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Amsden Dam is located near Andover in Day County. Click to enlarge photos.
Amsden Dam is located near Andover in Day County. Click to enlarge photos.
Site of the 1937 drownings.
Site of the 1937 drownings.
Headlines from the tragedy.
Headlines from the tragedy.
All of Day County mourned the lost six.
All of Day County mourned the lost six.
Leo Schoenbeck, Sr., one of the heroes of the day.
Leo Schoenbeck, Sr., one of the heroes of the day.
Leo Schoenbeck, Jr. visited Amsden Dam 50 years after the drownings.
Leo Schoenbeck, Jr. visited Amsden Dam 50 years after the drownings.

Tragedy at Amsden Dam

Jul 25, 2012

Amsden Dam near Andover is a pretty little lake with humble roots. The 235 acre lake sits behind a Works Progress Administration dam. The dam was started in 1934, while South Dakota was in the grip of the Dust Bowl and the nation was mired in the Great Depression. Work was scarce and WPA jobs made it possible for the farmers of southwestern Day County to feed their families. The dam was completed in 1936 and the lake was full by 1937. The dam holds back water from Pickerel Creek and Mud Creek, both tributaries on their way to the Jim River. Lurking beneath the lake’s surface is an old gravel pit that provides its deepest holes — 27 feet. Those holes have provided Amsden with its most popular current use, muskie fishing, and its darkest day — less than one year after its birth.

 

The New Lake Held Hidden Dangers

In 1937 there weren’t community swimming pools, Red Cross swimming lessons or long road trips for entertainment. On August 15, Leo, a local farmer, and his wife Pearl, a country school teacher, gathered their 6 children and the rest of the Happy-Go-Lucky 4-H Sewing and Garden Club of Southeast Andover at their farm for their 4-H meeting. When the meeting was over, the kids begged Leo and another father, Herman Wenck, to take them to the new local lake to cool off. Pearl had lunch ready, but put it on hold for them to eat after a quick trip to Amsden. The group happily went down the hill for swimming and games on the southeastern shore. To the immediate west of the picnic area shore, hidden below the surface, were the now water-filled gravel pits.

Leo lived just up the hill from the dam and had worked on its construction. Because so few people had the opportunity in those times to learn to swim, Leo put a rock on the shoreline to mark a point that the bathers were not to venture past. Dilleen Ninke Wenck was 10 at the time and still remembers vividly the admonition: “Don’t go north of that rock.” The warning was needed because about ten feet out, and north from that point, the lake dropped off into the old gravel pit. As the day progressed the group enjoyed wading and playing waist-deep in Amsden — until an unusual event occurred, with fatal consequences.

 

False Teeth Led to Tragedy

Mrs. Simonson and her friend, Mrs. Miller, waded into the lake to cool their feet, near the forbidden limits. While leaning over, Mrs. Simonson lost her false teeth into the lake. As she searched about for them, she slipped into the gravel pit depths and began screaming for help. Leo, one of the few swimmers in the group, swam to her aid, but the screaming led to pandemonium. Family members focused on their screaming, drowning loved ones and not the warning about the pit ran to assist — and found themselves quickly in peril, thrashing in water over their heads. As the confusion and the tragedy unfolded, Leo swam and retrieved and swam and retrieved the neighbors thrashing in the lake. His youngest son Maynard, only 10, had an inflated inner tube that his older brother, Leo Jr., 16, swam out with to pull his father’s retrieves to shore. The news accounts of the day describe Leo as a “strong swimmer” and Leo Jr. as a “fair swimmer.” Sr. kept returning to the deep waters and retrieving bodies. Jr. split his time between pulling the saved to shore and punching others who were trying to get back into the water to help their screaming, drowning loved ones — and creating more work and danger for Jr.’s now tiring father. Helping Leo Jr. that day was his teenage friend, a non-swimmer, Orville Simonson.

But, in what seemed like just minutes, there was silence. The screaming from the lake stopped. Leo Jr looked about — his Dad was gone. As the families hugged and gathered, the magnitude of the tragedy was soon evident — five families would not go home from the picnic intact that day. Four bodies were recovered before the dragging equipment could arrive from Webster: Leo Sr. (age 36), Herman Wenck (age 42), Ruby Miller (age 12), and Mildred Simonson (age 13). That night a fifth body, Irene Wahl (age 13), was recovered, and the last, Mrs. Clarence Miller (age 42), the mother of deceased Ruby, was found floating across the lake the next day.

Leo Sr.’s body, clawed beyond recognition, was recovered with his last rescue effort wrapped around his head.

