Medina Lake book pictures 'the way it was'
By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor
The first thing one notices about "Images of America - Medina Lake" is its extraordinary cover.
"We knew everyone expected a beautiful image of Medina Lake, but we wanted to surprise everyone," said Karen Downing Ripley, who, along with Rebecca Huffstutler Norton, authored the 128-page book. The fabulous 1915 photo - courtesy of the Seekatz family - features manly swimmers surveying the clear lake waters and a jumble of canoes. Fresh enough to be used in a contemporary Ralph Lauren ad campaign, that photo alone is worth the $21.99 price of the book.
According to Norton, Arcadia Publishing requires authors of the company's "Image of America" series to send several pictures for a possible front cover, asking them to indicate their preference.
"When I wrote the 'Images of America' book about Bandera, the publisher didn't chose the cover photo I had wanted," Norton said, "but everyone involved agreed this photo was perfect for the cover of the Medina Lake book."
Recalling the fortuitous collaboration, Ripley said, "After reading Rebecca's book on Bandera, I stopped by the (Frontier Times) museum to tell her how much I had enjoyed it. I told her that I wanted to do a similar book on Medina Lake and asked it she would help me. She said, 'Sure, I'd love to.' It was that simple."
Ripley and Norton completed the recently released book in good time for the Medina Lake Dam's 100th anniversary. Not surprisingly the book chronicles the visualization and construction of the Medina Lake Dam, with photos from Ed Burger and the Bexar, Medina, Atascosa Water Improvement District No. 1.
At the time of its completion in 1912, Medina Dam was the largest concrete dam in Texas. However, since 1912 was one of the driest years on record, it was not until 1914 that the lake behind the dam actually filled. Incredibly, water from the newly formed lake did not cascade over the spillway until 1936, according to the authors.
Although initially constructed to irrigate farmlands, the rising lake waters forever altered the way of life for the ranchers and farmers who lived on the land above the dam.
"The history of the lake and its dam parallels this country's western expansion and celebrates American engineering and ingenuity," Ripley said.
Beginning with the chapter, "Life Before the Dam" and ending with "Tall Tales, Happy Trails," the pictorial history includes more than 200 vintage photos. The images, generously loaned by the families, organizations and businesses, coupled with informative and concise prose, gives readers an opportunity to reconnect with the history that shaped their community.
Norton and Ripley began their historical look at the area in the canyon where the Medina River flowed prior to the dam's construction and continued it through the communities that developed around the lake. For the most part, the communities and camps sprang up to cater to the tourists, hunters and fishermen who flocked to the newly formed lake.
Surrounded by the beautiful Texas Hill Country, Medina Lake's history of fortunes rose and fell as rapidly and unpredictably as the level of the lake. "It's undeniable that the prospects of the district, including businesses dependent on lake tourism, are dependent on the water levels," Ripley said. As a realtor, she has seen prices of homes and lakefront property plummet during crippling droughts. The deleterious effects of the drought that still has the Hill Country in its grasp underscored her words.
In the chapter "Whiskey is for Drinking and Water is for Fighting," Ripley and Norton explored the never-ending competition for rapidly depleting sources of fresh water. The book includes a précis of Bandera County's own water war that began in 1912 with the appropriation of farmers' and ranchers' rich bottom land that was destined to be in the projected flood zone. To an extent,
this contentious water war continues to present day.
Other tidbits included in "Images of America - Medina Lake" included the origin of the names of the towns of Mico and Natalia and the Avalon subdivision - and, of course, page after page of wonderful vintage photos.
"For me, one of the most exciting aspects of doing this book was talking to the ranchers who shared these old photos," Ripley said. "It was fun to set yourself in another time and place. A 100 years ago, you didn't need anybody's permission to build a community, roads, schools and churches. You just needed to pull together with hard work and ingenuity. That's the way it should be now."
A Medina Lake waterfront resident and business owner for over 30 years, Ripley is currently serving a second term as vice president of the Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District. Norton serves as executive director of the Frontier Times Museum in Bandera.
"Images of America - Medina Lake" is available for purchase at the Lakehills Area Library, the Frontier Times Museum in Bandera, bookstores to the north and south, online retailers or through Arcadia Publishing at 888-313-2665 or
Pictured: Top- Rebecca Huffstutler Norton and Karen Downing Ripley signed copies of their recently published "Images of America - Medina Lake" for Brenda and Victor Campbell during a reception at the Frontier Times Museum, Saturday, June 9.
Bottom- Rebecca Norton, left, and Karen Downing Ripley, right, joined Bandera's Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Schumacher and Bill Pannebaker at a recent book signing and reception for Norton's and Ripley's "Images of America - Medina Lake."