In the summer of 1968, Mary Lou and Don Winthers gathered their four children, packed up the station wagon, left their Wheaton, Illinois home and headed to the Lake of the Ozarks for the first time. Little did they know that this would become an annual family tradition, shared with friends and several generations of their family for the next 52 years and counting.

In the summer of 1968, Mary Lou and Don Winthers gathered their four children, packed up the station wagon, left their Wheaton, Illinois home and headed to the Lake of the Ozarks for the first time. Little did they know that this would become an annual family tradition, shared with friends and several generations of their family for the next 52 years and counting.

“That first year, Don brought home a number of  brochures,” Mary Lou remembered. “He scattered them on a table and let the kids choose the resort where we were going to stay.”

The children, named Ken, Cindy, Linda and Dave, ranged in age from three to 14 years at the time. They chose two resorts in which to spend their two week vacation: Bodies Rondavo in the Gravois area of the Lake and the Plaza Beach Resort, near the Niangua Bridge.

For the next five years, the family made Bodies their annual destination. Owners Fred and Bernice Bodenhammer sold the business, so the family tried a few new places for the next couple of years.

“We thought it would be good for the kids to see Florida,” Mary Lou explained. “They just wanted to keep coming back to the Ozarks.”

Prior to the annual vacation, each Winthers child would receive a list of chores that had to be completed before it was time to leave. They each worked hard in anticipation of their favorite vacation. Mary Lou would pack a lunch for everyone and they would stop to eat during their 10-hour journey. In later years, finances allowed them to stop and eat in a restaurant.

Ken, Cindy, Linda and Dave each have their own memories of the early years at the Lake. For Ken, learning from his dad how to fish and filet his catch is his fondest. He recalls all six family members climbing into the aluminum fishing boat, powered by a 9 ½ horsepower motor that would handle the main channel at that time. Everyone fished with a bamboo fishing pole. He remembers catching his first large mouth bass at the Lake. Riding the go karts, stopping for ice cream afterward and playing skeeball at the dam was also an annual event he recalls.

Cindy was 8 years old during that first year at the Lake. She recalls a few years later her brother Ken threw a fish head into the air and it landed in her long blonde hair. As a teenager, Cindy’s activities were focused on skiing and meeting new people – specifically boys.

Linda, who had earned the title as the best skier in the family, also enjoyed fishing as a kid. She remembers the year she had to miss part of the vacation because of work, and boarded a Greyhound bus headed to the Lake just so she wouldn’t miss out entirely.

Dave had just completed his freshman year of high school when the family first vacationed at the Lake. He learned to clean fish from Fred, the owner of Bodies Rondavo. He recalls the Monday morning pancake breakfasts and the Wednesday night steak fries. He remembers going to dinner at Millstone Restaurant, which was the only place to eat on the north end of the Lake back then. The family would also go to the Denny Hilton show in Osage Beach. 

In 1978, the family stayed at Dogwood Acres Resort in Sunrise Beach for the first time. This has become their annual destination since, and has grown to include Mary Lou and Don, their children, various grandchildren, friends and great grandchildren. In spite of the coronavirus scare, Mary Lou, Don and 21 other family members from throughout the country made the trip this year. Now 88 years old, they were joined by their four children, their children’s spouses, their grandchildren and great grandchildren. The youngest and newest member of the Winthers family, two-month-old Georgia, made her Lake vacation debut. Four generations of the Winther family were in attendance this year. There are 33 family members total that try to make the annual trip. Several friends adopted by the family are also there yearly.

“To me, the best part is you raise your kids coming here, and they raised their kids the same and so on,” Mary Lou said. “It’s like a reunion every year. Just being by the water is so peaceful. It’s just fun.”

“We used to be so busy, being with the kids when they were small and taking them out fishing,” Don recalls. “Now we get to just sit back and watch.” Both still enjoy going for boat rides, eating at various restaurants on the water and floating in the Lake.

The next generations have already stored numerous traditions and memories from the years. The family’s traditional pot luck fish fry continues to be a staple from year to year. Ken’s famous rum runners have been perfected and are enjoyed by all, as well as Dave’s chief a ritas – an improved version of the margarita. The annual float trip is enjoyed by most as well as visits to favorite restaurants on the water.

Ken and his wife recently purchased a condo at the Lake and Dave and his wife own a lake home in Wisconsin. Regardless, the family gathers at Dogwood Acres every year for the annual event.

“I always liked it here for the relaxation and fishing,” Ken said. “Seeing my children and grandchildren enjoying the Lake in their own way makes me happy. Conversations now with my brother Dave while we fish are priceless. And the laughs, that’s what it’s all about.”

Cindy agreed, “Having everyone here is just so gratifying. It’s cool to see all the generations. The kids have just as much fun as we did. It’s almost like being a child again here.” 

“It’s all about the family and being together,” Linda added. “I hope my kids and their kids get the sense of family and being together. They have their own lives, but they still choose to be here with us. It’s crazy to think we’ve been coming this long.”

“The take away is that each generation has planted the same seed in their children,” Dave explained. My grandkids are hooked on the Lake. We talk about all the wonderful vacations we’ve taken and the Ozarks is consistently their favorite. It becomes a legacy because you can see what you experienced through the eyes of your children and grandchildren, like watching them reel in their first fish. Over the past 50 plus years a lot has changed, but yet there’s so much that is timeless.”

Matt, the eldest grandson of Mary Lou and Don, is now passing down his experiences to his children. Matt and his wife Christa spent the week this year with their two children, Erin (6) and Owen (2).

Matt has been coming to the Lake since he was an infant, and recalls the endless hours spent tubing and hanging out with the other kids as he got older. 

“Being at the same place with my kids is awesome,” he explained. “It’s the one thing I can give them that I had in my life, in my childhood. One of the things I loved most about coming here is spending the time with family and friends. I hope my children continue the tradition. I hope Erin learns to water ski here and catches her first large mouth bass here.”

While talking about the years, the memories came flooding back for Mary Lou and Don. “The years have just flown,” Mary Lou explained. “Everyone can vacation wherever they want, and they choose to come back here. Watching the grandkids and great grandkids brings back so many memories. We see ourselves in the younger families now.”