Above: Brian Chapin and Karen Silverthorn enjoy boating on Lake Lanier. SPECIAL

They point first to the peace and quiet. That’s what drew them to settle on Lake Lanier, they say. They wanted a place where they could sit on a dock and watch the sun set over the expanse of water. They wanted a place where they wouldn’t have to deal with traffic jams or all-night city lights.

Peggy Snider Houghton used to leave her home in Kennesaw just about every weekend to get away to her family’s vacation home on the lake. “When I crossed that bridge [over Ga. 400], I knew I’m going [to be able soon] to watch the water,” the 60-year-old said.

Once their kids moved on, she and her husband settled at Lanier fulltime. “It’s so quiet,” she said during a recent phone conversation conducted from her car while she was stuck in Buckhead traffic. “It’s peaceful.”

John Barker also finds living on the lake to be restful. “I love the lake,” the 70-year-old retired Coca-Cola executive said. “I love the rural nature of it. I love the peace and enjoyment I get being here.”

Then again, he said, he also likes cutting loose on his jet ski. “I have a need for speed,” Barker said.

He’s not the only one. Karen Martin, a 68-year-old Delta Air Lines flight attendant and Houghton’s neighbor, rides around on her own jet ski. “Us old people do it, too,” she said. “You’d be surprised at how many old people I see riding around on those things. Old people can be fun, too.”

Barker and Houghton boated on Lake Sidney Lanier for many years, but only moved permanently to homes on the lake within the past decade. Martin moved in 31 years ago. They are among thousands of seniors who’ve headed to communities on or near the 38,000-acre lake northeast of Atlanta in search of places to live and, in many cases, retire.

The growth in the crowd of older adults in the area seems to be picking up speed. For instance, in Hall County, one of five counties that touch the lake, the population aged 65 and older grew by 53% from 2000 to 2010, rising from about 9% to about 11% of the total population, according to censusviewer.com. The most recent estimate from the U.S. Census, for 2018, put the population of the county aged 65 or older at about 15%.

Local residents mention the area’s hospitals and the lifestyle in and around Gainesville as part of the attraction for older adults, but some say a big part of the draw is the lake. “I think it’s the lake that gives people a reason to look at this area,” said Bev Knight of The Good Life Group Lanier, a real estate agency that specializes in lake properties. “But we’re also 30 minutes from the metro area and 30 minutes from the mountains. It’s got everything Atlanta’s got, without the traffic.”

Knight, who lives in Gainesville herself, aims her sales pitches at seniors looking for a place to resettle away from the city. “It’s a fantastic place to retire,” she said. When targeting marketing of the lake, “we start at age 50. Fifty and over is who we target and who we sell to.”

She’s even going so far as to try to divert New Yorkers headed to Florida retirement communities to Lanier by deploying ads saying the lake offers homes on the water with all the pleasures but without the hurricanes.

Kathy Seger of Re/Max Around Atlanta, who specializes in sales in senior communities, said most of her clients are looking for the activities those communities offer active retirees. “They’re looking into the lifestyle of ‘active adults,’ they’re not necessary looking into lake living,” she said. “They’re looking for community.”

Karen Silverthorn and her husband, Brian Chapin, bought their home at Cresswind at Lake Lanier, a 55-and-older community boasting 1,600 homes, in 2010. They keep a boat at the community’s marina but are involved in plenty of activities other than boating. They both take part in the ukulele band, she said, and Chapin belongs to a club that appreciates Scotch whisky.

Members of the dining club at Cresswind at Lake Lanier share a dinner together. They are, left to right, Clay Myers, Rita Petty, Brian Chapin, Ellen Vann, Richard Petty, Georgia Myatt, Tim Vann, Karen Silverthorn. SPECIAL

In 2012, Silverthorn started a Cresswind dinner club called Adventures In Dining that meets four times a year and claims 90 members. She was familiar with neighborhood dining clubs through similar ones she’d helped organize when she lived in Marietta and in Ontario, Canada.

Cresswind dining club get-togethers employ an average of six to eight host houses for each dinner, she said. Members, who pay $40 to $65 per couple for the meal, gather in groups of eight, with the hosts providing the table setting and the guests preparing appetizers, entrees and desserts from recipes provided by the club. The club sends a box of wines matched to the courses to each host home, she said. “It takes a lot of work,” she said.

But she thinks it’s worth it in order to get to know her neighbors. “The food really is secondary—it really is—to getting people together over a nice table,” she said. “Food brings people together. My hope is to make neighbors into friends.”

And fine dining is just one way she and her neighbors can participate in the life of their community. Cresswind has spawned more than 100 clubs, assistant manager Kitti Kleinedler said, that organize activities ranging from pickleball to physical fitness, from card games to arts and crafts, from quilting to staging plays. “There’s something for everybody here,” Kleinedler said.

The rush of people that brought all those clubs brings other changes to the area, too. Restaurants in Gainesville, for instance, offer greater variety than they used to, several residents noted. Silverthorn said she and her husband like to crank up the boat and head to dinner at a marina, where a restaurant offers lake views. “We really came [here] for the location, for being on the lake,” she said.

Longtime residents see other changes coming, too. “One downside is Gainesville is starting to look like Gwinnett County,” long-time resident Martin said. “There’re traffic jams. Nothing like Atlanta, but it’s built up. Too much stuff in too small an area. That’s the only negative I can think of: it’s growing too much; it’s too popular.”

Still, she loves the place.

“It’s very nice in the evening to go out on the dock … and see all the jet skis,” she said with a laugh. “Lake living is great. … Being on the water, you can’t beat it.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.