T he sound of hammers and the buzz of power tools fill the 4,000-square-foot home of Fran and Chuck Theos. Fran offers coffee and cookies and apologizes for the sounds of renovation. “You know,” she says, “this is the third time we’ve moved here.” In 1967, she and Chuck built their multilevel dream home on a heavily wooded, sloping, half-acre lot. Several years later, they divorced. When they eventually reunited and remarried, there was no doubt where they wanted to restart their life as a couple. “My husband knocked on the door of ‘our house,’ asked the owner if he would sell the house back to us and he did,” Fran says. They settled in and raised their blended family. The children grew up, moved out and started families of their own. It seemed time to move to a home with fewer stairs and less upkeep so they packed their boxes and relocated a few miles away.
“We moved into a new house,” Fran says, “but it wasn’t home. We missed the neighbors and the neighborhood.”
However, they had stayed in touch with the family who bought their previous home and when they learned the house was about to go on the market, they bought it. Again.
Not far from the Theos’ home, brightly colored rafts float on the calm surface of a lake. A few yards away, stand-up paddle boarders get their daily workout. A kayak skims by, observed only by the watchful eyes of a blue heron perched high in a pine tree.
Where in the world is this paradise that people don’t want to leave and where outdoor activities are a part of every day? Pickwick? Heber Springs? No, this is a typical summer day in the heart of metropolitan Memphis on the border between East Memphis and Germantown. This is Walnut Grove Lake subdivision.
Developers Carl Jacobson and Lloyd Lovitt began work on the site, which features rolling hills covered with azaleas and dogwoods, back in the mid-1960s and the first residents, or “settlers” as they called themselves, moved into their then-new homes 50 years ago. The current 485-home residential development began with a handful of homes constructed around a 42-acre man-made lake. The winding streets were given vowel-laden Nordic names such as Kristiandsund and Thorgeson, reflecting Carl Jacobson’s pride in his Scandinavian heritage.
At the time, Walnut Grove Road was just a two-lane extension of Raleigh-LaGrange Road and the closest grocery store was nine miles away at Eastgate Shopping Center. Walnut Grove Lake subdivision wasn’t suburbia in its early years; it was exurbia.
Early resident Audrey Grehl (wife of longtime Commercial Appeal editor Mike Grehl) described her new surroundings in a 1994 essay written for the Walnut Grove Lake Home Owners Association newsletter:
“Germantown was a small enclave about three miles to the south, without stores or services. Cordova, to the north, was even smaller,” she wrote. “Walnut Grove Road stopped at Germantown Road so you made a jog to the north to Raleigh-LaGrange Road.”
Grehl noted that the services offered to early residents were a “patchwork affair,” with gas and electricity from Memphis and water provided by the then-independent municipality of Ellendale, now part of Bartlett. Telephone services initially came from Germantown, which also supplied fire protection before turning it over to the Shelby County Fire Department.
“There was no garbage pick-up,” Grehl continued. “Residents used an existing dump shared by tenant farms on land that became Walnut Bend Road.” New residents were cautioned to be sure their car gas tank was full before “leaving the city.”
Today the countryside that once surrounded Walnut Grove Lake’s little community is filled by homes and businesses. Hope Presbyterian Church now marks the northern border of the subdivision, with wetlands leading to the Wolf River marking the southern boundary. Yet the neighborhood has retained its woodsy charm and the feel of being far away from the city.
“I walked the land as a teenager with my uncle Lloyd and his bird dog before it was developed,” recalls Jimmy Lovitt, who later worked as sales manager for Lovitt and Company and lived at Walnut Grove Lake for 23 years. Although his co-founder uncle never lived at Walnut Grove Lake, Jimmy remembers the property as his uncle’s favorite development, and one that Lloyd Lovitt remained closely associated with until his death in 1999.
Much of the architecture in the older parts of the neighborhood is in sync with the Scandinavian-themed street names and reflects the postmodern style of the late Sixties. The designs take advantage of the rolling terrain and thick growths of trees. Many of the original homes were custom built and designed by well-known local architects. Lot prices ranged from $8,000 fronting on the lake to $4,000 for off-lake lots.
In the early days, buying a house at Walnut Grove Lake was not always an easy task. When Dr. Fred Barrett, now retired from Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, and his family moved to Memphis from Houston almost 40 years ago, his wife, Danny, was ready to buy when she saw a home on Viking Cove. “According to the real estate agent, it was too far out and too much of a commute,” Barrett recalls. “Little did he know how far I was driving to work in Houston or how much my wife loved this neighborhood.” Danny Barrett’s determination and the couple’s children’s fascination with the hilly terrain and lake resulted in a purchase.
Today real estate agent Jeffrey Britt describes the subdivision as one of his favorites. He points out that the old-growth trees, the uniqueness of house designs, and access to the lake are the top draws. “There’s great variety with house sizes ranging from 2,000 to 4,500 square feet,” he notes, “and a broad price range from around $120,000 to houses selling for more than $300,000.” According to Britt, the 2014 average listing price for a home at Walnut Grove Lake has been $188,000, up more than $10,000 from last year.
