It’s a huge portion of their grade, so students at Travis Academy for the Academically Gifted and Talented don’t take the annual independent project lightly. This past year, the topic for seventh-graders was Dallas history, and most of Allie Rubenstein’s peers went to work on scrapbooks and written reports.
But not this Lakewood overachiever. Allie decided to take the project a few steps further and film a documentary about White Rock Lake.
“I thought it would be a good idea to try something new, to see the lake from all different perspectives,” Allie says. “I chose White Rock Lake because I’ve grown up around the lake, and I just wanted to learn more about it.”
She consulted historian Steven Butler at the Bath House Cultural Center’s White Rock Lake Museum and spent hours on the seventh floor of the downtown library, where the majority of the city’s historical documents and newspaper clippings are stored. Allie even met with the city’s archivist to collect photos and maps concerning the lake’s construction.
But she wanted her main source of information to be longtime neighborhood residents who are part of the lake’s history. So Allie contacted the Woodrow Wilson Alumni Association to find people who knew firsthand about White Rock’s rich past.
“I called them and explained what the school project was, and why I would like to know their memories of the lake, to get the personal perspectives of these people who were teenagers just like me when the lake was in its heyday,” Allie says. “I really had no idea what I was getting into. There was a lot more history to the lake than meets the eye.”
One of her first phone calls was to Barbara Mott, whose late husband, Bill, wrote the memoir “Looking Back” about life in Dallas from the ’20s on.
“I told them all I knew about the lake and let them read the chapter on White Rock Lake my husband had written,” says Mott, adding that she wasn’t too surprised at the seventh-grader’s inquiry. “There’s a lot of interest in White Rock Lake, and there’s a lot of people who know a lot about it. It’s a very fascinating subject to a lot of people, especially to young people coming up and not knowing a lot about it.”
On the 30-minute documentary, Mott notes that her experience with the lake started right after she married.
“We had a boat before we had any furniture,” Mott says, chuckling.
While learning about the lake, one of Allie’s discoveries was that it covers what used to be the Goforth and Buhrer Swiss dairy farms. It was 1907 when an engineer first suggested that the city build a dam for a new reservoir on that farmland, explains Allie in her documentary voiceover, and Mott fills in the anecdotal details.
“Mr. Goforth had a farm that stretched almost all of Lake Highlands, and Flag Pole Hill was part of it. [The city] wanted to buy the farm, but they didn’t want Flag Pole Hill, but [Goforth] knew he couldn’t farm Flag Pole Hill, so he wouldn’t agree to sell it to them unless they took the hill, too,” Mott says, describing Goforth’s business savvy.
“He was a very wealthy farmer. There’s a story that says he was in town one day, and this fellow was in a Cadillac and [Goforth] bumped him a little bit. The fellow was so irate at the idea of getting bumped by an old codger in a Model T Ford. He didn’t know that Mr. Goforth could have bought his Cadillac and another one just like it, and probably the whole dealership, so you don’t judge a book by its cover.”
In her research, Allie unearthed some interesting details she included on her documentary, such as the 1911 ceremony toasting the completion of the dam, where city officials predicted the reservoir would “meet the needs of residents for generations to come.” Ironically, less than 20 years later in 1929, population growth forced the city to turn to Lake Dallas for its water needs, and the lake and surrounding land became a city park.
The majority of the documentary, however, focuses on the next couple of decades when speedboats, sailboats and swimmers prevailed on the water. The residents’ fondest memories came out of this period.
In the ’40s, Dr. Melvin Gratz was a locker boy and lifeguard at the Bath House, making sure no one ventured past the line marking a safe water depth for swimmers. But on one particular day, he and his friends decided they were brave enough to tread deeper waters.
“There were five of us employees who decided we would swim from the bath area to the dam and back, and we got fired because it was against the law to swim the lake outside of the bath area,” Gratz recalls on the documentary. “But he had to hire us back because he needed all five of us to work — with the condition that we wouldn’t do that again.”
Allie talked with Gratz and a few other Woodrow alumni at a committee meeting for the class of 1948’s 60th reunion. Other residents, mostly women, were interviewed at their homes.
“The ladies went and had their hair done, and some of them had baked a cake for Allie or had cookies or punch,” says Lisa Rubenstein, Allie’s mother. “You know they’d sit there, and it was almost like they were taken back in time, and those women, they had huge smiles on their faces just remembering those times.”
Allie’s documentary voiceover notes the creation of Lawther Drive in 1919, a gravel road that encircled the lake, and the interviewees recalled the steady line of teenage traffic “cruising” the circumference. Others remembered first dates at Winfrey Point or the Dreyfuss Club.
For Janine Verender, that’s how she met her husband, Robert. His mother called her mother to ask permission for Verender to accompany him a dance, and because the two women knew each other from the PTA, Verender was granted permission. Her father, however, would allow it only if they were accompanied by chaperones.
“There were four young people, and we were just sitting all over each other in the back of the car, but we were chaperoned,” Verender recalls on the documentary. “I wore my only suit that I ever got from Neiman Marcus that night. Mother found one that we could afford, and it was so nice, pale blue. I stepped all over Robert’s feet, but I guess he liked me because we kept on dating.”
Once she finished the documentary, Allie took her father to the lake and pointed out all of the sites she had learned about, such as the bridges and retaining wall built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the location that was once occupied by German prisoners of war.
“Now they’re making all these improvements, and the lake is sort of coming back to its renaissance once again,” Allie says. “To look at it now and think there used to be German prisoners of war here, there used to be a CCC camp, and that it was built almost 100 years ago — it’s just all the history that’s tucked away that you’d never know just by seeing it.”
She also invited Mott to view the finished project, and Mott describes it as “exceptionally good.”
Allie says her classmates appeared to like it, too, especially since they live all over Dallas and many of them were unfamiliar with the lake. That made spending her “entire spring break, 24-7” on the documentary worthwhile, she says.
“It was meeting all of these new people who really provided the core of my information, who I would have never met otherwise,” she says. “Hearing the memories that have been stored in their minds for years and years, that was the best experience.”