Koontz Lake is one of the oldest centers of settlement and industry in Starke County. Today this is known primarily as a lake resort for this part of Indiana. But…. how did it get its name? This article sheds some light on the pioneer family for whom the lake is named, while also sharing some insight about life for the first settlers to this area.
In 1846, four years prior to Starke County being organized, Samuel Koontz, Sr. came to this area. He purchased 160 acres located at the head of present-day Koontz Lake (originally Woodworth’s Lake). Mr. Koontz built a log cabin, one of the first in that part of the county, then brought his family to Starke County the next year. According to McCormick’s “Standard History of Starke County”, Mr. Koontz also “brought from Ohio twenty-four head of sheep, which were the first in the county. In order to protect them from the wolves, it was necessary to keep them close in a stable, and finally they were butchered in order to keep them from being devoured by the wolves.” Think about that statement…… the family could not keep sheep because the wolves were so prevalent!
Since raising farm animals was not practical (due to the animal predators), another option was needed to support the family. Although the land was wild and marshy, Koontz found a business opportunity. The outlet for the lake ran through his property, so Koontz built a dam to power an “up and down” saw mill, the first sawmill in the county. By 1851 he had established the Koontz grist mill, located on the west bank of Koontz Lake. These two different businesses would be important to the entire county for several years.
However, that doesn’t mean all ran smoothly. According to notes we have on file at the History Center, the dam broke in 1853 and the first mill was washed out. Koontz rebuilt, but his troubles weren’t over.
Koontz’s dam resulted in one of the first lawsuits in Starke County, as his neighbors complained the dam was detrimental to their farmland. But the federal courts ruled in favor of Mr. Koontz and awarded him title to all the waters of the lake. Koontz then deepened the mill race, allowing him to erect the well-known water-wheel mill, which ground grain and other products for many years. Sadly, that mill burned in the late 1890’s, to be replaced by the fourth Koontz Mill, which operated as a roller-type mill, powered by a turbine.By the time his son was sixteen, Samuel Koontz, Jr. began learning the trade of miller, and two years later took charge of the Koontz grist mill. He operated this business until 1925.
Additionally, he improved Koontz Lake as a summer resort, laying out lots plus building cottages, ice houses and other facilities around the shore. Both father and son served multiple terms as trustee of Oregon Township. Koontz, Jr. was the trustee responsible for overseeing construction of the Grovertown school in 1904. This building served as the local high school until the present Oregon-Davis High School was built.
Pictured is one of the early Koontz grist mills.