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On Wisconsin: Documenting the creation of a Driftless gem

On Wisconsin: Documenting the creation of a Driftless gem

From the On Wisconsin series

LA VALLE — More than 10,000 trees were cut down and burned, roads were rerouted and 500,000 cubic yards of earth were removed from a nearby farm to create a massive dike.

The dirt was piled adjacent to Big Creek, a dam was built and the Cobleigh Valley slowly filled. It was June 1965 when the first drops of water cascaded over the dam and into the spillway just east of La Valle and a few bike pedals north of what was then a railroad line but is now the Wisconsin 400 State Trail.

The flood, now approaching 50 years, is called Lake Redstone, a 605-acre impoundment teeming with crappie, walleye and muskie. The lake’s 17 miles of shoreline is rimmed with more than 1,100 homes, most of them used when the water’s surface isn’t covered in 15 inches of ice and a blanket of snow.

This part of the Driftless Area is an anomaly. Lakes aren’t supposed to be here. But N.E. “Ike” Isaacson would have none of it. Somehow, he convinced 24 farmers to sell a combined 2,350 acres of marsh, pasture land and potato fields to create an Up North-like retreat in the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin.

“It’s become such an economic driver,” said Steve Blakeslee, who has property on the lake and worked for Isaacson when the lake was being built. “On a good weekend, there’s between maybe 10,000 and 14,000 people at Redstone. It’s centrally located in just the perfect spot.”

And now stories, photos, plat maps, blueprints and other documents are being collected to create a book that tells the history of the man-made lake. Blakeslee, 64, is working with Isaacson, now 87, and Don Grossnickel, 66, who also lives on the lake, to write and produce the book, scheduled for publication later this year.

The photos show outbuildings, farm families, fence lines and cows grazing below rocky bluffs before there was even talk of a lake. There are shots of heavy equipment like excavators, drag lines and backhoes clearing trees, moving earth and dredging areas near shore to insure an adequate depth for swimming and boating.

Included are tales of using old tires and fuel oil to help burn trees that otherwise were too green to catch fire. A plat map of the region before it was developed shows Highway F running through the midsection of the lake and the outline of another lake of similar size to the north that was never built.

The map also includes the names of property owners like Leo Wagner, George Meyer, Russell Douglas, Robert Zietlow, Eric Stricker and Ollie Pezall, all of whom were convinced to sell land for as little as $93 an acre. In some instances, Isaacson paid $800 down on a land contract and included a $2,000 lake lot in exchange for partial payment.

“You can’t get two farmers to agree on anything and (Isaacson) had the ability to unite these people for a common purpose,” Blakeslee said. “He did it on a shoestring. He didn’t have a lot of money.”

But Issacson wasn’t limited to Lake Redstone. In all, he created five other man-made lakes in the state between 1960 and 1970. His work resulted in 2,316 acres of surface water, 91 miles of shoreline and roughly 10,000 lake lots. His projects included Upper Oconomowoc Lake in Waukesha County, lakes Sherwood and Camelot in Adams County, Legend Lake in Menominee County and Voyageur Village, a 5,200-acre Burnett County development that includes 11 natural lakes and 3,366 home sites, 700 of which have houses.

Isaacson, who lived in Reedsburg with his family, became so busy with lake projects that he had a water runway constructed at the Reedsburg Airport for his float plane. The runway was filled in years ago.

“Building Redstone was very personal for me,” Isaacson said in a transcript for the book. “I met individually with each property owner, getting to know them and obstacles standing in the way of their decision.”

Isaacson grew up on a farm near Oconomowoc, was prom king in high school and later joined the U.S. Marines. World War II ended while he was in boot camp and he found himself working on a Great Lakes freighter, driving heavy construction equipment on Drummond Island, Michigan, in Lake Huron and building roads. This is where he met Jim Cole, an experienced lake builder. A friendship ensued and together they found investors and began building lakes in Wisconsin.

“Cole became Isaacson’s mentor,” Grossnickle said. “Isaacson always talks about Cole being the genius behind this story.”

Issacson and Cole began studying the La Valle area in 1963. The valley, part of Glacial Lake Wisconsin, provided the perfect geology for their project. In July of 1964, a year after Isaacson and Cole took their plans to the landowners and public officials, Sauk County approved the dam construction.

In 1965, Isaacson transferred ownership of the project to the Branigar Corp., an Illinois development company, but continued for a time to work on the project. Governor Warren Knowles was on hand when the lake was dedicated in August 1966 and by October of that year 50 percent of the lots had been sold.

One of the farmers to sell land to Isaacson was Herman Radtke, who received $300 down, a lot on the lake and ultimately $7,600 for about 40 acres of property, most of it less than ideal farmland. Radtke, whose father built the farm in 1900, was also looking to retire from farming and was milking only about 20 cows a day, said his grandson, Andy Radtke.

“We had the (lake) lot until I was in high school and he sold it,” Andy Radtke said of his grandfather. “My dad had a chance to buy it back in the 1980s for $10,000 but turned it down. That lot sold a couple years ago with a little cabin on it for $350,000. It’s just amazing what that lake did for everything out here.”

Andy Radtke grew up in Janesville, where his father worked at the General Motors Assembly plant, but spent many weekends and summers at his grandparents’ farm. He has lived on the farm since 1992, works at Organic Valley and recently remodeled and expanded the farmhouse. He’s also been tabbed to edit the history book about the lake.

“This has always been a special place,” Radtke said. “It’s kind of like the Music Man comes to La Valle and he wins and then everybody wins. It really is a little paradise.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at

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Lake Redstone in northwestern Sauk County was created in the 1960s with a developer convincing 24 farmers to sell some or all their land. A da…

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