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The Storied Past of Metropolis Lake: Cottages, Semi-Pro Baseball, Picnics All Part of 50-Acre Lake’s Heyday in 1930s and ’40s

April 4, 2007

By Matt Sanders, The Paducah Sun, Ky.

Apr. 4– — As spring temperatures rise, throngs of outdoor enthusiasts in western Kentucky and southern Illinois think about going to the lake. However, in the two decades leading up to World War II — before there was a Kentucky Lake or Lake Barkley — Metropolis Lake was a hub of outdoor recreation.

The 50-acre lake nestled near the Ohio River in western McCracken County offered fishing, hunting, boating, camping, hiking and picnicking, and for the sports fans, it was the site of semi-professional baseball. It was the favorite location for young men to court their would-be girlfriends, and for politicians, such as former vice president and Sen. Alben Barkley, to launch their political campaigns.

Since 1984, the bald cypress-ringed lake has been part of the 123-acre Metropolis Lake State Nature Preserve and bears little resemblance to the hustle and bustle as a center of recreational good times. The store, restaurant and cottages are but memories now, and most of the activities these days are nature study, hiking and fishing.

The lake and surrounding property, purchased in 1983 by the Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission, is near the Shawnee Fossil Plant.

It was the impoundment of Kentucky Lake in the 1940s that marked the beginning of the end of the heyday for the smaller, natural floodplain lake, according to Russ Chittenden of Paducah, who was a frequent visitor there while going up.

“After Kentucky Lake became the big go-to place, Metropolis Lake died. But by that time, the lake was overfished and it wasn’t a great fishing lake anymore,” Chittenden, 84, said. “The lake’s biggest appeal was that it was the closest attraction for a lot of people and it was easy to get to.

“My dad was an ardent fisherman and it felt like I grew up around the lake. He was always dragging me fishing with him.”

The catches of the day were primarily black bass, catfish, crappie and bluegill. With the Ohio River less than a half-mile away, the annual high waters from spring flooding naturally restocked the lake, Chittenden said.

When the area was too flooded to fish, Chittenden and his friends opted for the next best thing for teenage boys — frog gigging.

Early days

In the early 1920s, Metropolis Lake was known as Fields Lake and was owned by the five Stafford brothers of Kevil — Earnhardt, Fields, Cecil, Harry and Dewey. The aging brothers’ busiest days were long behind them when they closed their lakeside store, restaurant and cottages in 1944. By the end of the decade, nearly all of the lake activity had shifted to Kentucky Lake.

But on summer Sunday afternoons in the 1930s, baseball was king at Metropolis Lake. A modest field, with a few stands to seat about 200 fans, was home to a Twin States League semi-professional team. The league had about six teams and lakeside games always drew enthusiastic crowds, Chittenden said.

“They weren’t affiliated with anyone and the players made $5 an afternoon. That was great money back then,” Chittenden said. “The pitcher threw toward the lake. Home base was about 100 feet from the water.”

Available for rent were cottages, built on high ground to avoid the annual floodwaters, and wooden johnboats. The store and restaurant and bar offered everything visitors could want, from bait to food to beverages.

The busiest time of the year was the Fourth of July holiday, when an estimated 10,000 boaters, anglers and picnickers would squeeze into the area.

Simple times

One of those faithful Illinois visitors was Horace Burlingame, 85, of Metropolis. Life in the 1930s was easy and slow for Burlingame, who grew up on his small family farm about five miles north of Brookport. To win the attention of a special young lady, Burlingame packed a picnic lunch and spent the day at the lake with his girl.

“I heard about the lake through some friends. They told me that it was an enjoyable place to spend the day,” Burlingame said. “The best way to get there from where we lived was to board the ferry in Metropolis. You could drive your car on there and it was a ride of just a few minutes.

“You’ll have to remember that back then people didn’t have that much money, so we enjoyed the simple things. We’d have a picnic lunch, and then walk among the trees or along the lake. We could rent a boat for less than a $1 a day and row out onto the lake. Rowing a boat was a good way to impress a girl back then.”

By 1941, Burlingame and his girlfriend had gone their separate ways. After the United States entered World War II, he joined the Merchant Marines and it would be nearly four decades before he would return to the region. Burlingame spent a year working on Merchant Marine towboats on the Ohio River. He then went overseas, and after the war called several cities home while working for Mobile Oil.

Burlingame retired in 1979 and came home to Massac County, but was saddened by the lake’s changes.

“Things are so different now,” he said. “I still have pleasant memories of going to the lake. I just hope it’s not forgotten how things used to be there.”

Chittenden also misses the good old days at the lake, but often visualizes the area when it was thriving.

“It really hasn’t changed all that much in appearance, except the buildings are gone,” Chittenden said. “It may look better now because people are not crawling all over it.”

Colorful history

–According to newspaper accounts, there was one frequent lake visitor who never took advantage of the great fishing, boating or camping. Famed author and humorist Irvin S. Cobb preferred to sit against a tree and write until sunset.

–A tall man walked into the Stafford store and looked familiar to Bell Shelby Stafford, mother of the five brothers. When she asked if she knew the gentleman, he said yes and told her his name — Tom Mix, Hollywood’s first superstar of cowboy films.

–A big black car drove up to the store with four strangers — two men and two women. They bought four soft drinks with a $20 bill, not a common sight during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They soon returned and bought four candy bars, again paying with a $20 bill. After spending some time in the picnic area, they made another minor purchase with a third $20 bill. When a fourth purchase was made with yet another $20 bill, the Staffords gave their customers the cold shoulder, and they drove off.

Harry Stafford was convinced the man who made the purchases “was a big-time gangster … maybe John Dillinger himself.” When recounting the story in 1957 to the Paducah Sun-Democrat, Stafford said, “I’ll always believe they were checking our money to see if it was worthwhile to rob us. We did have plenty of money around, but we had guns too. Maybe they never saw them. Or maybe they were passing counterfeit bills and we never caught on.”

Metropolis Lake State Nature Preserve

Metropolis Lake is one of only a few natural lakes in the Ohio River floodplain. The lake is ringed with bald cypress and swamp tupelo and provides habitat for five species of fish, two species of plants, and crayfish that are rare in Kentucky.

The Metropolis Lake State Nature Preserve was dedicated on Aug. 10, 1984. The preserve also is a watchable wildlife site.

Features include a 3/4-mile interpretive trail over moderately uneven terrain, and activities include birding, hiking and nature study.

The nature preserve is located on Stafford Road, just off Ky. 996 in western McCracken County.

— Information from the Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Paducah Sun, Ky.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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