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(Foot)Notes on Iowa - Day 14 - Don Williams Recreation Area to Fort Dodge

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

Starting the day at Don Williams Recreation Area, I headed west to catch a gravel road northward toward the small town of Dayton. The evening prior, a friend and her husband hosted me for dinner at their farm near Pilot Mound. Over maid-rites, we discussed changes in agriculture, the aftereffects of Iowa's meatpacking industry eroding unions, and the difficulties brought on by the drought conditions settling in across the state. One of the first farms I passed consisted of a parcel owned by the couple, and the dry ground presented a significant challenge as the farmer sought to break the soil following several years of hosting cover crops.

I also passed by part of the farmer's cow herd, and they cautiously eyed me in the early Iowa sunlight. A stretch further on, a dog loped out from a partially opened garage. She followed me for quite some time before eventually finding diversion at a chicken confinement a few miles from where we first met. Eventually, after passing the rapidly heating up early hours of the morning, I passed out of Boone County and arrived in the small town of Dayton.

Dayton, one of the southernmost towns of Webster County, hosted just over 800 residents at the time of the 2010 census. Originally named after Dayton, Ohio, and home to a United States Post Office since 1877, today, a rodeo park provides the predominant feature of the small town.

From Dayton, I headed for the confluence of the Boone and Des Moines River. In 1835, the 1st Iowa Dragoons turned northeast where the Boone enters the Des Moines. Standing at the juncture of the two rivers, I considered how different my path was from that of the Dragoons. Every stream and bog represented a significant challenge, and even with the low level on the Des Moines in early June 2021 I imagined how difficult crossing would be.

I continued on up the Des Moines past the Vegors Cemetery, an early burial place in the area hosting a marker for Mrs. Henry Lott (for more on Lott, please see previous article on Part 2, Day 5). Overlooking the Boone and Des Moines, the site has hosted burials long prior to American settlement. Many speculate the decision to lay Mrs. Lott to rest in one of the burial mounds already present at the site exacerbated tensions between Lott and native peoples in the area.

The winding roads from Vegors Cemetery led me to Lehigh, a small town just south of Dolliver Memorial State Park. Lehigh, which boasted a population of 416 at the 2010 census, straddles the Des Moines River. The segmentation around the river seems unique for such a small town. An early coal town, Lehigh also hosted a clay pipe factory for much of its early history. Originally settled in 1855, early settlers referred to tthe segment on the east bank of the Des Moines as Slabtown. Today, the former railroad depot on the west bank of the Des Moines serves as a history center.

Making steady progress as the day continued to get hotter, I headed for the shady hollows of Dolliver Memorial State Park. Located where Prairie Creek empties into the Des Moines, Dolliver boasts extensive sandstone outcroppings roughly 100 feet in height. Known as Copperas Beds, the sandstone exhibits petrified wood and various mineral deposits.

Boneyard Hollow, a sandstone ringed ravine near the northern portion of the park, offers clues to Iowa's deeper past. Early Americans often found many bison bones in the ravine, and the site is thought to be a former 'buffalo jump' site utilized by Iowa's Indigenous peoples of the past. Prior to the introduction of the horse, tribal groups often funneled herds of bison toward jump sites in order to obtain the vital protein offered by the animal populations.

The park also holds a variety of other interesting historical heritage. A lead tablet discovered by a young girl within the park during 1915 suggested early French explorers visited the site, however, two local boys eventually admitted to constructing the tablet as a hoax. The site eventually became Iowa's third state park and was named for Republican Senator John Dolliver in 1925. The Civilian Conservation Corps completed many projects throughout the park, and both the north and south entrances are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dolliver Memorial State Park today hosts a variety of opportunities to get out and experience Iowa's environment. Many trails wind throughout the park, offering a range of challenges for eager explorers of all types and experience levels. In the southeastern portion of the park visitors can climb steep stairs to eventually reach a river top plateau hosts a series of burial mounds dating back to pre-American colonization of the region.

From Dolliver, the road winds north toward Fort Dodge. I chose to stay on the westside of the river and headed toward the Frontier Fort and Military Museum. Aside from a fence dotted with boots and other shoes on each post for several sections, the close of the day proved relatively uneventful. One of the longest days of the 2021 expedition in the rearview mirror, I felt like reaching Fort Dodge represented a significant step in the journey to follow the 1835 Iowa Dragoons along the Des Moines River.


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