The combination of a severe summer drought and another municipality’s plan to divert water from Effingham’s primary water source spurred officials in the 1950s to build Lake Sara.
It took time for that plan to come to fruition. But once the lake was built, other things followed on the miles of shoreline surrounding 556 acres of land and the 3.4 billion gallons of water to serve its citizens, according the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Today, it's an amenity that is inexorably linked in the minds of visitors and residents alike with the Effingham area.
The new reservoir was dedicated in 1957.
Soon, the area began to see growth. The first land lease for residential development came in 1959. Today, there are about 500 homes and cottages, with about 3,500 residents living at Lake Sara.
Along the way, the Effingham Water Authority was formed in 1955 by voters in the City of Effingham. With more than 600 lots available around the lake, the significant number there have homes built on them today. Smaller cottages are being replaced with larger year-round homes, said EWA Chairman Rob Brown.
Effingham became the first Midwest community to create a water authority for the purpose of securing alternate water supplies.
“In the early years of Lake Sara, it was common for people to drive around the lake to look at the changing landscape,” local historian Jane Ries wrote in an article about the lake, published July 30, 2018. “People were just starting to build cottages on the lake for summer use but most of the lake area was still empty and untouched.”
Ries, now a retired educator and vice president of Effingham County Cultural Center & Museum, r Association, recalls being an eighth grade graduate who was given the opportunity to get a job at the Lake Sara Beach. She made sno-cones and worked at the mini-golf booth and the concession stand.
“I loved the beach since I'd first grabbed a brass ring on the merry-go-round when I was probably 7 years old,” wrote Ries. “When I worked there in 1969, the merry-go-round was gone but there was still that magical train that made the trip from the campground to the beach and back. I loved that train! When I walked down to the beach through the tunnel, I could hear the train whistle mingled with the sound of the jukebox and the voices of people enjoying the beach.”
Tubing, swimming and skiing became favorite activities for Rob Brown, who is now the chairman of the EWA board. Memories from Brown and others were included in a book written by Jack Schultz and Dr. Nash Naam, “Lake Sara, The Hidden Jewel in America’s Heartland.”
“It makes you realize how lucky you were to do those activities,” said Brown.
The book describes how some families came to Lake Sara and stayed in a cottage for the summer months. Some lived in nearby towns, such as Newton or Teutopolis. Others were from as far away as the Chicago area.
“If it didn’t have this lake, Effingham wouldn’t be the size it is now,” Lake Superintendent Mike Dirks said in the book.
And Naam, in his personal tribute, described love for the lake this way: “The bond that tethers the lake to its people is very strong and long-lasting. People will continue to be attached to this lake from generation to generation.”
The Master Plan
Around 2007, after an attempt to enhance the lake with a multifamily housing development failed to gain support from lake residents, EWA began forming committees to look at ways to improve Lake Sara. Fisheries, erosion control, and recreation were among the suggestions.
The committee’s efforts helped EWA fund rip rap shoreline protection for about 5 miles of public shore. Eventually, the EWA was able to buy the public beach back and begin planning for a new multiyear project.
Today, there are people working to bring back things and help generations of families create new memories that will last a lifetime, as well.
As was evident from Lake Sara's inception, sometimes ideas – especially great big ideas – take time to develop. The project has been named the Pearson Peninsula Park because of its location on a 30-acre site at Lake Sara.
But these ideas also take energy, effort and money.
The goal of Effingham Water Authority and its Parks and Recreation Committee to redevelop what was once a hub of activity at Lake Sara is beginning to come to fruition. A long-range master plan has been built after taking input from the community and conducting studies.
Talk about the multiyear, multi-million dollar development project began five years ago. Since then, a master plan has been designed and fundraising is underway for a five-phase project encompassing activities for all age groups. The proposed project comes with 42 identified projects in the plan that will be constructed across several years.
The Master Plan focuses on the future of the redevelopment of the park. During the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the park, under commercial leases, had an abundance of activities with a lakefront beach, pinball machines, water slides and a train transporting people to and from the adjacent campground. It was one of the top outdoor activity attractions in the Effingham area.
Over time, recreation assets were sold and the beach area fell into disrepair, according to a description in the Master Plan book.
Projects proposed throughout the entire development include a disc golf course, playgrounds, parking areas, Pearson Building expansion and renovation, gazebo, a beach house, pavilion and tower, shelters and boat docks. Also in the plan are a connection to bike trails, bank fishing area, landscape work, pedestrian connection to nearby restaurant, erosion control, sand volleyball courts and a boardwalk.
The EWA is working with the Farnsworth Group of Peoria, which about a year ago unveiled the proposed $14.2 million project that would be constructed in five phases over an estimated 20 years.
New memories: Fun, fitness and tranquility
In prior decades, Lake Sara Beach was the favorite place for the Effingham community to spend a day in the sun. Memories were made there. Many of those memories of days gone by are still with people.
