In their early morning and evening flights each day, the big wild pigeons flew in flocks so numerous that the sun was often blocked from view. (The male was up to 16 inches in length.) The clear water, the closeness of the forests, the richness of the grass also attracted the white-tailed deer in huge herds. They were often stalked by the gray wolf.
Thousands of ducks, geese, swan, cranes and many other waterfowl enjoyed the remote area of the big lake and the surrounding swamps. The American Bald Eagle had a favorite place to nest on Eagle Nest Ridge east of the present town of Enos, a two and a quarter acre island with a rise of twenty-five feet with huge trees for nesting.
The enchanting and mysterious Beaver Lake, once the largest body of water in the State of Indiana, was ten miles long, 7 miles wide with depths up to fourteen feet, covering 36,000 acres. There was a large area of clear open water dotted by islands capped with large oak and hickory trees. The south shore had many arms and inlets, with sandy beaches sloping to the water's edge.
Surrounded by swamps, rush and reed, the wild and beautiful area was found to be a favorite place for the Native American, the fur trader and the early Newton County pioneers. Gordon Saltonstall Hubbard (1802-1886), a fur trader for the American Fur Company (owned by John Jacob Astor), established a trading post on the nearby Iroquois River in 1822 and soon married Wach-a-kee, the fourteen year old daughter of Chief Tamin, head of a village a few miles away. Years later the town of Watseka, Illinois, was named after the young Indian princess. In his travels Hubbard marked a well-known trail which wound through many Illinois villages, including Crete, Beecher, Grant Park, and Momence (the "Hubbard Trail").
The Indians and the pioneers lived a fairly peaceful existence and often aided one another in their hunting and fishing.
Two and a tenth miles north of Enos and about ½ mile west of U.S. 41 was the site of a sand island, blown by the wind and the waves from the west and northwest. Steep cliffs on the east and the southeast sides were nearly 75 feet in height, topped by large oak trees and surrounded by heavy undergrowth. A long sloping sand beach from fifteen to twenty five feet high led to the island on the northwest, where a large cave was dug out of the sand, supported by large logs.
This was the hideout of horse thieves and counterfeiters between the years 1837 to 1858. The big sand dune was called "Bogus Island" due to the fake coins made there by the rough gang who often traded stolen horses and gave bogus money in the bargaining. Their closely guarded entrance on the northwest side of the island was over a chain of low islands and swampland where rafts were used to transport both man and beasts.
The counterfeiters and horse thieves were raided in 1839, and a few were captured by the vigilantes, but other gang members soon returned and continued their unlawful operations until 1858, when they were finally driven out by lawmen, including the Milford Regulators and the Grand Prairie Rangers who were trained to deal with desperadoes.
Lemuel Milk (1820-1893), also known as the "Prairie King," was a businessman from the Kankakee, Illinois, area. At one time he owned an empire of 40,000 acres in the marshes of Illinois and Indiana. He brought property at Enos Grove in 1850 and recognized the value of thousands of acres of land under Beaver Lake.
As early as 1852, there had been some attempts by the State of Indiana to drain the big body of water, but it only caused the shoreline to recede ten feet.
In 1873, with better types of equipment available, Lemuel Milk began to dig the "Big Ditch" from the north shore, a deep channel connecting Beaver Lake to the Kankakee River, a distance of 4 ½ miles. The restraining dam was opened as hundreds of interested spectators looked on as the greater part of the waters of the big lake rushed down the ditch on the way to the river, and soon the fishing and hunting grounds of several generations were wiped off the map. The draining was not welcomed by all the inhabitants.
The ditch drained all but 1/10 of the lake, though most of the marshes were dry. Another 20 years went by before the whole lake was completely dry. In 1893 Milk hired a crew to destroy the stone shelf on the Kankakee River at Momence. Milk's share of the drained land was 12,000 acres that he used for his huge cattle operation.
In 1885 Lemuel Milk deeded 4400 acres of the lake bed land to his only daughter Jennie M., for one dollar. Jennie, born in 1855, married George Conrad in 1878, and they soon divided the property into smaller units of 160 acres to 320 acres, which were rented out to share croppers.
The big farm was called "Oak Dene" with three-quarters of the acreage under cultivation.
George Conrad died suddenly in 1896, leaving Jennie a widow at age 41 when son Platt was 16. Determined to run the business in 1905, Jennie M. Conrad had negotiated with the Chicago, Indiana, & Southern (Later New York Central) Railway to come through the town of Conrad that she was planning, because she needed a place for shipping cattle and produce. Her livestock had been driven to Roselawn and shipped to the city on the Monon Line in previous years. Her dream of the Town of Conrad became a reality by 1908 when she presented plans to the county, and soon there was a stockyard with a capacity of 5000 head of cattle, a block plant, hotel, railway stations, a combination general store and post office, church, school, a central park and cottages for employees.
Many reasons, including the Great Depression, caused the fall of her little empire and by the early 1930's her village was a ghost town. Jennie M. (Milk) Conrad, called eccentric, elegant and determined, died in 1939 when very little was left of the Town of Conrad.
The beautiful lake, the Indians, the fur traders, the pioneers, and the counterfeiters have been gone for decades past a century, and now U.S. Highway 41 crosses the old Beaver Lake bed between Lake Village and Enos. As you are driving there, try to imagine the former beauty and the mystery of that enchanted area.
The old Ghost Town of Conrad can now be visited by the public due to the efforts of the Indiana Chapter of Nature Conservancy, and Jennie Conrad's dream town is now a part of the Kankakee Sands Project. The Chapter acquired over 7,000 acres within the historic lakebed of Beaver Lake, including 640 acres at Beaver Lake Preserves, 809 acres at Conrad Station Savannah and portions of the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area, all now home to many rare and threatened species of plants and animals.
Before you visit, they recommend calling or writing to the Kankakee Sands Project office at 3294 North U.S. 41, Morocco, IN 47963 (west side of 41, two miles north of Enos). Tel. 219-285-2184.
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