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Outdoor oasis: Shabbona Lake State Park a 40-year success story

Shabbona Lake State Park a 40-year success story

In June 1968, state Sen. Dennis J. Collins, R-DeKalb, looked out at the small trickle of Indian Creek, open farmland and rural homesteads, and envisioned what it could be: a state park for DeKalb County.

Collins was giving a tour of what would become Shabbona Lake State Park to William Lodge, state director of conservation. According to a 1968 Daily Chronicle story, Lodge “liked what he saw” and “said it was perfect.”

As Collins neared retirement, he wanted to leave behind a legacy. He loved the outdoors and wanted to share his love of nature with others.

“My father loved to promote the outdoors, and one of his lifelong goals and legacies was to bring a state park to DeKalb County,” said Dr. Dennis Collins, the senator’s son.

Collins retired from the Illinois Senate in 1972 after 42 years of service.

He died unexpectedly in 1974, four years before the opening of Shabbona Lake State Park.

Although he never saw the completion of the park, Collins’ advocacy and vision led to the creation of a sprawling outdoor recreation destination for 500,000 people each year for four decades.

“Bringing the state park to Shabbona was a success story for everyone involved,” Collins’ son said. “It is a boost to the community and everyone can be proud of having the park for 40 years.”

The amenities

Shabbona Lake State Park, 4100 Bluebird Lane in Shabbona, features 318.8 acres of lake and 1,550 acres of park land. The lake, designed specifically with fishing in mind, features more than 12 species of fish. The park has been nicknamed the “Muskie Capitol of Illinois” and “Illinois’ Best Fishing Lake.” Four state muskie records and two state hybrid crappie records have been set at the lake.

The park has eight miles of hiking and cross-country skiing trails, 150 campsites, two cabins with electricity, boat rental including pontoons, kayaks and row boats, a bait and tackle shop, a restaurant, hunting areas and opportunities for winter sports, such as ice fishing, sledding and snow shoeing. The park also contains a 15-acre seasonal nesting area for migratory waterfowl such as canvasback, redhead and pintail ducks and Canada geese.

Mike and Beth Herring of Chicago visited Shabbona Lake in mid-June for the first time with their three daughters.

“The park is really gorgeous with all of its trees and wildlife,” Beth Herring said. “We saw deer and rabbits. I like that it’s so peaceful. It’s close enough to home to get to easily, but it feels like we’re hours and hours away.”

Linda and Paul Massey of Brookfield come to the park multiple times a year to photograph dragonflies.

“We used to take the kids camping here when they were little, and now we just come for the day to take photos,” Paul Massey said. “You can do everything here, it depends on if you want to be active and busy or sit back and relax by the lake.”

History and creation

On May 19, 1965, state Sen. Collins introduced a bill in the state Senate appropriating $30,000 to the Department of Conservation for a feasibility study on the construction of a lake and state park in DeKalb County. The bill passed the Senate 48 to 1 on June 8, 1965, and the House 149 to 4 on June 30, 1965. On Sept. 2, the bill was signed into law.

On May 25, 1967, the Department of Conservation entered into a contract with an engineering firm from Jacksonville for the feasibility study. The firm studied multiple sites in DeKalb County and determined that the Shabbona area would be best suited for a large lake and state park. The Conservation Department followed the firm’s recommendation and plans were initiated to build the lake and park.

Upon learning of the park’s approval, Collins said, “I believe the Shabbona area will be an ideal location for the park. … It will provide a fine boating, fishing, camping, hiking and picnic area for thousands of people.”

In 1969, Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie approved the release of $375,000 for the initial purchase of land and in 1970, he approved $1.8 million of Illinois Building Authority funds for the further acquisition of land.

Collins sponsored legislation in 1971 to name the lake “Shabbona Lake and State Park in DeKalb County,” and it was signed into law by the governor. The name was chosen to honor Chief Shabbona of the Potawatomi tribe. Later, the restaurant in the park was named Pokanoka’s Cafe after Shabbona’s wife.

In 1973, construction began on the dam and spillways. The dam was completed Aug. 25, 1975, and the lake was filled by May 2, 1976. At its deepest point, the lake is 40 feet deep, but averages 17 feet deep. The earthen dam, half a mile long and about 50 feet tall, cost approximately $1.5 million. When completed, the lake and park project cost a total of about $3 million.

However, at the time of its creation, not all local residents approved of the state park.

“When the lake was first proposed, a lot of people were against it,” said Denny Sands, whose family has leased the park’s concessionaire since 1998. “People thought that the weight of the water could cause an earthquake or the dam would flood and bust, killing people downstream. Now, 40 years later, people love the lake and park. They travel here from all over.”

In 1982, when attendance to the park was down, Sands helped organize a group of fishermen to keep the park open. The Sportman Club, founded in 1982, and the Friends of Shabbona Lake State Park, established in 2015, help preserve the park. Projects the groups have worked on together include refurbishing a fish rearing pond and adding fish cribs to the lake.

Rich McElligott, current Sportman Club president and Friends member, said the clubs work together to help the lake and park succeed.

“We all pitch in to make the park better,” McElligott said. “The projects bring all of the clubs together. … The park being 40 years old is proof of good management, hard work and dedication through the years. With all of the people that enjoy the park, all the good memories and all of the people that still come, the park will be open for at least another 40 years.”

Future of the park

Debbie Armstrong, executive director of DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the park is “a huge draw and tourist attraction to the county.”

“The state park is great for all generations, families, couples, guys, girls, it just appeals to everybody,” Armstrong said. “Part of its appeal is that it is maintained so well. So many people are invested and love the park, it’s not hard to see why it has succeeded and continued through the years.”

Annual events held at the park include multiple fishing opens and derbies, Illinois High School Association’s Bass Tournament, Pokanoka’s Trail Run/Walk benefiting Safe Passage and the Fourth of July fireworks display over the lake.

Future plans for the park include creating a beach area to allow swimming, creating a mobile app of the park’s trails and adding two shelter pavilions with electricity at the youth group camping area.

Thom Serafin, an attorney who has represented the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nations in the past, said he often visits the park with his children as a retreat away from the city.

“When you’re out on the lake, it’s like you’re on another planet, it’s quiet and relaxing without any of the hustle and bustle from the city,” Serafin said. “The lake is so close to the village of Shabbona, it’s an easy drive from DeKalb or the Chicago suburbs. It’s such a great opportunity to have such a pristine piece of Mother Nature right in our backyards.”

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