Ira Nathan's curiosity about his family and ties to Washington County got the best of him one afternoon, and he couldn't help but follow through with some research. Nathan's paternal great-uncle was Samuel Nathan, who owned Nathan's Lake near Fort Calhoun.
Ira teamed up with members of the Washington County Historical Association and dug through hundreds of articles that he could find mentioning Nathan's Lake to present to members of the community Tuesday at the Washington County Museum. Ira's presentation caused quite a bit of buzz as it was standing room only for the presentation.
Ira noted that Samuel, a military cavalry man who served in the Spanish-American War, was scholarly and reserved and also known for being one of the founders of the Grand Masonic Lodge. His wife, Lea Nathan, was a writer for the Omaha Bee, Nebraska's first regional newspaper that was widely regarded for its advocacy and success. Lea wrote under the pen name “Winnie Wise.”
Samuel brought his wife to Nathan's Lake to raise their family in 1906. The couple did not live on the lake, but Ira noted from his research that they visited it every day and really pushed for community involvement through the area. Samuel wanted his family to get a rural upbringing away from the busy day-to-day life of Florence, where they lived.
“I found that the total area that the couple owned of what is Nathan's Lake and the surrounding area totaled to 320 acres and they owned it until the family had to sell it to the federal government,” Ira said.
Today, the lake is part of the Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge.
But it was once home to many different weekend getaway activities, including bazaars, dances, fishing, picnics and even summer resorts. The lake would later be known for hosting a variety of camps and was even home to a movie scene for a pirate film.
Both Samuel and Lea were actively involved with children and sponsored activities and camps to get children active and motivated. The couple hosted St. Cecilia Cathedral Camp in 1924 as well as hosting Camp Morris Levy in 1925. Through Ira's research, he found that Camp Morris Levy was started for children who had never been on a vacation, and cost families $7 per child for a two-week trip at the lake, which would include canoeing, fishing, and other activities.
“Ira and Samuel would often keep the children who were skinnier a little bit longer than the two weeks, just to make sure they were getting taken care of and were well off,” Ira joked.
Lea was also very active in the Florence community through Girl Scouts, she was the president of the Council of Jewish Women, and was an active Red Cross volunteer. Some of the funds raised at Nathan's Lake from activities they hosted would go toward the Red Cross for bandages and other supplies needed for wounded soldiers.
Ira's investigations led him to also discover that the Fort Omaha Balloon School was not too far away from Nathan's Lake. In fact, Ira found that many of the visitors to the lake could see the dirigibles and balloons that the U.S. Army experimented with. This opened the door for many World War I soldiers in training to have picnics and weekend getaways at the lake and gave Lea the opportunity to teach English to the newfound immigrants and their families.
Nathan's Lake was seemingly always bustling with families and people looking for a weekend getaway. The lake was even so well known that it was the setting for a movie scene in 1927 that involved more than 100 children.
Ira noted that even though the lake has changed quite a bit since 1909 when Samuel first brought his bride to the area, it is still known for having a high wildlife population and attracting many bird watchers due to the high volume and variety of species that still roam the area. The lake has filled in with sand and silt from flooding, however the federal government, which now owns the lake and the surrounding area, has been quietly maintaining Nathan's Lake.
“With the help from Julie Ashton and all of the members here at the Washington County Museum, I was able to do a little bit of research over Nathan's Lake and find out so many new things that I didn't know about my family,” Ira said.