Hidden History: Fox Lake grew from era of racism, segregation

Vacationers at Fox Lake in Steuben County

ANGOLA, Ind. (WANE) –  As the old saying goes, “home is where the heart is.”  Along the banks of a hidden gem near Angola, the heart of these homes lies in their history.

Fox Lake is a community born in an era of racism and segregation. It has a special place in the hearts of African-American Hoosiers.

The main thoroughfare, Wilson Drive, is dedicated to “the Father of Fox Lake” Carl Wilson Sr. He and his wife Mamie helped create a sanctuary of sorts for African Americans in the Midwest. Kathy Carr is the granddaughter of Wilson Sr. Her father, Carl Wilson Jr. carried on the family’s legacy.

“You know every time we go there, we go down Wilson drive and Wilson is the family name,” said Carr. “You just feel like… we’re home. Originally, there was no other place. African Americans were not welcome.”

Wilson Sr. built the first of three cottages on Fox Lake in the late 1920s. In those days, there were not many safe vacation spots for black people. Fox Lake was different. It was a place families could swim, fish, boat and ride horses. Those luxuries were only afforded to white and well-off black families at the time.

“Here is a secret around Fort Wayne that we don’t know much about primarily for African Americans to go up to the lake,” said Ron Knox. “And they came from Cincinnati..Detroit. These were affluent people who wanted to go to the lake to relax.”

Fox Lake landed a spot in the Negro Motorist Green Book which was a travel guide created in the 1930s. It lists Mar Fran Motel as a place for lodging and Pryor’s Country Place, a popular bed and breakfast. Pryor’s Place sits vacant now on a large plot of land and recently made Indiana Landmark’s 10 Most Endangered list. It has its own hidden history.

“Supposedly there was a distillery during the time of prohibition down towards the lake and the alcohol was pumped up to the house and they would invite people in there,” said Carol Karst-Wasson.

Karst-Wasson grew up in Angola and now lives in a Fox Lake Cottage. She remembers being told to avoid the area.

“It was an African American community,” said Karst-Wasson. “Growing up in the late 60’s and 70’s here, there was still kind of a off-limits I guess you would say, approach to it.”

In the early 90’s the demographics at Fox Lake began to change. The first white family bought a home there, despite resistance from residents who wanted to preserve the black heritage.

“This one is in Indiana and it’s the only one in Indiana and it’s still here,” said Karst Wasson. “And it’s still primarily African American. I feel very privileged to be a part of it and it’s my hope to help preserve it.”

There was perhaps no one more dedicated to preserving it than Carl Wilson Jr. He and his wife Gloria bought a cottage overlooking the original three cottages built by his father. He was a historian of sorts.

“Oh my goodness,” said Knox. “He brought Tuskegee Airmen up there, re-enactments and he brought the Buffalo Soldiers. I think a re-enactment of Harriet Tubman up there, too.”

Wilson died nearly eight years ago but his legacy lives on in his children and grandchildren. They’ve made it their mission to share Fox Lake’s hidden history with future generations.

“I think there’s a perception that often times African Americans did not go to the lake,” said Carr. “It was just a new experience that you want your children to have like other children have.”

Fox Lake is on the National Registry of Historic places. There are 100 homes in this area now and nearly 80 percent are owned by African-Americans.