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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
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.