Leo Jr. was credited with saving a half dozen young 4-Hers that day. Dilleen Ninke Wenck was one of those children. She still recalls, just before she was pulled to safety, telling her father “Dad, I want to go with you,” and hearing her father’s last words, “You can’t go with me today,” as he slipped under the waves. Another of those children, Carolyn Schoenbeck Pooley, was 8 and recalls her father Leo’s last words being “Go to shore, Kelly” as he put her on the inner tube for Jr. to pull in, before swimming back out into the deep waters.

 

Lessons to Take Away from the Amsden Tragedy

There are lessons to be learned from the tragedy at Amsden Dam. The most obvious is, of course, the value of young people taking swimming lessons, so they have some ability to function in and appreciate the risks of a substance that covers over seventy percent of the earth’s surface. Also, as every student of a lifesaving class has been taught, a drowning victim is dangerous and presents special risks that only those who have been trained can safely manage.

Leo Sr.'s a special story. He was a strong athlete, the pitcher on the town team. His strength and commitment to survival manifested itself already as a young man in ways that were not so socially acceptable, but maybe not so uncommon in the Great Depression. He had already assaulted two people trying to repossess his family tractor, and earned another felony conviction for selling mortgaged grain, a likely product of the need to feed his young family. Today, Leo Sr. would likely have been sentenced to the state penitentiary, which would not have made him available to rise to the challenges of saving lives that tragic day at Amsden Dam. His story is one of redemption, a feeling surely shared by the families of the eight individuals that he saved that day.

Leo Jr., the 16-year-old average swimmer, never swam for fun again after that day. He would take his own family to the public beach at Blue Dog Lake to learn to swim and take lessons before his community of Webster ever had a pool. He even has granddaughters swimming in the state swim meet here in South Dakota this month, and several of his kids swam competitively. But water loses its attraction when it takes your father away far too early in life — at least that’s the way my father, Leo Jr., felt after that tragic day at Amsden Dam seventy-five years ago this August 15.  

 

Lee Schoenbeck grew up in Webster, practices law in Watertown, and is a freelance writer for the South Dakota Magazine website.

Comments

08:58 am - Wed, July 25 2012
Julie said:
Thanks for the history lesson - I had never heard of this happening - I'm sure you are proud of your grandfather and father for all they did for everyone that day.
You did a great job writing this story...
11:20 am - Wed, July 25 2012
THATS IS A VERY GOOD ARTICLE LEE .KEEP THEM COMING OK???
11:31 am - Wed, July 25 2012
Susan said:
We had many family events out at this lake and were always told not to beyond several limits because of a drowning but was never told the entire story..I'm guessing that your father was the young Leo and I watch his grandchildren swim at almost every meet Webster attend so some good did come out of a very tragic situation!!
02:12 pm - Wed, July 25 2012
Sandra Schoenbeck Farrow said:
Maynard made it a "point" that ALL of his children/grandchildren learn to swim, this lesson is being passed down to his great grandchildren....I have always wondered about the other families affected by this event.......
08:48 am - Thu, July 26 2012
Bob Hildebrant said:
I am 54 years old and live in Conde, SD. I have swam many times in Amsden as a youth and even in that very spot where the tradegy occured. Very interesting article.
08:53 am - Fri, July 27 2012
Janet Baumgarn Coyne said:
Our mother, Verna Schoenbeck Baumgarn, daughter of Leo Sr., also made it a point for her children to take swimming lessons. As children, we very seldom got to go to the lake. The few times we did go, as soon as we got out to our knees, Mom would be yelling for us to come back. She never went swimming that I recall, and hated the color blue, which I can only relate to the tragedy witnessed by so many that day.
03:48 pm - Fri, July 27 2012
Bernard Schmit said:
I knew all of my life of this story especially since but did not know the details. Very interesting and enlightening. Your nephew
03:53 pm - Fri, July 27 2012
bernard schmit said:
Opps I guess after 82 years I need and editor. Following especially since add--Leo Jr married my sister--5sz 3c
08:08 am - Thu, August 2 2012
Joni Kemp Weir said:
We were always told as Kids "you do not swim at Amsden" Never knew the total story! Also took part in Swimming Lessons by red cross @ Pierpont Lake!
Thanks for the total story.
12:50 pm - Thu, August 16 2012
Thanks for sharing that personal story Lee. The telling of it was pitch perfect. Your grandfather's sacrifice is a splendid example for all of us.
06:08 pm - Thu, August 16 2012
Charlie B. Hoffman said:
20 years ago this August 28th Mike Shaffner from Leola, SD drowned in the Elm Lake in Northern Brown Co. after his boat untied and he went in swimming to retrieve it. The wind was coming out of the SSW hard all day and brought up very cold water a few feet from shore and from the boat dock. He swam into the cold water NE of the dock and cramped up is what the experts said may have happened. One could challenge the depth and cold of Amsden with similar tragedy Lee!!
02:00 pm - Mon, August 20 2012
Carl Schwab said:
I grew up (and still live) on the north side of Amsden. I had always heard about the tragedy but didn't know much about it until one day when Lee stopped by the place on a campaign circuit. My uncle showed him a map of the lake, with all the original depths, that he had picked up somewhere. Lee took great interest as he told us about his grand father and the disastrous day so long ago. My Dad and Uncle filled in parts of the story that they knew as Lee gave the account that had been handed down to him.

