Lake area designed by MSU students

Serendipitous can be loosely defined as a happy accident or a fortunate discovery, and perhaps can be applied to the early interactions between Baker Lake and one particular young landscape architectural student studying at Montana State University.

David Espeland helped design Baker Lake area.
David Espeland helped design Baker Lake area.

Posted April 5, 2013

By Lisa Kilsdonk

Serendipitous can be loosely defined as a happy accident or a fortunate discovery, and perhaps can be applied to the early interactions between Baker Lake and one particular young landscape architectural student studying at Montana State University.

The next time you see kids with fishing poles walking toward the lake or hear the drone of a watercraft’s engine as it zigzags across the water, be grateful to live in a place where decades ago city fathers had the foresight to capitalize on a generous-sized puddle of water simply known by folks around here as: the lake.

In the early 1980s, Fallon County’s first planner, Kevin Fenner, contacted a professor in MSU’s agriculture/horticulture department asking if he had any students who would be willing to come look at a small town in eastern Montana that was built around a lake. Fenner told the professor, Dick Pahl, that the town of Baker was looking for some ideas to develop the area around the lake to enhance its recreational use.

Since the scope of the project was rather large, Dr. Pahl sent two students east for a look-see. The two young men, Lane Ledbetter and David Espeland, arrived in Baker armed with enthusiasm and that can-do attitude often found in youth. They met with Fenner, got the project specs, and headed back to Bozeman to continue their studies and, now, complete a major municipal design project.

One of the most memorable events of the road trip for Espeland happened while the two were driving. “We got attacked by a herd of sagebrush,” Espeland recalled with a smile. “I’d never seen something like that before.”

According to Espeland, the two worked well together. “We pitched a lot of cool ideas back and forth.” In the overall scheme of things, Espeland’s job was to come up with the overall concept and placement of specific features, and Ledbetter was the detail man who designed the individual structures. See MSU students, page 16

Once the two had completed their vision for Baker Lake, they returned and presented their ideas to Fenner and the commissioners of Fallon County. That would have been the end of the story except for a few interesting twists along the way. A few years later, Ledbetter and Espeland found themselves in the same apartment building for the summer, both working for landscaping companies. A few years after that, the two ran into each other again at the University of Oregon where they both earned their masters degrees – Ledbetter in landscaping and Espeland in administration.

Life then took David Espeland and his wife Lisa to the Bay Area of northern California. After some time passed, the two native Montanans began to seriously consider returning to their home state. When they heard about an opening for a hospital administrator, they traded in their big city West Coast lifestyle for the wide open spaces of a small town in eastern Montana that just happened to surround a lake.

Over 15 years had passed since the visionary landscape architectural students had presented their concepts to the forward thinking commissioners and county planner, but apparently, the dreams of the two were taken seriously.

David Espeland returned to Baker as a family man and hospital administrator and found that the two-dimensional plans he’d sketched out on paper and then carefully transposed onto blueprints were now stone and mortar reality.

Not every single aspect of the blueprints had been erected, but the majority of the features surrounding the lake today had their beginnings in the minds of two hard-working undergraduate students eager to apply their knowledge and prove their skills.

“Cross-training was a big deal back then, so we designed a progression of exercise stations along the path,” said Espeland, “and they built them. In our original proposal, the walking path was crushed rock, but that’s been replaced with a concrete sidewalk. The boat ramp, gazebo and benches are right where we placed them, and so is the picnic area on the east side called Iron Horse Park.”

One of the proposals from the original plan that didn’t get built was a boat dock near the north end of the lake that would have allowed boaters to dock, walk to a nearby restaurant, grab a burger and be back on the lake without having to load up their boat and drive downtown from the boat ramp area. Not all of Ledbetter and Espeland’s ideas made it into the blueprint. “We thought it would be cool if someone would build a steakhouse on the lake so people could eat and enjoy the view. We also played with the idea of an indoor/outdoor pool separated from the lake by a glass wall, but we didn’t put that in either,” Espeland said, explaining that the hot springs in the Bozeman area had fueled that idea. The amphitheater is one addition that Espeland doesn’t recall proposing, but thinks is great.

Now, more than 30 years after the Baker Lake recreational development proposal was submitted, the project continues with the addition of benches and the installation of old-fashioned lamp posts that will beckon the residents of  Baker to come outside and enjoy a walk, a picnic, some time at the playground, a bit of playtime on the sandy beach, a volleyball game, or bit of bird watching from a bench. And when you do, don’t forget to thank Baker’s own David Espeland, Fallon Medical Complex’s CEO, for his part in the design of his future hometown. Serendipity, indeed!