Passed on to Future Generations
Ask any Panola County native about Prior’s Lake and more than likely you’ll need to pull up a chair, get comfortable, and be ready to hear memories about how the small body of fresh water impacted their life in some way. It might be a story about friends having fun swimming or grandparents meeting while listening to a fiddle player on the shoreline. It might even be how a family member accepted Christ and was baptized in Prior’s Lake.
Located in a forest off of F.M. 699, Prior’s Lake was built in 1909 on property owned by Wade Boren Prior. Wade Boren and his second wife Viola owned and lived on the property in an ornate Victorian house separated from the lake by a forest. It is speculated that Wade Boren might have used money that he earned while working in the West Texas oil field to have the lake built.
Many of today’s Panola County residents probably recall the lake owner as Wade Clifton Prior, nephew of Wade Boren Prior. Wade Clifton inherited the FM 699 property after his uncle and aunt died in 1944 and 1968, respectively. Prior’s Lake remained in the family after Wade Clifton’s death in 2003.
What was referred to as a “fishing pond” at the time, Wade Boren reportedly spent between $1,000 and $1,500 to have the trees cleared and the lake dug by teams of mules, according to a newspaper article saved by family members. The lake, fed by eight natural springs, covers 10-15 acres. The East Texas Register reported upon the completion of the lake in 1909, “Wade Prior has built the largest pond of its kind in this county.”
Of course, the largest fishing pond in the county provided local people with a place to gather and socialize. “That’s all that Panola County had at one time was Prior’s Lake for entertainment,” said Betty Prior, wife of Wade Clifton.
Wade Boren added other structures to the property that provided more opportunities for fun and relaxation for county residents. “There was a pavilion at the shore,” Betty remembered. “They used to have parties and dances out there.”
“They would swim, picnic, and fish during the day,” said Theresa Hawkins, second daughter of Wade Clifton, “and then danced and socialized on the pavilion in the evening.” Hawkins also remembered stories of a fiddler being at these gatherings.
“The architecture of the pavilion was Victorian like the house, said Clo Faulkner, first daughter of Wade Clifton. “It had a raised wooden floor with poles that supported the roof that supported the floor. It was all open air. Benches went around three sides. They were attached to the poles,” said Hawkins.
“There were two of the biggest pecan trees you’ve ever seen out there by the pavilion,” said Betty Prior. Faulkner remembered a rope swing hung from one of the pecan trees.
Across from the pavilion and into the lake was a fishing pier with a bathhouse and changing rooms at the end. One side was for the ladies, and one side was for the men. Wade Clifton used to share stories of there being a slide from the ladies’ side going straight into the water. “It was OK for the men to be seen with their swimsuit on, but not the women,” remembered Hawkins. The women would change into their swimsuits in the bathhouse then slide down the slide into the water before the men could see them.
Betty Prior remembered friend Louise West telling her about being baptized at Prior’s Lake. West was one of 48 people baptized in April 1933, according to The Panola Watchman. The group baptism was Central Baptist Church’s largest baptismal service at that time. Many other baptismal services were held at Prior’s Lake, one in particular as far back as 1915, according to family photos.
After Wade Boren completed the original lake, he built a second larger lake on the property. In 2006, beavers weakened the dam and caused it to break, spilling the entire second lake onto surrounding property. The family had the dam rebuilt, and the natural springs have filled the lake back to its normal level.
Of course, Wade Clifton’s family remembers many of their own stories about the lakes. Faulkner remembered one story in particular about her junior high Campfire outing. “We had a sleep over at the lakes and all the girls put their sleeping bags in the pavilion,” said Faulkner. “Mother and Daddy were sleeping in their station wagon beside the pavilion, and a group of boys came to the opposite end of the lake and made noises to scare the girls,” Faulkner remembered as she laughed about how her friends reacted.
“I remember having a family reunion there when I was a child,” said Hawkins. We used the pavilion. I had my bicycle out there. I remember I went up the road to see who was coming and came back down to announce who was on their way.”
Wade Clifton maintained the lake property throughout his life and shared it with the community. It was important to him that he continue the tradition of having a place for the community to enjoy with their family, so he sold 100 keys to the property’s gate beginning January 1 of each year to anyone interested. When somebody came to purchase a key from him, he always said they could bring their friends and family to the lake anytime.
Unfortunately, times eventually changed from his uncle’s lifetime. People started vandalizing the property, dumping trash, and not respecting the privilege of having a nearby private place to fish and camp. Despite his determination to leave the lakes available to the public, Wade Clifton made the difficult decision to stop selling keys during the late 1980s.
In the generations that followed, Wade Clifton’s daughters, sons-in-law, and four grandchildren enjoy the lakes with activities for each season. Duck hunting, deer hunting, four-wheeler riding, and camping are activities that have built memories for the Prior family. No doubt, these stories of paddling in a boat to the middle of the lake only to discover the boat was filling up with water, setting up a paint ball battle field, realizing the four wheeler didn’t have breaks while going down hill towards a creek, having senior pictures and wedding portraits taken, and sitting around a lake-side fire roasting hot dogs with Wade Clifton and all four grandchildren are memories that will be passed on to future generations.