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Bixby State Preserve - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 78

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Bixby State Preserve.

Part of the broader Silurian Escarpment which features several eastern Iowa state parks and preserves, the spring-fed Bear Creek gurgles through a 200 ft. deep valley forming the heat of the preserve. The well-weathered dolomitic limestone stands exposed at many points along the rugged landscape, offering a glimpse into Iowa’s geological past. The fractured bedrock allows for a diverse network of underground caves and crevices to create unique microclimates, especially on northern-facing slopes.

Over 100 years ago, miners hoping to strike led dug into a limestone hillside at Bixby to access the below-ground labyrinth. Local legends suggest the miners abandoned their effort after digging at least 80 feet into the hill due to freezing temperatures within the cave. During the early 20th century, enterprising Iowans started selling ice harvested from the cave, and a 1930s newspaper account describes a “wagonload” of ice coming out of the cave. Formed from cold air seeping into underground crevasses during winter months to chill bedrock and freeze water, pulling air from above down and out of the cave entrance. The resulting microclimate, called an algific slope, results from cold air seeps like the one found at Bixby State Park’s ice cave. While locals tell of gathering ice for ice cream or cooling contraband beers for teenage parties at the cave, the site has drawn visitors since at least 1887.

During the late 1880s, R.J. Bixby bought the lands which eventually came to bear his name. Featuring a spring-fed creek which twists through a scenic canyon connecting bedrock and prairie, biodiversity blooms at Bixby. With his initial land purchase of 69-acres, R.J. Bixby sought to escape into nature. Building a summer cabin at the site, the Iowa legislator and Edgewood businessman allowed others to enjoy the lands which locals quickly started calling “Bixby’s Park.” As early as 1903, local papers noted pleasant picnics and the need for better roads leading into the park. Starting in 1918, Edgewood locals started to step up to help provide maintenance for the park. By the time of renowned early Iowa naturalist Louis Pammel’s 1919 book “Public Parks of Iowa,” the site had gained a significant enough reputation to lead Pammel to call Bixby’s Park “one of the beauty spots of Iowa.”

When Pammel helped to found and establish the Iowa Conservation Commission during the late 19-teens and early 1920s, Bixby stood as a focus for acquisition. By the time the state got around to purchasing the lands in 1926, hard times had forced Bixby to sell the lands to man named I.P. Gates. Edgewood residents led by the local commercial club and other area locals helped to raise funds for the initial purchase. Many individuals pitched in with donations to help the state secure the initial purchase. With the lands in hand by the late 1920s, the park stood proved ready to offer Iowans a truly unique escape into nature.

With the onset of the Great Depression, development temporarily stalled at Bixby until the New Deal provided Civilian Conservation Corps workers to help develop public lands throughout the country. The CCC arrived at Bixby and built picnic areas, constructed trails, improved the area around the ice cave, and erected several buildings including a shelter. A cement road, connecting the park with nearby Backbone State Park, also provided a focus for workers during the New Deal Era. With the departure of the CCC and the onset of World War II, the park stood largely completed.

While an era of pleasant picnics and memorable outings to the ice cave ensued, locals eventually grew frustrated with the lack of maintenance provided by the state. The Edgewood Commercial Club again stepped up to provide basic maintenance for the park consistently during the 1950s and 1960s.

During the early 1970s, the state shifted management of the park to the Clayton County Conservation Board. However, the agreement proved short-lived, with the state regaining control and moving the lands into ‘state preserve’ status in 1979. A new status created for properties with specific historical, geological, or biological features, an additional land purchase of 115-acres west of stream predated the status change by a year. Preserve status also limits the type of maintenance provided the park, however, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources still provides basic services at the CCC picnic shelter and parking area.

Today, Bixby State Preserve offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northeastern Iowa. Bear Creek still quickly bubbles through the steep ravine, and the ice cave still amazes visitors. The CCC picnic shelter still stands proudly waiting to offer a place to spend a pleasant afternoon. Trails wind through the scenic preserve offering hikers a rugged challenge.

Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Bixby State Preserve. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Bixby State Preserve shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.

Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Bixby State Preserve.

Make sure to subscribe to the Notes on Iowa website, subscribe on YouTube, follow on social media, and tune in each Sunday to explore the history of Iowa’s state parks, preserves, and other public lands.

I hope I’ll see you out there!


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