(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 31, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

The story of "The Lily Lake," as it is called locally, begins in 1843, when surveyor J. E. Whitcher described a marshland in the approximate location where the lake later appeared. He was surveying the land for the U.S. government, so that it could be sold to settlers. (Iowa was a territory at the time, achieving statehood in 1848.)

It was not until 1855 that mention of the marshland appeared again in recorded history. In that year, my ancestors settled the area and eventually founded seven villages (See map below; click on map to enlarge) that formed a commune called the Amana Society. The marsh was described by the settlers as a place suited only for cutting hay.

What happened next is not clear. We do know that the Amana settlers set about to build a seven-mile-long canal in 1865, using human, oxen, and steam power. Its purpose was to divert water from the Iowa River to provide waterpower to woolen mills in Middle Amana and Main Amana. Its course ran in close proximity to the south end of the marshland.

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

American lotus is a perennial plant that is often confused with water lilies. Leaves are simple, round, bluish-green in color, up to 2 feet in diameter, attached to the stem in center (no slit like water lilies). Leaves are flat if floating or conical if emergent and can stand above the water's surface as high as 3 1/2 feet on the rigid stem. Flowers are large (to 10 inches across) yellowish-white to yellow with more than 20 petals. The center of the flower, the seed structure, is cone-shaped (or like an inverted shower-head) and has openings in which the seeds develop. Lotus can form large colonies and spreads by seeds and large fleshy rhizomes.--Agrilife Extension, Texas A&M University

Leaves have no slit Lotus seed pod

North American distribution
Somehow water from the canal entered the marshland and formed the present-day lake (See map below; click on map to enlarge). What is not clear is whether this occurred as a purposeful act or whether it was an accident. Some oral histories suggest that it was a leaky dike, but others say that the connection was man-made. Its purpose, the story goes, was to create a reservoir that the canal could draw from when the water in the river was low. The first reference to the lake appeared in the 1874 plat book for Iowa County. It showed the canal running directly into the lake.

It was not until the turn of the century that the lilies were first mentioned in print. Unfortunately, no reference was made to the lilies' source. We do know that the lake was, and still is, a perfect habitat for this American Lotus species (Nelumbo lutea). It is only two to three feet deep, with a bed of highly fertile, oozing muck.

Two decades after this reference to the lake, we find it brimming with lilies. So spectacular was their bloom, that visitors from towns and villages in the region flocked to the lake to see their beauty and to breathe in their delicate fragrance.

Much to the consternation of the elders who ran the commune, Amana youngsters waded into the lake--often sinking more than a foot into the muck--to gather bouquets to sell to this unprecedented influx of "outsiders." The lilies were viewed by the elders as a curse, causing a breach in the isolation from the outside world that they had tended so earnestly in the past. Even worse, selling the bouquets provided pocket money that no member of the commune was supposed to have.

A pronouncement by the elders soon followed. The lake would be drained and the offending lilies would be removed. Upon hearing this, the Iowa Academy of Science formed a committee and traveled to Amana to see for themselves what was going on. The elders told them that visitors were trespassing--trampling plowed fields and cutting fences. Even worse, the Sabbath was being defiled, they said, because visitors were disturbing the usual peace and quiet reserved for this day. Worst of all, some enterprising folk were even setting up stands and selling refreshments along the highway that skirts the lake.

Lotus flowers blanket The Lily Lake in August
Quite unexpectedly, the Academy of Science delegation convinced the elders that the lake should remain, provided that visitors respect the desire for peace and quiet on Sundays. They did not, but the historical record gives no clues as to why the elders decided to tolerate the intrusion. Part of the reason may have been that the lilies generally bloomed from the end of July until mid-August, so the intrusion only lasted several weeks. Media reports during the 1920s estimated that on a busy Sunday during lily season, as many as 1,500 visitors came to The Lily Lake.

So the question remains: Where did the lilies come from? The best guess, in my opinion, is that they were planted by the Meskwaki tribe that lived upriver from the Amana villages. These Native Americans were frequent and welcome visitors, coming to the Amanas to trade goods, hunt game, conduct ceremonies in sacred areas along the Iowa River, and to harvest the lotus tubers in The Lily Lake. It is well-known that Native Americans occasionally planted lotus tubers in wetlands containing shallow bodies of water. The women harvested tubers in the fall and strung them up to dry for winter use as a food source. Lotus seeds were gathered, roasted, and eaten as well.

Image Image
The seven Amana villages* The Lily Lake and environs

Today, the Meskwaki no longer harvest the tubers and seeds, and the commune no longer exists. The lilies, however, are still so numerous, that it is impossible to operate a boat on the lake, once the pads and flowers have emerged. If you ever find yourself in Iowa during lotus season, I encourage you to make an effort to visit The Lily Lake in Amana. You won't regret it. A lake covered with so many Lotus Lilies that you can't see the water is an exquisite sight. And the fragrance will take your breath away.

*The seven villages are (clockwise from Main Amana): Main Amana, East Amana, Homestead, South Amana, West Amana, High Amana, and Middle Amana.




My profound thanks go to Peter Hoehnle, Amana, Iowa, a local historian extraordinaire with a treasure trove of information at his fingertips, for researching the history of The Lily Lake and providing much of the information in this article.


Lotus thumbnail: Wikipedia
Leaves: U S. Department of Agriculture
Seed pod: U S. Department of Agriculture
Distribution map: U S. Department of Agriculture
Lily Lake in bloom: Amana Colonies Trails
Seven villages map: Zuber's Homestead Hotel
Lily Lake map: Amana Colonies Trails