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Willow Brook Lake Resort

By Angela Modany

Milestones Vol 33 No. 3


At the bottom of Willowbrook Drive in Ohioville, there is a lake that lies nestled in the valley. Its waters are very calm, with only the wind and geese rippling its glassy surface. There's an old dirt road that goes along its perimeter and along the road is an old outhouse with its door left ajar and a decaying concession stand. This is Willow Brook Lake today, a sad reminder of a once fashionable 1950's Beaver County resort.

Willow Brook Lake's history began between 1949 and 1950 when it was built by Charles E. Luzell. He had a small Caterpillar tractor and with the help of HRL, a construction company in Beaver, they moved dirt to form a dam that created the lake. It was named Willow Brook after the large willow trees that were at the lower end of the lake, and in the late 1950's, the road the lake was on would also be named Willowbrook. The lake was four acres and had a gas line running underneath it to provide gas to the three cabins available for rent there. Those who stayed in the cabins were treated to a relaxing stay of peace and tranquility. With the lake surrounded by lush woods, one would wake up to the sounds of birds chirping. Tenants might have been so lucky as to see a fish jump out of the water and land back in the lake with a splash that broke the silence. Late in the evening, the calls of bullfrogs and crickets would overwhelm the air and the grassy bands of the lake were spotted with lightning bugs. Those who stayed in the cabins all year long had the pleasure of watching the geese, who had been at the lake all summer, leave for the south in V-shaped formations in the fall and admire the reflection of the colorful leaves on the lake's surface. In the winter, guests could watch the snow fall on the lake from the comfort of their cabins as a sheet of ice formed over its surface. A stay at Willowbrook Lake was the ultimate way to get away from the rest of the world.

There were two cabins on one side of the lake, and one on the other. They were equipped with electric, but Norman Luzell, son of Charles Luzell said, "That's about all they had. You wouldn't want to stay in one today." The cabins had a little porch, two rooms furnished with a gas stove, a bed, and a few cots. No indoor bathrooms, but there were three outhouses. One still stands by the lake today. Ads for the lake in the Beaver Valley Times boast of having "Six wells for drinking water if you don't want pop." Donna Sellers Fauser, whose family lived in the cabins for 7 to 8 years, said the cabins did not have running water and she remembers carrying water from one of the wells to her family's cabin in a pail. "We bathed in a big metal tub," she said. "It must have taken quite a few trips to the well to fill it." It is lost to history how much it cost to rent a cabin, but Norman Luzell said "It wasn't much." The lake was mainly open in the summer, but a few families stayed all year round. Some of the families had moved there to work at Crucible Steel in Midland. The majority of the guests were average, local people, but Lillian Stout, a cousin of Luzell, recalls that there were some people that came from Pittsburgh to stay in the cabins and fish. Luzell claimed that they were all "good folks" and kept good care of the cabins. If one was left in bad shape, a Luzell family member would help clean it up.

"For good fishing come to Willow-Brook Lake" another advertisement from the Beaver Valley Times says. Fishing was one of the main attractions for the lake which was stocked with ten different types of fish from Ohio, ranging from rock bass to sturgeon. It cost about a dollar to fish there. There was a small concession stand open that served refreshments for the fishermen and other visitors, which was a real treat, especially for the kids. "Where would you get a bottle of Nehi orange drink without going to Midland?" Luzell laughed. "When my dad had those, all the kids in the neighborhood, boy, we thought we had something when we could buy pop." An annual fishing derby was held for the kids all around the county where prizes were awarded for the biggest fish or who caught the most fish. Fauser remembers throwing stones over the heads of fishermen with her brother at one of the derbies. "Charlie [Luzell] came and talked to my mother and we must have known we were in trouble because we hid behind the house. Well, Charlie found us and put us in his truck and told us he would take us to jail if we threw any more stones. It broke me of throwing stones but my brother loved throwing stones" If fishing wasn't your thing, there was dancing every Saturday night with country music provided by Slim Young, who was a relation to the Luzells. "My dad built a dance floor over by the woods and people from all over would come and they'd square dance. I don't think he ever made a dime off of it, but everybody had a good time." People also went swimming in the lake and Stout remembers there being a diving board on the far side of the lake. "Probably just a board sticking out," she said. In the winter there were skating parties. The upper end of the lake wasn't deep, so it froze over fast and was safe for skating. "My wife and I, we probably skated together and the first thing you know we were married," Luzell chuckled.

One of the most popular happenings that were held at Willow Brook Lake was the raccoon races. Luzell said his dad belonged to the Beaver Valley Coon Hunters Association and had a license to raise raccoons and kept them in cages. As a boy though, Luzell and his cousin Ernie Brown would go out at night to hunt the coons. "Any young boys we'd take with us, we'd tell them we were going to go snipe hunting. Of course that was a joke because there was no such thing. We'd go out in the woods and tell these young boys, some who were from Midland, to watch for a snipe, and if you hear a sound that must be a snipe. We had a lot of fun." To catch the raccoons, they would use coon dogs and once they had one in a tree, they would shine lights on it and shoot it out of the tree.

When it came to the day of the race, which was usually a Saturday or Sunday in the summer, a raccoon was placed in a smaller cage that could be dragged across a cable stretching the width of the lake. People would pay a small fee to enter their coon dogs in the races. The cage with the raccoon was slowly dragged across the lake on a small boat and the dogs would swim after it. The faster the dogs swam, the faster the cage was drug. The first dog across the lake won. The entry money went to the winner and Luzell said there really wasn't any gambling. What happened to the raccoons after the races? "Some you would take home, but most eventually would be slaughtered. We never ate much of them, but people would eat them like you would a rabbit or squirrel. Their pelts were worth money too. So they'd take the pelt and stretch it on a pet stretcher and then it was sold and that's where all you women got your fur coats from." The coon races ended as the lake closed down, leaving only memories and the metal contraptions used to pull the raccoons across the lake behind.

Willow Brook Lake was in operation for 15 to 16 years. It started to close down in the early 1960's because there was too much for Luzell's dad to take care of. Today, the water level has gone down and there are cattails growing in the lower end where, at one time, young couples enjoyed ice skating. There are still fish in the lake, but beavers have made their homes there as well. "As far as the beauty of the lake, the beavers have ruined it. They've taken down a lot of the big trees," Luzell said, shaking his head. With his dad gone, Luzell looks after the lake. In fact, he practically lives right next to it and sometimes goes fishing there. When asked about his dad he said, "The end result was he didn't make a dime but he enjoyed doing it. He liked what he did."

Fauser, Donna. "Willowbrook." E-mail to 'author'. July 22 , 2008.

Luzell, Norman. Personal interview. 05 July 2008.

Stout, Lillian. Personal interview. 21 July 2008.