Located four miles south of Humboldt at the confluence of the Des Moines River’s east and west forks in Humboldt County, a 67-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Frank Gotch State Park.
The Des Moines River split drew inhabitants from a time immemorial. The French located a trading post at the site in 1825, one of the first three in the lands which became Iowa, in order to open up trade with the Ioway and Dakota. By the time of American settlement the Dakota, also known as the Sioux or Oceti Sakowin, occupied the area in such numbers, William Williams, the sutler for the US military stationed at Fort Dodge, called the Des Moines River from the forks northward “The River of the Sioux.” As the territorial and statehood area unfolded, dispossession pushed the Dakota north and west and opened the area to American settlement. In the decades before the site’s move into public lands, sixteen skeletons of the site believed to be the remains of Indigenous Iowans were found at the location.
While the state park era got underway in Iowa during the 1910s and 1920s, the confluence waited for a park. Finally, in 1942 the state acquired the site with the intention of creating a state park. Development waited out the duration of World War II, but local efforts to the name the park began. The overwhelming sentiment favored naming the park to celebrate first American to claim the world heavyweight free-style belt, Frank A. Gotch. Gotch’s career helped to popularize professional wrestling in the United States. Born on a small farm three miles south of Humboldt near the confluence, Gotch started wrestling locally during his teenage years. Perfecting his trademark toe-hold finishing move during matches against other Iowans, Gotch gained notoriety for nearly beating reigning American Heavyweight Champion Dan McLeod in a match lasting two hours at Lu Verne on June 16, 1899. After another notable loss to former American Heavyweight Champion (and Iowan) “Farmer” Martin Burns, Gotch proved ready to challenge for the American Heavyweight Championship in 1903 and defeated Tom Jenkins to claim the title on January 27, 1904. After a long and storied career, Gotch returned to Humboldt where he passed away in 1917. A local petition originating from citizens of Humboldt and Dakota City largely fell on deaf ears at the Iowa Conservation Commission, however, in 1949 the Iowa General Assembly passed a joint resolution supporting naming the park in Gotch’s honor. By the time 250 people flocked to the park for official dedication in September of 1954, the state listened to locals and named the site for Humboldt’s favorite son who grew up just across the river from the park site.
Only three years later, the Humboldt-Dakota City Joint Chamber of Commerce sought and gained a ten-year lease on the park’s management. Seeking to develop the recreational opportunities available, the group constructed a campground, trials, playground equipment, and erected a stone tribute to Frank Gotch. In 1956, a $10,000 project provided for the construction of a shelter which locals initially hoped would house a museum honoring Frank Gotch. When the agreement expired in 1962, the state transferred park management to the Humboldt County Conservation Board for the long-term. Over the decades small improvements and general maintenance continued to ensure the park’s place as a favorite among area residents. In 1995, the proposal of collage student helped the park restore 17 acres of prairie and natural vegetation near the park’s entrance.
Today, Frank A. Gotch State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in north central Iowa. Riders on the 40-mile long Three Rivers Trail find access to the park while trekking from Rolfe to Eagle Grove. Both modern and non-modern camping options await those hoping to spend the night on a first come, first serve basis. A favorite of fishing enthusiasts, the park offers access to both branches of the Des Moines River for anglers, kayakers, and canoers. Horseshoe pits, prairie restorations, and modern playground equipment provide options for Iowans of different interests hoping to enjoy the park.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop Frank Gotch State Park. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Frank Gotch State Park shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.
Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Frank Gotch State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!