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Sep 11, 2020

As the two largest natural lakes in Indiana, they have been the scenic locations of summer homes for more than 100 years, with vacation lodging options ranging from waterfront mansions to cottages and bungalows. They've also attracted their share of celebrities and even notorious characters.

Lake Wawasee, southeast of the town of Syracuse in Kosciusko County, and Lake Maxinkuckee - with the town of Culver (Marshall County) near its shores - share glacial origins along with most of the lakes of northern Indiana. (Lake Monroe in southern Indiana is larger than either of the two, but it is man-made.) The two largest resort lakes in northern Indiana are the focus of this encore broadcast of a show that originally aired in July 2018.

The Lake Wawasee area has a rich history that dates back to its time as the tribal lands of Miami Indian chiefs Wawasee and Papakeecha. Col. Eli Lilly, founder of the pharmaceutical business that eventually became an international giant, and his descendants have had summer homes at Wawasee since the late 19th century. A lavish hotel at the lake, The Spink, hosted visitors including Al Capone and Hollywood notables like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Originally built in 1926, the Spink was sold to a Catholic order in the 1940s and remodeled to become a seminary; it later served as a boarding school and was eventually remade into condominiums in the 1980s.

At Lake Maxinkuckee, several generations of the Vonnegut family from Indianapolis enjoyed summer homes. Reflecting on boyhood summers there, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. called the lake "my Aegean Sea" and "my Eden lost." Other famous Hoosiers, including composer Cole Porter and novelist Booth Tarkington, also visited friends or spent summers at Lake Maxinkuckee homes. Tarkington even wrote part of his first bestseller, The Gentleman from Indiana (1899), there.

Two Native American tribes lived along the shores of the lakes since at least the early 1800s.

Charles BraunMiami Indians lived on the Lake Wawasee site that later became the location of the Spink Hotel. Potawatomi Indians lived at Lake Maxinkuckee, which occupies about 1,800 acres of spring-fed water and is 88 feet deep at its deepest point.

Two guests with lifelong involvements with the resort lakes join Nelson in studio:

  • Fort Wayne native Charles Braun, the attorney who hosts Legally Speaking, the WICR-FM call-in legal advice show, shares insights about Lake Wawasee. Over a span of nearly 100 years, five generations of the Braun family have rented or owned property on Lake Wawasee. For many years, Charles' mother owned a condo at the former Spink Hotel


  • And Culver native Jeff Kenney, the archives manager for the Culver Academies Museum, who regularly provides historical commentary on boat tours of Lake Maxinkuckee.

"Maxinkuckee is one of the most studied lakes in the world, thanks largely to the work of biologists Evermann and Clark, whose massive, two-volume study published in the early 1920s is still taught today in classes related to freshwater biology," Jeff says.

Culver Military Academy, the private, college-prep high school, is located at Lake Maxinkuckee, but the full story of the school's history awaits coverage in a future show. We've got plenty to dive into with the resort lakes, where history continues to unfold. A cover story in the July 2018 issue of Indianapolis Monthly magazine noted that at Lake Wawasee, the historic Oakwood Resort has reopened, reporting, "The 125-year-old lodge hosts a salon, spa and the Pier Restaurant , with a great view of Wawasee's many expensive boats."

Referring to Kurt Vonnegut's affection for Lake Maxinkuckee, the magazine notes: "The author couldn't have fabricated a more scenic locale in his novels . . . Indiana's second-largest natural body of water offers shoreline restaurants, well-lit trails and a small town full of boutiques."

Original sheet music for the waltz inspired by Lake Wawasee. Courtesy Indiana Historical Society.According to our guest Jeff Kenney, the arrival of a railroad to Culver in 1884 "launched the plethora of summer cottagers who settled on the lake . . . bringing some 7,000 visitors from across the state to Maxinkuckee on any given summer weekend." Current owners of homes at Lake Maxinkuckee include Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, and a brother of Vice President Mike Pence.

At Lake Wawasee, the original Spink Hotel was built in 1926 by Indianapolis entrepreneur Edgar Spink at a cost of $350,000, according to our guest Charles Braun. The hotel was operated for several years by his two daughters, who made it a nationally known resort, with opportunities for gambling among its enticements.

During the show, Charles also discusses Syracuse Lake, which is near Wawasee and doesn't have as much of the larger lake's "abundant boat traffic," as Indianapolis Monthly puts it. The magazine refers to Syracuse Lake as "a quiet alternative."

Some history facts:

  • Maxinkuckee ice was an export of the area in the days before modern refrigerators. "[It] was sold, thousands of tons of it, all over the Midwest from 1880 to 1937," Jeff Kenney says.
  • A Hoosier who was among the survivors of the Titanic shipwreck in 1912 became the head gardener at Culver Military Academy.
  • A musical composition called the Wawasee Waltz was written in the mid-1890s. The Syracuse Public Library and the Syracuse-Wawasee Historical Museum have posted a recording of the waltz online, along with period postcards of lakeside activities.