Tom Ryan, co-chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee and a resident of Lake Sara, said the beach and surrounding 30 acres are simply too valuable to leave dormant, so volunteers have been working hard. They have created the master plan, raised funds and sought for grants to help pay for the area that will be focused on three things: fun, fitness and tranquility.
“So many people tell me about memories they hold as a kid who rode their bike to the beach,” said Ryan. “One of our goals is to provide something that will provide those same similar memories for future generations. Having just a regular playground won’t do it.”
Ryan said they hope to learn by the first quarter of 2020 whether they'll get grants they've requested from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
“Timing for the completion of Phase 1 is dependent upon funds available,” said Ryan. “The budget for that phase is $1.1 million with hope that it gets covered by grants and private donations. But, we go into this knowing that many grants we are applying for will require matching funds.”
Depending on how much funding is found or donated, the entire master plan of five phases could be constructed in four years – or in 14 years, Ryan said.
“I think the lake is one of the underutilized attractions for the whole region,” said Brown. “The future development will bring more access to the lake and broaden the portion of the community using the lake.”
Brown said the future Pearson Park will make Lake Sara more of a destination and it will add to what exists there now.
“It’s really important to our commercial businesses in the area,” said Brown. “They are stronger as a whole if we have more things to complete the area. This will become more of a destination to add to the restaurants, the campground and the resort at Lake Sara.”
Brown said he’s optimistic about the project, which in reality is expected to take between 10 and 20 years to complete, depending on private donations, grants, and matching fund requirements. The private donations will help fund the matching portions required by most grants.
The beginning of something big
Whenever enough funds flow into the coffer for Phase 1, work will begin there. Eventually, phases two through five, will follow.
Phase 1 includes plans for a nine-hole beginner/medium-skill-level disc golf course, along with a three-hole ADA play access. It includes a large-piece chess court and an ADA fishing dock. The first phase would also bring shade sails, play area for 2 to 5-year-olds, play area for 5-12-year-olds with a pirate ship theme, a climbing wall, native grasses buffer, outdoor music instrument area, a new retaining wall and more.
“We’re getting good response so far,” Ryan said of efforts. “This will be ongoing through the end of 2019. If we manage to get enough for all three playgrounds for Phase 1, it would be phenomenal.”
Phase 1 includes working with the existing beach and the existing Pearson Building. Also planned is a second kayak site on the east end of the lake near the community building.
“One of the goals of the Pearson Park project is to provide more quality activities that all levels of people can enjoy,” said Ryan.
“Combining this project with the Effingham Performance Center, the Workman Sports Complex, and the generally inclusive nature of the Effingham community, provides activities that are unmatched by most small towns,” said Ryan.
Resort and Camping
For those who may not have a house or cottage on the lake, for many years Lake Sara has also been the home to Anthony Acres Resort and Lake Sara Campground.
Anthony Acres Resort offers 32 -- one-, two- and three-bedroom efficiency units, located on a 7-acre peninsula on waterfront property. Each unit is fully furnished with linens, towels, dishes, coffee pots and cooking utensils. Nearby is a convenience store and laundry facilities. The grounds offer a private beach with sundeck; a playground and games such as shuffleboard, tether-ball and horseshoes. Pontoon and jon boat rentals are also available.
It has been family owned and operated for more than 30 years.
“We have the perfect atmosphere for a friends' getaway, fishing trip or relaxing vacation,” said Sandy Flach, director of marketing. “Whether you enjoy fishing, water sports, golfing or simply relaxing outdoors, we have something for everyone. But we feel the most important thing that we have to offer our guests is true relaxation and genuine friendship.”
Flach said over the years units have been added, some have been remodeled, while others were demolished and rebuilt.
She said Effingham has the small-town feel with having numerous restaurants, stores and attractions – including Lake Sara. They think of the resort as “a home away from home.”
“Whether enjoying Lake Sara via boat or land, there is plenty to do,” said Flach. “Lake Sara offers breathtaking views for those coming simply for the scenery. Chances are you will have a few wildlife sightings as well.”
Lake Sara Campground offers many campsites, most being RV ready and a smaller number for tent camping. For people who prefer camping over a resort, there are 135 full hookup sites, which includes electric, sewer, water and cable. There are also 15 primitive tent spots. The campground has a full bath house and a laundry room.
Lake Sara’s future
Ryan said the goal at Lake Sara is eventually see a public park that encompasses a full life cycle. There will be something for all ages once it is completed.
“We hope that toddlers using this park will eventually come full circle and bring their own children to this park decades from now,” said Ryan. “Once completed, there will be things to enjoy as a toddler, as a teen, as a young adult and as an older adult.”
Citizens, groups, businesses or corporations may also contribute to this project by donating to Lake Sara Forever fund within the Southeastern Illinois Community Foundation, a 501c(3) nonprofit organization. Visit lakesaraforever.com or mail a check to Lake Sara Forever, P.O. Box 1211, Effingham, IL 62401.