It all began with that small blurb about the history of Voorhees Township that I read as part of earning a merit badge for Boy Scouts when I was in my early teens. I had always been a history-minded individual, and the idea of my own very modern, suburban town having a history that stretched back beyond the rows of shiny new houses fascinated me. Some of the places in the history I knew about, such as Kresson School, the Haddon Cabaña Club (which I had visited, after its abandonment, with my mom and friend when I was 7 or 8), Kresson Lake (with its still-visible-at-the-time diving platform), and Sunshine Lake (where my grandmother had picnicked in the ’20s and ’30s). However, there were places that I hadn’t heard about. One of the more interesting reads:
“Ole’s Ranch… was a small lake front complex. It began as a dude ranch owned by Ole Larson featuring two of the largest log cabin structures in the area. In the mid 1960s television personality Sally Starr purchased the “ranch” and turned it into a restaurant/dance hall complex called “The Ponderosa.” The complex failed as a commercial venture and was abandoned in the early 1970s. The vacant log cabins were destroyed by fire in the mid 1980s.”
Cool, a dude ranch in Voorhees. I never would have expected that.
Flash forward several years to my early 20s. I drive now, and what is better to do when driving than to go exploring? An acquaintance had told me about Cedar Lake Park on Dutchtown Road, a swimming area that had shut down “for the season” due to insurance rates… only this was twenty years ago at this point. Well, I had to go see this for myself. I grabbed one of my buddies and we headed out for a little walk from Lion’s Lake Park. We saw the sign, found an abandoned car, took some pictures, and decided to keep on going. Eventually we come to a dirt road (with sporadic pavement). There aren’t many dirtish roads in the town anymore, so we took a walk back and discovered a broken down dam, a whole lot of trash, and lots of fishing line. That was a pretty good find, so we headed back to the car.
Later the night, I was checking out maps to see where we had gone. Kresson Lake… Cedar Lake… Ole’s Lake? A web search turned up one hit… the Voorhees Township History, now available online (2015 – no longer available). I reread the blurb for the first time in years, and was immediately curious, what was Ole’s Ranch? Was anything left? Further web searches, an e-mail to Sally Starr, and asking some older locals turned up no further information, although one of my friend’s mothers did remember visiting the place when it was run by Ms. Starr. Crossing the dam to explore was another story; there were plenty of remains of Ole’s Ranch to be found around the lake.
I explored the area many times with different friends over the years, or stopped by just to fish. The dam/road to the area where the dance hall was demolished many years ago, so getting across always was always an adventure, requiring the use of a packing crate, a board, and a fallen tree as a bridge. The far side of the lake had the burnt out remnants of two log cabins, two large cinder block structures, some retaining walls by the lake, some random fencing, and bits of metal sticking out of the ground, all that remained of this business venture. I figured that Ole’s was probably like most of the other nearby lakes, a cranberry bog turned recreational lake. Today the lake is still used recreationally for fishing, and less legitimately as a place for the local kids to build fires and get drunk (not the best idea because a township police officer lives on the edge of the lake). I eventually became brave enough to take my camera across the make-shift bridge with me, and the ranch proved to be very photogenic. An adventure, a few hours of fun exploring, a spot to fish, and some good photos, I’d gotten quite a lot out of Ole’s Lake. Once in a while, I’d get an e-mail with questions about the place, and I’d reply with what I knew.
One day, out of the blue, an e-mail came to me labeled “Ole’s Ranch”. I opened it, figuring someone wanted to know how to get there, or if I knew anything more about it. However, it was much more than that, it was from a gentleman named Nelson, the grandson of Ole Larsen, who had stayed at the ranch in his childhood. My old interest in Ole’s Lake was instantly rekindled.
I was surprised to learn that the Voorhees Township History (and, by extension, myself) had spelled the name wrong; the gentleman whom the lake was named after was Ole Larsen. That was only my first surprise, as the complex was more than I had ever imagined. Nelson and Janice, the youngest daughter of Ole Larsen, began to fill me in on the rich history of Ole’s Dude Ranch. What a history it was.
Ole’s started as nothing more than a dream. The property, a mere tract of woods with a stream running through, was purchased by Mr. Larsen in the early 1940s. Janice tells of the family going out to visit the plot of land, sitting under an old cherry tree and dreaming of the future. Before the dreams could be fulfilled, there was a lot of work to be done. It turns out that Ole’s Lake (really two lakes bisected by the bridge) are not just named after Ole Larsen, the man dug each of them himself from a small stream with the help of a donkey and a handmade plow. The bridge was built in 1944, and the label can still be seen on the side of the bridge on a day when the water is clear.
Once the lake was dug, there was still a complex to be built. When the Delaware River Bridge (now known as the Ben Franklin Bridge) was built, Ole won a contract to haul away the cobblestones that were torn up to make way for this new bridge. The cobblestones became the foundations for most of the buildings there, including an outdoor amphitheatre with a capacity of over 1000 people. The first building, a bar/nightclub/restaurant was a log cabin structure completed in 1945. The logs, as well as the logs for all future buildings, were purchased at Gaagers in Medford NJ, which sold cedar trees for the purposes of telephone poles and log cabins. More buildings soon followed. Facing the complex, the log cabin to the left was Ole’s house, where the family lived for many years. The property also contained the restaurant (later on an addition was built with a ten room hotel addition upstairs, and a bar/shuffleboard area downstairs), a large horse barn, and the before-mentioned amphitheatre that overhung the lake. That amphitheater played host to many of the big musical acts over the years, among them Bill Haley and the Comets, Johnny Ray, Patty Paige, Guy Mitchell, Bill Darnell, The Eberly Brothers, Hank Williams, and Eddie Fisher. The place also played host to the weddings of all of Ole’s girls, and then later was used as a summer getaway for the children and grandchildren alike.
Around 1963, the ranch was sold to a close friend of the family, Ms. Sally Starr, and her husband Marty Gray. As many people know, Sally was country musician and star of children’s television, as well as a former employee of Ole’. Under the new management and with a new name, The Ponderosa, the restaurant did not do as well as it had, and after a year the Larsen family resumed control of it. Another sale had the same end result. Finally, the ranch was sold to a group from Philadelphia, who turned it into an African-American club. This venture also failed, and the property was abandoned in the early 1970s. As the Voorhees Township history reports, the property was destroyed by arson in the 1980s.
Now days, Ole’s Lake is a place to go fishing or to go to sit on a township-installed bench and watch the sunset. There are a few burnt foundations and the crumbled dam left to show that something was once located at this particular place, but nothing hints at the true size of the complex or its rich history. However, the old cherry tree that the Larsen family first sat under to dream their dream of a dude ranch is still there. And, one day each year, so is the Larsen family, who gather to remember their family’s past.
Many, many thanks to Nelson and Janice, who took the time to share their family’s story with me.