“But in 1919 there were not ten acres of public woods, water landings or open prairies, in the state, unless in cities. Not a game could be played, a shot fired, a race run, a fly cast or a lunch spread, unless in cities or on dusty highways unless the enjoyment was a trespass or was through the consent of private owners.”
- Edgar R. Harlan 1

One  of the first people to promote the idea of establishing parks within Iowa was Theodore Parvin. Parvin, private secretary to the first Iowa territorial governor, promoted the idea that Iowa’s woods should be set aside for economic and park usage as early as the 1850s. Thomas MacBride (University of Iowa botany professor and later president), Bohumil Shimek (botany professor at the University of Iowa), and Louis Pammel (botany professor at Iowa State) became staunch advocates for a state park system during the early part of the 20th century.


While state park advocacy efforts included the preservation of woods and natural habitats, the state park movement took hold around preservation of Iowa’s lakes. Lakes were a dwindling commodity in Iowa during the early part of the 20th century, with only 70 lakes held by the state in 1915 (these lakes were referred to as “meandered lakes” – a meander being the boundary between public and private land). Privately owned lakes were often drained for agricultural uses. In 1915, Iowa’s legislature directed the State Highway Commission to study the meandered lakes and recommend if conservation measures should be implemented or if the lakes should continue to be held by the state.This was the first time public lands in Iowa had been studied with conservation in mind. Several faculty from Iowa State participated in the survey, including Louis Pammel (botany), G. B. MacDonald (forestry), and Harold Hughes (agronomy). Detailed topographic maps were produced from the study, and the Commission recommended that the lakes be retained. The lake study provided official documentation to justify the need for park legislation.


With the passage of the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act at the federal level, the dream of establishing state parks in Iowa became a far more likely reality after years of advocating for parks within Iowa. The Executive Committee of the Iowa Conservation Association met early in 1917 to plan a strategy and soon after met with Senator Perry Holdoegel, chair of the Fish and Game Committee. A draft of the legislation emerged from this meeting. Shortly after, Holdoegel introduced the bill which was passed 63-25 by the House and unanimously by the Senate.

The National Park That Wasn't

Along with state park plans, discussions took place for a national park within Iowa along the Mississippi River from 1915-1929. Many of the same individuals who advocated for state parks in Iowa also participated in the discussions for the Upper Mississippi Valley National Park. The proposed boundaries shifted continuously, but at one time the proposed national park ran from Minneapolis-St. Paul in Minnesota to 45 miles south of Dubuque. The national park was determined unfeasible because the proposal included far too many cities within its boundaries. However, the effort to establish a national park within the state of Iowa resulted in the formation of Effigy Mounds National Monument located near Harpers Ferry, Iowa.


The Civilian Conservation Corps of Iowa

The young men employed through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 1930s New Deal were instrumental in building Iowa's state parks. Their labor was used to restore the land to its more natural environment and to create the structures, such as picnic tables, fire pits, and shelters, which enabled recreational use of the parks.Under the leadership of conservationist and political cartoonist Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling, Iowa had created a Twenty-Five Year Conservation Plan, finalized in 1933. Funding had not been set aside for the conservation plan, but soon after its publication the work programs of the New Deal were put in place to provide monetary relief for the Great Depression's unemployed. According to Iowa State's forestry professor G. B. MacDonald, Iowa was one of the only states to have an overall plan for conservation which included state parks, thereby making it one of the first states to gain approval for CCC camps.2

Iowa State played an important role in CCC work in state parks. State forester and Iowa State's forestry professor, G. B. MacDonald, served as Iowa's CCC director. Under MacDonald's influence, two CCC camps were dedicated to forestry work, and a third camp provided labor for the state tree nursery (established by MacDonald) in Ames. In addition, landscape architects at Iowa State continued to contribute to park design.

The work of the CCC within Iowa was impressive. In less than a decade, "By the time the CCC ended in 1942, the number of CCC enrollees in Iowa camps would total nearly 46,000. They would contribute to the development of more than eighty state parks, and leave a tangible legacy that still numbers more than seven hundred state park structures."3

For more information on the CCC:
The Legacy of Hope from an Era of Despair: The CCC and Iowa State Parks
The CCC Legacy
CCC Camp newsletters.

Establishment | Land | Design

  • 1. Harlan, Edgar R., Introduction to Iowa Parks: Conservation of Iowa Historic, Scenic and Scientific Areas, Report of the State Board of Conservation (Des Moines: State of Iowa, 1919).
  • 2. Conard, Rebecca. "The Legacy of Hope from an Era of Despair: The CCC and Iowa State Parks." The University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections & University Archives. Accessed 9/8/2017.
  • 3. Conard, Rebecca. "The Legacy of Hope from an Era of Despair: The CCC and Iowa State Parks." The University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections & University Archives. Accessed 9/8/2017.