By Meredith Jackson | Photography by Julie Carter
Irene Huff considers the cottage area of South Side Country Club one of Decatur’s best-kept secrets. A long-time neighborhood resident, Huff loves the history of the place and the good-neighbor principle that’s a way of life there. Residents of Lake Grove Club and Homewood Fishing Club, however, likely would counter that their home turf is equally charming.
All three neighborhoods began in the 1910s and 1920s as fishing clubs with cottages near ponds and close to Lake Decatur, which was created in the early 1920s. Through the decades, owners transformed the cottages — originally sans plumbing and electricity — into cozy, year-round homes.
Some eventually were torn down and replaced with larger homes, while others were added on to as needed. While the houses’ structures changed, the essence of the neighborhoods remained constant, which is what continues to draw residents today.
Eleven years ago, Carla Brinkoetter fell in love at first sight with the view from her home in Lake Grove Club, northeast of Nelson Park.
“It’s all windows across the back of my house, and you see the lake through them,” says Brinkoetter. “When I walk in, I forget the rest of the world.”
The Homewood Fishing Club, established in 1914, actually had a name before it had any permanent dwellings.
“Originally, it was an ordeal to get to that area,” says Homewood Fishing Club President Joe Foster. “Until the cabins were built in the 1920s, people spent weekends there in tents around the pond.”
Homewood Fishing Club first came to Foster’s attention more than a decade ago, when he purchased a car from a resident. Foster kept his eye out for that particular house to come on the market, and when it did, he bought it. He also got great neighbors in the bargain.
“When we have a project, we all work together to put it in,” Foster says. “It makes you feel that you’re part of the community, and you appreciate it more.”
Karen Schneller, executive director of Decatur Memorial Foundation, owns a cottage in the South Side Country Club area, nestled in southwest Decatur. This is where she escapes for the weekend with her husband, Fred.
“On a Friday afternoon, you can just leave work and go to ‘the Hamptons,'” says Schneller. “It’s a whole different world. There’s no TV, no computer — it’s just a place to enjoy the weekend and rest or relax.”
Schneller’s not a golfer, but she uses the golf course for dog walking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. And like Foster, she appreciates her neighbors.
“Many are professionals who have retired, and they are interesting people from all walks of life,” Schneller says. “It’s an eclectic group.
“There’s always a get-together in the fall, the cottage picnic. There aren’t many other organized events, but it’s not unusual to find a note on your door (inviting you) to come over on Friday afternoon for drinks.”
While Schneller is a relative newcomer to the South Side Country Club cottage area, Huff can trace her family’s history there as far back as 1904, when her grandmother owned a cottage. Her earliest memories involve lake life of long ago — perhaps not so different from what it is today.
“There was a three-deck tower that we could jump off, and then get stuck in the mud!” Huff recalls. “And in the winter, we’d have chili suppers on the pond and ice skate.”
Perhaps everyone’s most beloved neighbor in the South Side Country Club cottage area is 89-year-old Char Smith. In 1953, she and her husband, Jim, moved into a cottage there, and she’s never wanted to live anywhere else.
“It was probably the best place in the world to raise our two daughters,” Smith says. “We never cared about driving anywhere else. We never wanted to leave because there were other children to play with. There was golf, swimming — so much to do.”
In 1968, the family tore down the original cottage on their lot and built what Smith calls “a common, ordinary home.”
“We were crowded, and it just wasn’t the nicest,” she adds. “We had running water, but at that time we didn’t have city water. We were ready to move on.”
Smith gets nostalgic when she reflects on her neighborhood. Not for the fifty-plus houses themselves — which vary from original cottages with additions to more modern homes — but for the neighbors whose children played with her daughters and who hosted holiday parties, and friends who comforted her when her husband died of cancer in 1979.
“To begin with, I did not know how I was going to make it,” Smith says. “However, neighbors are so good to everyone, and I didn’t have to worry. I didn’t have to lock my home. I felt secure.
“I had lots of friends that supported me, and there are still friends here that support me and are so good to me.”
Huff feels the same way. Though many “cottage” friends have come and gone, many also have stayed. And a neighborhood once comprised of mostly young families is now an older generation.
“Once you live here, you want to stay here, though not necessarily in the same cottage,” Huff says. “So those of us who were here in the fifties are still here. But our children and grandchildren come to stay with us.”
All indicators that the continuity of cottage life — the swimming and fishing, the impromptu gatherings, and the kindnesses of neighbors — will continue in these beloved neighborhoods for generations to come.
Contributor Meredith Jackson spent childhood summers in a cottage on the coast of Maine, where she read paperbacks, played countless games of Scrabble, and ate fresh strawberries and lobster.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of Decatur Magazine.
It may not be reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part without the publisher’s consent.
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