Lee did a nice job of recording this piece of history.

Carl
06:20 am - Thu, August 30 2012
Lee Schoenbeck said:
Carl-
That was the 1984 campaign for Day County States Attorney. When I drove farmhouse to farmhouse, the trip through southwest Day County was an education for me, as so many folks like your family, knew my family since the days of statehood. Thank you for reminding me
04:41 pm - Fri, March 29 2013
Helen(Wenck) Schauer said:
As a Granddaughter of Herman Wenck, I have heard this story many times from my Father Howard Wenck, son of Herman. He was 16 and the oldest of 5 children and the 6th on the way. He had to quite school and take over the farm. Herman did not see the day his youngest daughter, Darlys Wenck Kruse was born.. Howard Wenck had left and was not there at the time of the tragidy, but found out about it after returning. I have a newpaper telling about that day that my Father saved. Howard passed away in 2000.
08:02 pm - Thu, May 9 2013
Kathy Sundermeyer said:
We live on the west end of Amsden Lake. The farm has been in the family since it was homesteads. Each generation was told about that tragedy and kids were made sure to take swimming lessons. The story was also printed in the Andover history book that Olive Hayenga had a hand in publishing.
08:01 pm - Mon, May 13 2013
Jan (Belden) Hillestad said:
I never knew that story. Just remember once when I was pretty young, we had a family reunion and picnic at Amsden. I still recall the worried look on my mom's face when she paced the beach shouting to us kids, "You are out too far." We weren't out that far and didn't know why she seemed so upset, but she and my dad didn't know how to swim. Even though my own boys have taken all the levels of swimming lessons and are good swimmers, I worry about them when they swim in any lake.
06:40 pm - Mon, June 24 2013
larry schoenbeck said:
lee u did a great job on the article. im so proud of my grandfather and father. that is probably why I learned to swim very well. I love the water. I lived at the pool when I was young. I would swim all day then go to swimteam practice. I was on the webster swim team for 12 to 15 years. always remember to b careful around water u never know what could happen. b safe and enjoy the water.
03:23 pm - Wed, July 24 2013
Emily Zagar said:
I am one of Dileen (Wenck) Ninke's grandchildren. I remember being told about this tragedy when I was a young girl, but the details have become blurry. Thank you for sharing a piece of my families history.
07:22 am - Mon, June 2 2014
steve young said:
I grew up in Groton in the 1980's. I had never heard this story before. I swam at Amsden quite often when I was growing up. I remember being told to stay in a certain spot because the lake dropped off pretty deep in certain spots but that is all I knew. Thank you for the wonderful story. That lake and area was so peaceful when I was out there.
12:05 pm - Mon, June 2 2014
Gary Schauer said:
My Grandfather Howard Wenck (Son of Herman Wenck), who was 16 years old when his father drowned. Told me the story many times that when the lady had lost her false teeth most of the people there, even those that could not swim, went in to the waist deep water to try to reach down with their hands to find them. With so many people standing only a few feet from the drop off, their weight made edge of the sandy drop off give way, like a mini under water land slide. So most of them in the waist deep water, now had the ground vanish from under their feet, and could no longer touch the bottom to keep their heads above water. That was the story he told.
12:18 pm - Mon, June 2 2014
Kay Britten said:
I had not heard about this tragic event before this article. It was very interesting and so sad. You are a gifted writer.bLee, were you one of my students at the Christ the King School in Webster many years ago?Kay Becker Britten
01:23 am - Tue, June 3 2014
Deb Heintzman Lindsey said:
Never heard the details of this terrible tragedy until now. Have swam in that spot many times as a kid. Attending Conde school as a kid we used to picnic there for our end of year outing. My Dad and uncle would fish there all their lives. I took my boys there to fish when they were teenagers and would camp there when hunting. Seems so quite and peacefull , very secluded and rustic but a fun place to explore. As most peiple now days can swim if they go into the water I don't recall any warning signs of the drop offs at the beach.would be nice if there was a plack or sign with the drowning victims names and of course also the hero's!
09:05 am - Tue, June 3 2014
Dawn Preszler said:
We have many family gatherings with swimming and fishing there when I was a kid. We had never heard of this sad, sad story and it brings into perspective how lucky we were!
11:02 am - Tue, June 3 2014
Lee Schoenbeck said:
Kay -
yes I remember you teaching at Christ the King - I was also your paperboy! I know your brother and see him every once in a while. Lee
12:26 pm - Sat, June 7 2014
Ron Kerher said:
Amsden is a beautiful state park and I knew nothing of this story until now. Thanks for sharing! For many years there was a cross that marked a grave in the park right by the camp site we used. The kids would put flowers on the cross. A Park Ranger filled us in regarding the details he knew. I wrote the name of the deceased down and did research but I can not find that info at this time. We had a mini tragedy there with my brothers dog getting seriously injured and we had to put her down. The little nephews and nieces wanted a funeral service and so we did that and buried her there close to the the other grave. The children wanted the deceased to get a new pet. They decorated both graves with flowers. They planned the service and it was very well done. PS...teach all the children to swim!
06:29 am - Thu, March 12 2015
Laura Schoenbeck Donat said:
Six trees were planted at the drowning site in memory of the drowned victims. There were no markers. When we went back there with dad and Uncle Maynard, they pointed the row of trees out to us. Other trees had grown up around them so they were hard to find unless you knew where to look. Nature took over and blended them into the landscape. Dad and Uncle Maynard, Aunt Verna, Lorraine, and Marlyn, are all gone now. Aunt Corolyn is the only one still alive. Thanks to Grandpa, they all had a long life. Nice job of writing the story Lee.
04:59 am - Sun, June 14 2015
Ken Nelson said:
Grandpa Schoenbeck was a silohuette to me growing up. Mom (Carolun "Kelly" Schoenbeck-Nelson) never spoke of him. the more I learn of him, the more I understand me. The NT verse quoting Christ saying, " greater love hath no man than this... that a man lay down his life for his friends has had more meaning to me, in light of grandpa Schoebeck's story.

