American Statesman May 7, 2004

By Denise Gamino


Friday, May 7, 2004

Sometimes, the sands of time refuse to shift.

When a cottonwood's shade slows the heartbeat, when velvet grass promises to bury bare feet and when lapping water leaves behind winsome little seashells, even a beach is content to let time stand still.

This glorious beach (or, perhaps more accurately, "beachette") is just minutes from downtown Austin. It's been making very small waves for 50 years, no doubt overlooked by thousands who crowd area lakes.

West Lake Beach is the only privately owned beach open to the public on Lake Austin, that glittering liquid ribbon on the city's west side that reveals the curvature of the Hill Country. The sand-frosted slice of serenity is one of the few local places where you can appreciate the physical and emotional feel of what Austin was like before highways and high-rises.

David Depwe hopes to keep it that way. He gave up a career as an accountant and computer programmer 15 years ago to try to keep West Lake Beach just like it's always been. "I took off my tie and gave the watch away," he said. He's never looked back.

Depwe's parents and aunt and uncle created West Lake Beach a half-century ago by buying lakefront property next door to their family's land and converting muck, gravel pits and cattail swamps into a welcoming oasis sheltered by cypress and willow trees. Today, Depwe and his wife, Andrea, operate the summer-only beach much like their forebears.

There's still a volleyball net in the water. Kids still learn to swim in the clear waters of a protected lagoon. And picnic tables still sit under shelters held up with weathered cedar posts.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of West Lake Beach, the Depwes are opening their place at 2509 Westlake Drive to the public from 1-6 p.m Saturday. No admission will be charged.

"A lot of people have come out here and (then) kind of forgotten about us," David Depwe said. "So we're just kind of jogging their memory, reminding them we're still here. They can still come out and reminisce with their kids and maybe re-create the same type thing with their kids.

"It hasn't changed very much at all," he said. People "come out and say it's just like it was. We're not progressive at all."

Depwe would like to pass the land to his children and keep the beach operating for future generations, but he says rising tax bills threaten what he describes as a break-even business. In 2003, the property amid pricey residential and commercial real estate, was appraised at $1,220,000. In 1991, it was $456,773.

David Depwe grew up at West Lake Beach in the family house just up the hillside. He and his younger brother, Robert, became pint-sized entrepreneurs in the family business. They ran a concession stand by buying treats directly from the Tom's candy man and reselling the candy. They rented cane fishing poles they made by cutting down bamboo near their grandmother's house on Barton Springs Road and smoothing the shaft and adding line, a hook and a float. They sold bait worms, which they raised in rolled up tubes of sheet metal filled with dirt, peat moss, crushed corn and coffee grounds. And, they collected worn inner tubes from service stations around town, patched them, painted them with the well-known red, green and yellow stripes of West Lake Beach and rented them for 25 cents.

Through the years, West Lake Beach has attracted a variety of people. Churches have held Sunday evening services at the beach, and dusk was a popular time for baptisms in the shallow waters off the sandy beach. A Greek Orthodox church used to hold ceremonies to bless the water, throwing a beribboned cross into the water to be retrieved. A local square dance club used to do-si-do on the grass.

Today, the West Lake High band initiates incoming members by marching them into the water. And Eanes schools have end-of-the year parties here. Businesses have office parties, churches hold picnics and some families have been enjoying reunions for decades, all on the beach.

Visitors to West Lake Beach find very much the same place created by Depwe's parents, Dorothy and Stanley Depwe, and his aunt and uncle, Dan and Sadie McRae. "It's a time warp," said Beth Fox, director of the Westbank Community Library and a longtime visitor to West Lake Beach.

The arched entrance is covered in trumpet vine that curls around a pair of wooden water skis so weathered and aerodynamically unadvanced they haven't been used in decades. A framed collection of color snapshots showing jubilant kids and the fish they caught is fading into oblivion. Boats moored in rented slips have names like "Old Yeller."

In 1986, the Eanes History Center conducted an oral history with Dorothy Depwe about the early days of West Lake Beach. She died in 1995 but her memories survive on tape. Her father first bought shoreline property in 1922. The only way to the property was by boat.

"We had to flatten the land," Dorothy Depwe said. "Part of the ground that was hilly or rocky in some way had to be cleared off and grass planted. To do this we had to wear blue jeans with long stockings . . . and secured the legs of the jeans because the stickers were terrible.

"Soon, we found people coming through the gate and saying, 'Do you mind if we picnic here? Can we tie up our boat?' It wasn't too long until word circulated that there was a place on the lake where people could come to picnic and enjoy the scenery or ski."

In the beginning, visitors put a quarter in a coffee can as they entered. (Today, admission is $7 for adults and $4 for children under 11.) Early customers immediately became regulars, drawn as much by the peaceful grounds as by the water.

"If I might boast a little bit," Dorothy Depwe said on tape, "I'll say that some of our people that came for picnics decided that they wanted to go to the Virgin Islands. After they got there, they found it wasn't as pretty, they said, as West Lake Beach, so they canceled the rest of their trip and came back and spent the rest of their vacation here. And they said, 'We don't even have to go out of Austin to get beautiful scenery and that's what we wanted.' "

Today, the lure is as strong as ever.

Tom Guyton, an Austin meeting consultant for large conventions, is 53 and has been a customer since he was 12. His family kept a boat at the beach, and he used it every day after Austin High School let out.

"We would rush from there to West Lake Beach and jump into our swim suits and bikinis and grab skis out of the locker and get in the boat and go," he said. "I would typically race out of the lagoon way too fast, and (Stanley Depwe) would come and just chew me out. He kind of helped raise the teenagers. He slapped our nose pretty hard, figuratively."

Now, Guyton celebrates Father's Day at West Lake Beach.

"For me and my family, it's just kind of a touchstone place to go back to to remember the good times. My mother has died and one brother has died, and things keep changing. There are divorces and marriages and kids, but the thing that doesn't change is West Lake Beach.

"I took my kids out there and now my kids are taking their kids. It's pretty neat."; 445-3675