ANAMOSA — Wapsipinicon State Park, built with inmate labor on land originally donated by community residents, will make a bid to become Iowa’s first state park designated a National Historic District in its entirety.
The State Historical Society of Iowa recently announced the award of a $7,350 grant to the Jones County Historic Preservation Commission for a $13,950 project to research and prepare the historic district application to the National Park Service.
A National Register of Historic Places designation could help the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that maintains and manages the 400-acre park obtain more grant funding for preserve sites in the park. It could also shape the planning of future projects in the park to protect its historic appeal.
“It says, “this is special,” said John Maehl, district supervisor for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Iowa’s older parks are dotted with rustic pavilions, lodges and bridges built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Many of the rustic structures in those parks are already on the historic register, based in part on their connection to the depression-era public works project.
That’s not the case with Wapsipinicon State Park, which has even older structures.
Most of the structures in Wapsipinicon State Park were built in the early 1920s, about 10 years before the CCC structures, using locally quarried limestone from the Anamosa area and labor from the Anamosa State Reformatory, according to archaeological and historical consultant Leah Rogers of Tallgrass Historical LC, Iowa City.
In fact, it was a potential deal between the reformatory and the landowner of what’s now the oldest section of park that led Anamosa citizens to buy land in the area and donate it to the state to build the park.
The reformatory had made an agreement with Asa Smith, who raised horses on 183.5 land that is now part of the park, to harvest the land’s timber in exchange for one-half of the harvested wood to use at the reformatory.
Townspeople, who didn’t want to see the area logged, raised $22,936 to buy the 183 acres of land, and immediately donated it to what was then the Iowa Board of Conservation to create a state park.
Inmate crews built shelters and other park features, including a transportation network dominated by a scenic loop drive that followed the sharp contours of the hilly landscape, and included two limestone arch bridges.
Developing the park took nearly five years, according to Rose Rohr, executive director of the Jones County Historic Preservation Commission. For years afterward, inmates helped maintain the park.
The park was a source of immense pride to many of the inmates. Rohr said the work bolstered the self-esteem of inmates who could, decades later after their release. show their families and friends the lasting contribution they’d made to their state.
One of the early park features was a stone swimming pool made by damming a creek. The pool was later closed for public health reasons, but remains one of the most poignant memories of Anamosa residents who visited the park in its early years.
The hilly park is best known for its white pine forest, limestone bluffs, a riverfront picnicking and fishing area, rustic picnic shelters, the Wapsipinicon Golf Club, the Horse Thief Cave and Ice cave.
Park Manager Dennis Murphy said the regular daily use of the park by residents of the adjacent Anamosa community sets it apart from most of the other Iowa state parks. About 200 Anamosa area residents visit the park faithfully to jog, bicycle, picnic, fish or view wildlife almost regardless of the weather, Murphy said.
Bob Hatcher, executive director of the Jones County Tourism Association, often directs visitors looking for interesting local sights to try the park’s visually stunning, roller coaster ride of a park drive.
“They’ll say, Why? It’s just a park. I tell them, “You drive through it and THEN tell me it’s just a park,” Hatcher said.
Eleven archaeological sites have been recorded within the park boundaries, providing evidence of human habitation dating back more than 5,500 years B.C.
The historic district application is expected to include all of the park and the river bridges that link it to the town, and the inhabitants of the park before recorded history. It will even include the “view shed,” or view from key vantage points, Rohr said.
Murphy, the park manager, says one of the issues facing older parks with historic structures is that the DNR’s limited budget makes it a challenge to maintain and restore them. Obtaining a historic district designation could be some help, he said.
Rohr said the historic preservation commission will enlist volunteers to help with the project and will use its fundraising dinners at the Hale Bridge at Wapsipinicon State Park to provide local matching funds for the grant.
Rohr expects a consultant to be selected for the nomination research by the end of April and a final nomination for the National Register of Historic Places to be submitted in June 2014.