Thanks Lee.
07:19 am - Wed, June 24 2015
I thoroughly agree with respecting water. Beautiful & refreshing ,but deadly & dangerous.
11:53 am - Fri, February 5 2016
Mark W. Sannes said:
My Mom Erna Hein and her sister Ruth told of this. The image they remember is a car piled with bodies in the rumbleseat coming into Andover. Tragic. We've camped a Amsden many a time.
05:09 pm - Fri, February 12 2016
Nancy Hutmacher said:
Mrs. Miller was my mothers father. After my grandmother passed away of the 1918
flu epidemic my grandfather remarried and had 3 children, Ruby Miller was one of the children that drown.
05:12 pm - Fri, February 12 2016
Nancy Hutmacher said:
Correction. Mrs. Miller was my mothers fathers second wife. After my grandmother passed away of the 1918 flu epidemic my grandfather remarried and had 3 children, Ruby Miller was one of the children that drown.
01:54 pm - Sat, June 25 2016
Seth Flemmer said:
This story was really fascinating. My family has owned part of the area around the dam for years and I had no idea that these events had taken place there. Great history lesson.
05:38 pm - Sat, June 25 2016
anonymous said:
My stepdad drowned in this lake cpl years ago. Seems like a really bad place for people to think a fun
09:31 pm - Mon, July 25 2016
Amy Duley said:
Leo is my great grandmother, Pooley was her twin and actually was the last of the six of Leo's children to leave the earth. My kids just did swim lessons and have been doing them their whole loves. My mom had my brother and I do them; even when he had to scrimp and save to do it. And er mother, Marilyn also made her 4 children all go to swim lessons. My grandma learned to swim in old age, my grandpa had a pool put in when the grand kids came- he always said it was for her :)- She raised her kids by the beach and they surfed and swam their hearts out daily.
09:32 pm - Mon, July 25 2016
Amy Duley said:
grandfather,opps
09:38 pm - Mon, July 25 2016
Amy Duley said:
lol..apologize..Leo is great grand father, marilyn his daughter is my grandma pooleys twin.
05:46 pm - Mon, August 1 2016
pam Hastings said:
I am the daughter of Marylin Hastings-Scheonbeck who was a little girl at the picnic when her Father Leo drowned that day. My adult children just read this article about their great grandfather and were brought tears. My mother Marylin was relentless about us taking swim lessons and my children figured out this is why. My son is an accomplished surfer and we are all good swimmers because I was also relentless about the swim lessons. I guess the lesson of that day to make sure your kids know how to swim has carried on to all of us !
08:14 pm - Sun, August 14 2016
anonymous said:
Pam, the stories about you and David, grandchildren of the deceased relative here, surfing and winning surfing championships, would have shaken grandma to the bone. Do your kids know about you visiting South Dakota with that stupid golden retriever that loved to role in cowpies out on the farm , and you wore cowboy boots, that apparently weren't the norm in San Diego

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