Marianne Schmidt, one of the neighborhood’s newest residents, explains how she had been driving down Walnut Grove to work for more than 15 years and had never noticed the neighborhood. “My two daughters were helpers at a special-needs camp this summer and were invited to an after-camp reunion at Walnut Grove Lake. We fell in love with the lake and the neighborhood, and started immediately looking for homes in the area after that first visit.”
Schmidt’s husband, Doug, adds that they had a “nice house in a nice neighborhood” and weren’t planning on moving. “But when [the realtor] took me to look at the area, I was sold.” They purchased their three-story brick home a short time later.
While sales are today on the upswing, residents had problems obtaining financing in the early days. The properties were marketed as “resort living,” and some lenders wanted to treat the homes as vacation residences. “My husband went to three lenders before we could get a loan,” Fran Theos recalls. “They kept saying that they didn’t finance vacation homes.”
Now, some 50 years later, Walnut Grove Lake residents still enjoy the country-like scenery. They ride in boats ranging from kayaks and paddle boards to 20-foot-plus pontoon boats that would seem to be more at home at Pickwick Lake. But all have one thing in common, they are either paddled or rowed or powered slowly by an electric trolling motor. Gasoline motors are not allowed. As a result, it’s probably one of the quietest recreational lakes in America.
The neighborhood’s annual Fourth of July celebration highlights the community’s events. A mailbox-decorating contest sets the stage several weeks in advance. The celebration is not always on the exact date, but it’s always close to July 4th. It begins with a fishing rodeo and prizes for all ages. An afternoon boat parade is enlivened by competition in categories such as Best Bribe (mimosas and barbecue sandwiches often do the trick), Best Music, and Most Spirited.
A professional fireworks show is produced on the dam along the lake’s southern border. Residents are asked to contribute $60 to cover costs since the neighborhood association dues do not fund the fireworks. Several neighborhood parks are popular spots from which to watch the show; many of the lake-front homeowners enjoy the fireworks from their boats. Other annual events at Walnut Grove Lake include a wintertime Holiday Lighting Contest and, in the spring, an Easter Egg hunt and a cookout.
With a population of more than 475 families, multiple common areas and activities, annual dues income exceeding $75,000, and assets of about $250,000, oversight of Walnut Grove Lake subdivision could be a daunting task. However, a small but dedicated neighborhood association has managed the subdivision successfully for more than two decades.
Walnut Grove Lake Homeowners Association (WGLHA) assumed responsibility for collection of neighborhood dues and management of the common areas, including the lake and dam, from the developers of the subdivision in 1996. Membership is mandatory and automatic with the purchase of property.
M argie McMillan, an 11-year WGL resident, has been WGLHA president for eight years. Four officers and two to three alternates assist her. Jeanie Velarde, the group’s only paid member, serves as bookkeeper, manages the quarterly newsletter and website and, as a longtime resident, acts as the unofficial historian as well as serving as a block captain for the Neighborhood Watch program. Although elected for only one year, most board members serve for multiple terms, giving stability to the organization. There are no term limits. An annual meeting offers the board a chance to update members and discuss issues facing the neighborhood. The board itself meets periodically, but tries to do as much work as possible via email. The annual homeowner’s fee of $167, the lowest of similar neighborhoods in Shelby County, covers the neighborhood’s operating expenses. The board can raise the fee only a maximum of 10 percent per year. “Our main expenses are maintenance and improvement of the parks, insurance, electricity, etc.,” McMillan says. “Our greatest liability, as far as expenses, would be issues of maintenance of the lake and the dam.” Dues for off-lake residences are the same as for those on the lake. McMillan notes that the majority of the association’s controllable expenses such as park upkeep and development of boat storage areas and playgrounds are focused on improving off-lake residents’ access to the lake. The board recently commissioned an assessment of the current and future needs of the community by the civil-engineering firm JWS and Associates. The study recommended that the depths of the lake be carefully monitored to determine when and where dredging was necessary. The dam is inspected biannually by the State of Tennessee for safety purposes. “Though the dredging will be costly, ongoing maintenance is critical to the health of the lake and the beauty of the neighborhood,” McMillan says.
A Neighborhood Watch program is augmented by use of a security service that patrols during times of peak use to ensure that enjoyment of the neighborhood’s common areas is restricted to residents. “We take a lot of pride in our neighborhood,” McMillan says. “The residents invest in their homes as well as in the common areas through their dues, so we want to ensure that it’s a safe environment.”
Boats on the lake must have visible lot numbers displayed on both sides. Cards are issued to residents, and cars in the parks are required to have WGL decals. The board also oversees new construction such as outbuildings, piers, seawalls, fences, driveways, or walls to ensure that it adheres to the neighborhood’s covenants. All plans must be submitted to and approved by the board before work can begin.
“I think good communications have been the key to the success of the board,” McMillan says. “It’s important for the board members to get along with the association members and listen to their concerns. I work from home and have the flexibility to spend time on neighborhood business every day. I’m committed to this neighborhood and plan to stay here a long time. The lake is a great asset but the people in this neighborhood are what make it special.”
Cindy Dixon Conner recently left FedEx Services as communications director for Citizenship and Reputation Management. Currently she is a teaching fellow and writer for Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship and a freelance communications consultant. She moved to the Walnut Grove Lake subdivision in 1998.