original appellation, Turkey Lake?
Lilly successfully lobbied to have the name changed to Wawasee to pay tribute to a Miami tribe chief who held sway over that region with his brother Papakeecha in the early 1800s.
The reason it was called Turkey Lake originally, Clemens said, is that someone allegedly thought it was shaped like a turkey.
Frankly, it looks more like a rabbit in mid-leap to me. But I can see satellite views of the lake on the internet and the guy who named it after a turkey could not.
That guy probably knew a lot more about what a turkey looks like at ground level than I know about what rabbits look like from space.
In the days when the families of Eli Lilly and his son Josiah vacationed in Syracuse, there were 20 to 30 seasonal hotels and hostels in the area, Clemens said, some of them quite palatial.
Now there are two.
And there may have been a lot more to do in Syracuse back then, but Clemens pointed out that this was in the days when “streaming” usually involved fishing.
Clemens told me about the Waco Dancing Pavilion where Will F. Tucker’s “Wawasee Waltz” was performed by an African American band from Indianapolis called Hart’s Orchestra.
She played a recording of the song for me and I expected to be so inspired by it that I would figure out a way to travel through time, just so I could dance a tragic waltz with any woman who was willing.
Tragic because I don’t know how to dance the waltz.
In the early 20th century, it was possible to enjoy the lake without owning property on it. It is much more difficult now to get on the lake if you aren’t a landowner.
There are two public beaches in the region, neither of them on Wawasee. They are on Syracuse Lake, which is Wawasee’s watery northern neighbor. The two lakes are connected by a channel.
I decided to visit Hoys Beach, which had been recommended to me many times over the years by tourism boosters.
It was quite a surprise. The beach is only slightly wider and longer than the average suburban driveway.
It’s not so much a beach as an homage to a beach. It has all of three parking spaces.
I couldn’t help but wonder how people enjoy Hoys Beach on a busy holiday like Independence Day. Perhaps they sunbathe standing up.
The beach at Lakeside Park is nicer and more genuinely beach-like.
Wawasee Spink Condominius
If you like history as much as I do, one thing you should do in Syracuse is drive over to Wawasee Spink Condominiums.
No, I am not trying to trick you into a timeshare presentation. I have other ways for you to earn free Disney tickets.
Wawasee Spink Condominiums was converted from the Spink-Wawasee Hotel, which opened on that site in 1926.
It replaced the Wawasee Inn, which had burnt down in 1919. (Almost everything in Syracuse has burned down at least once, Clemens said.)
From the outside, Wawasee Spink Condominiums doesn’t look all that different from photos I have seen of the Spink-Wawasee Hotel, which is sort of magical if your time-travel fantasies have more to do with visiting old hotels than preventing your mom from marrying Biff Tannen.
Of course, thanks to ornate gates, I couldn’t get very close.
I felt like Charlie Bucket, gazing longingly, yet fearfully, through the front gate of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
I half expected a tinker to push his cart by and say, “Nobody ever goes in. And nobody ever comes out!”
Sorry. I have foisted yet another obscure movie reference on you.
Lunch and Dinner in Syracuse
Perhaps the best way to spend a day in Syracuse is to eat and drink your way through Syracuse.
I had lunch at Pat’s Chicago Dogs. I ordered both the Chicago Dog and the Philly Cheesesteak — not because I am a glutton, but because those are two items that are traditionally hard to find on menus in Fort Wayne.
Also, I am a glutton.
Other good options for lunch or dinner include the Channel Marker and the Frog Tavern.
I sat down with Channel Marker owner Steve Johnson for a bit. He said he found creative ways to survive the pandemic by speeding up customer turnover time and adding patio seating in the parking lot.
The Channel Marker offers fresh seafood that is conveyed from Chicago twice a week. It also has a tiki bar and “parking spaces” for boats and (sometimes) sea planes.
The Frog Tavern
The Frog Tavern is really the only place in town where young people can go to drink and dance on the weekends.
It has an enormous circular patio overlooking the channel and a party boat called the S.S. Lillypad.
Owner Doug Shoemaker said he didn’t do too badly during the pandemic, owning to the size of the Frog and its patio.
Even with social distancing, he could accommodate a lot of people.
On Sunday mornings in the summer, the Lillypad takes people over to the Oakwood for an outdoor church service.
Shoemaker shows you a good time on Saturday night and then helps you find forgiveness for your sins on Sunday morning.
What other bar owner could you say that about?
The Sleepy Owl
At the Sleepy Owl Supper Club, you will not only find great food. You will also find one of the region’s most popular bartenders, Chip Erwin.
The restaurant sells T-shirts that say, “I got Chipfaced at the Owl.”
Erwin is a former boat salesman, and he is the go-to guy if you have any questions about boating, boat acquisition, and local real estate.
Erwin said he doesn’t want anyone to come to town and have a negative experience because that reflects badly on everyone.
Man Cave Brewing
I only did a walkthrough of the Man Cave Brewing Company. I have a strict policy of not drinking on the job unless I know I can get away with it.
Man Cave Brewing consists of two shops connected by a hallway: a brewpub in the back and a coffeehouse called Mugshots in the front.
The design of both shops is top-notch, and the Man Cave menu features four kinds of poutine, a Canadian dish that American restaurants don’t always understand the appeal of.
Trust me when I write that true poutine is as different from chili cheese fries as crackers are from cookies.
Kelly Jae’s Lakeside
I decided to eat dinner at a new place in town, Kelly Jae’s Lakeside.
Kelly Jae is a Goshen chef who closed down her place there because of the pandemic, then decided to open a new place in Syracuse instead.
Kelly Jae’s Lakeside is the sort of restaurant that Fort Wayne foodies might want to make special trip for.
I had fried soft-shell crabs, an item I have never seen on a Fort Wayne menu.
I left town without ever having gotten on the water, but I can tell you that pontoon boats are available for rent at Main Channel Marina and the Wawasee Boat Company.
Paddleboats may be rented at the former.
Point of Interest
On the way out of town, I discovered on State Road 13 one of my favorite Indiana attractions to date.
Drivers in either direction are alerted to its existence by several “Point of Interest” signs.
It’s a rusty pipe.
I’m sure there is a rich history associated with this pipe but there is no explanatory plaque. As much as I like history in other contexts, I really don’t really want to know the history of the pipe.
The pipe isn’t asking for any favors. “Be interested in me or not,” it seems to be saying. “I don’t care either way.”
I can respect that.