Let us now compose a requiem for a dearly-departed friend, Sportsman's Landing, a Lake Manitou watering hole that had beckoned us from the southwest shore for nearly 52 years. It was the little cafe that became, but never could remain, a restaurant. So weekend before last it vanished, almost instantly.

Its 200 feet of shoreline facing Goose Pond now contain four lakeside residential lots, the supply of which long has been exhausted at Manitou. And an interesting twist to the Sportsman's Landing ending is that those who brought it about, Harry and Natalie Gehrich, themselves once operated it as a restaurant.

So the wheel has turned or, as the poet wrote, "the moving finger writes and having writ, moves on; nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line."

The view from Sportsman's across the lake's deep headwaters now will be reserved for others; for the rest of us, memories must suffice. Memory will do for quite awhile because the conviviality that people found at Sportsman's always well compensated for any of its modifications that came with 10 changes of management. It always was, you see, a comforting and happy place to be and to meet your friends.

And it all began with a man named King Ford who opened it as Sportsmen's Landing on Sept. 11, 1953. The business was a retirement investment for Ford, who worked for the state highway department and lived to the west along West Side road, near today's Ford Court intersection. There he had 20 acres extending to the lake that he partly farmed and another 20 acres of swampland. The swamp later was transformed into part of The Channels residential development, a 24-year-long reclamation project that Herb and Joe Meiser began in 1958 off the Sportsman's Landing shore.

Legend has it that Ford copied the dimensions of Dam Landing on the back of a napkin for his carpenter brother Ernie. It's likely true, for the two buildings were the same size and each at first had 10 small rooms upstairs.

Ford was out to attract the fishing crowd which favored the Goose Pond area, particularly in the winter. Ford offered fishermen a boat, breakfast and an overnight room for one price but served only sandwiches and short orders in food. Sportsman's was an immediate success, particularly with the ice fishermen. They came in such numbers that the Goose Pond ice often seemed to be populated by a small city of men whose cars filled the remote and lonely location.

At its start, Sportsman's was a popular meeting spot of men for a beer and a sandwich and perhaps a game of pool. Only with later management did it begin to serve meals.

Less than a year after its opening, Ford leased the business to Dick and Vi Miller who operated it for more than seven years. In September1961, Ford assumed management and continued for a few years. The record of operators then becomes hazy until about l969 when Bill and Vangie Woolford were in charge.

They were succeeded in 1973 by Leonard and Naomi Brockey. Naomi says she lasted but two years and in 1975 Sportsman's was taken over by Joyce Baillieul and brother Bob Goss who stayed for six years.

In 1981 the business was bought by Tom White and Burwyn Blue. White left it soon afterward, though, leaving Blue and wife Almyrta to carry on. Burwyn says that finally it became so difficult to keep competent cooking help that in 1987, after six years, he closed the doors. Sportsman's remained vacant for two years until Kent and Christine Wilson of Kokomo came along, bought it, changed its name to Sportsman's Inn and reopened it in February,1990.

Wilson was a professional chef who introduced a more sophisticated menu and management, being the first to transform Sportsman's from cafe to restaurant. The Wilsons added a small dining room on the north and soon were attracting young adults and couples. Their business boomed for seven years but came to an inglorious end because of the Wilsons' constant bickering that occasionally even interrupted the dinner hour.

Enter the Gehrichs, also of Kokomo, who succeeded the Wilsons in 1997. They not only restored a pleasant ambience to the place, but significantly enlarged and improved it. A second and larger dining room was built facing the lake and the entrance was changed from north to south off a large new parking lot. Natalie Gehrich recalls the years of their ownership and their customer relations with much pleasure, but in November 2000, Eamon and Winnie Murray from Chicago appeared and made them an offer they couldn't refuse.

Eamon, a puckish Irishman, and wife Winnie, his gentle counterpoint, took on Sportsman's with gusto. They opened connective space between the two dining rooms, rearranged the bar area, redecorated with lake history and other nostalgia and installed new restrooms. As with the Gehrichs, business continued to be energized.

But just as the Murrays once had approached the Gehrichs, they in turn were induced to sell in June 2003. Hal and Maria Bond of near Macy, craving to own a restaurant, appeared with their own irresistible offer; the Murrays left for Florida.

The Bonds changed the restaurant's decor to formal and stately, installed a continental menu, champagne brunches, wine-tasting nights and, to the dismay of many, changed the name from the vigorous Sportsman's to the effete Niccolo's.

Less than two years later the Bonds had tired of the business and began seeking a buyer. None came except, once more, the Gehrichs. But by this time they had their own sparkling new Main Street Grille in operation downtown and they wanted Sportsman's back for an entirely different reason.

The equipment and furnishings of the restaurant have gone into storage and, who knows, might sometime reappear in a new role to please us. Sportsman's Landing has passed into our subconscious and from there we may summon it at our pleasure.

Published May 10, 2005