A group of residents in Townsend recently raised $4,000 in 24 hours to begin groundwork for restoring Laurel Lake to its former glory.
Now the grassroots community organization called the Laurel Lake Restoration Committee is asking residents throughout Blount County to contribute to the effort to refill a man-made lake many throughout the area enjoyed until it was drained in 1993.
Members of the Laurel Lake Restoration Committee took County Mayor Jerry Cunningham on a tour of the former Laurel Lake on April 23. As they walked the perimeter, volunteers manning heavy equipment cleared brush and trees that had grown up since the lake was drained.
Cunningham has memories of the lake and is supportive of the community efforts, he said. The mayor asked why the lake was drained, and what it would take to get it refilled.
“Since they drained it, this has been a dream of mine,” Cunningham said of re-establishing the lake. “When this was full, it was 30 feet deep.”
Originally, four or five branches drained into the lake. “The water here was clean. It had fresh water,” he said. “What I’d like to see is if we can do it in a safe manner.”
Cunningham said refilling the lake would make the county-owned land an asset to everyone in the county because it could be a recreation area. “The way it is now, it’s not an asset to anyone,” he said.
The mayor said volunteers have done the work so far in raising the money and clearing the property. Companies that do business with the county could help out by volunteering time on the project, he said.
“It’s the kind of thing you can take to companies and ask them to donate a week’s worth of work for the good of the county. It’s such a good project,” he said.
Cunningham said he realized some wouldn’t want the lake refilled. “There will be naysayers but that will die down when they see we’re not asking to raise taxes or get into the fund balance or float a bond,” he said.
The mayor said he’s supporting the volunteers’ efforts to clear the lake basin so others get an idea of “what could be” once the project is finished. “I’m doing it so they have a vision for what it could be,” he said. “I’m asking Blount County residents to share this vision.”
Committee member Elmer Treat said there was a lot of controversy as to why the lake was drained. “So many older people remember back when it was a lake. It was so wonderful to them,” he said. “They estimate the lake was 50 to 65 acres, a good-sized lake.”
Treat said there was once Boy Scout camp at the lake, and young people would come and play. They even had sand for a beach. A 1937 picture shows workers on the earthen dam that held in the water and formed the lake. The few hundred men involved in building the dam are seen standing on it, Treat said.
Treat said the basin, which has some water in it but not nearly what was once there, will have to be dredged after the trees are cleared because of runoff from nearby construction sites.
About a year ago a Sevier County conservation group returned ownership of the 132 acres of property to the state, who then turned it over to Blount County. “Jerry figured we could reclaim the lake. He asked if we could get a ground-swell of support, so we’re doing it,” Treat said.
Treat said residents began Laurel Lake Restoration Committee to raise the money to prepare the lake basin to be refilled.
“That was two and half weeks ago. A few of us got together. We started on a Thursday morning and by Friday at 2 p.m. we had $4,000. We got enough for the first week in 24 hours. We’ve got to have another week at least to do this. It’s a community-wide project.
Treat said volunteers are doing all the work, and the committee is using donations to pay for the equipment rental. “This is a Blount County lake, not a Laurel Valley lake,” he said.
Laurel Valley resident Richard Jabbour echoed Treat’s comments. “This is a good start what Laurel Valley folks are doing so Blount County folks will have a play ground,” Jabbour said.
Steve Muelder of Townsend said the man-made lake had a drain in the bottom. He remembers hearing the lake was drained by mistake and no one remembers why.
Muelder said there was a valve and someone apparently opened it slightly. “People thought the dam was leaking, so they drained it. Turns out the dam was good,” he said.
“Probably someone was messing with it, and once you get an open valve, it’s impossible to seal you, you have to drain it,” Jabbour said.
Muelder is optimistic the lake could become a great place for people to enjoy. “It has so much promise,” Muelder said.
Jabbour said money is being raised to help cover costs of the effort. “We’ve raised $7,000 so far,” he said.
Townsend resident and publisher of the Local Yokel Mary Ann Ashworth remembers the lake, but hopes one aspect of it doesn’t return. “When I used to go swimming there, I used to hate the horseflies,” she said. The lake was a fun place to visit but the bottom was often muddy. “The lake was a pretty,” she said. “I’d like for it to have a nicer bottom.”
Gen. Robert Tiebout, U.S. Marines, (Ret.), said this is a community project many in Blount County have waited a long time to do. “It’s a place people could just come and enjoy. Old timers say it was a huge lake with a nice beach and a good parking area.”
Tiebout said employees with Delmar Caylor and Caylor Bros. Construction were manning the heavy equipment and were donating their time to clear the lake basin.
Tiebout said contributions are tax-deductible. Donations can be made to the Laurel Lake Restoration Committee at BankEast.