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Gitchie Manitou State Preserve - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 68


Located in Iowa’s extreme northwestern corner near Larchwood in Lyon County, a 91-acre state perverse holds natural and historic significance.


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


The site along the Big Sioux River near the Iowa border with South Dakota has held significance from a time immemorial. Named for the “Great Spirit” in the Algonquian languages spoken by the Sauk and Meskwaki, Indigenous Iowans occupied the site well into the pre-American past. The pink and reddish outcroppings of Sioux Quartzite prevalent throughout the preserve represent Iowa’s oldest exposed bedrock, dating back nearly 1.6 billion years into geological history. The ridge of Sioux Quartzite spreads across the upper-Midwestern United States from central South Dakota to central Minnesota, and served as pipestone for Indigenous peoples prior to American arrival in the area.


The earliest Americans to occupy northwestern Iowa also found use for the stone, and a quarry within the preserves bounds dates to the late 1800s. Area residents referred to the quarry as Devil’s Pool, and local legend held the pond as bottomless with an outlet to the neighboring Big Sioux River. At one point in the time former Governor of Iowa William Larrabee owned part of the tract now held as a preserve. Additionally, a small community called Gibraltar existed briefly in the northern portion of today’s preserve. The parcel of lands also drew scientific interest from an early time, and far-famed Iowa botanist Bohumil Shimek started studying the flora unique to the area in 1898.


Drawn by the deposits of Sioux Quartzite, the State of Iowa purchased 220 acres from the Larrabee estate in 1911 for the purpose of quarrying stone. With intent to use the Sioux Quartzite for highway paving, the state sent a group of prisoners to drain the quarry, and renamed the site Jasper Pool. When the legislature halted the plan to turn Iowa’s oldest stone into roadway fodder, and the state sold all but 46.5 acres of the site in 1916.


Following the establishment of the Iowa Conservation Commission, the state internally transferred the site in 1926 for the establishment of a state park. In 1932 the state officially transferred the site to state game refuge status, prohibiting hunting and fishing within the park’s bounds. The Civilian Conservation Corps arrived from the nearby camp in Haywarden during 1934 and constructed a shelter built of Sioux Quartzite, completed trail work, and provided shoreline improvement along the Big Sioux River.


Gitchie Manitou State Park proved short-lived. In 1941 the state reclassified Gitchie Manitou to a historical and archeological area, a newly created status which moved the lands away from state park status. The presence of seventeen low conical burial mounds located along the Big Sioux River in the southern portion of the preserve pair with the nearby Blood Run National Historic Landmark to represent one of the most significant sites for archeological history in Iowa. Dating to the Woodland Period of roughly 800 BC through 1250 AD, the area displays extensive signs of continuous human inhabitation for 8,500 years.


As archeological work helped to allow for better understanding of Gitchie Manitou’s past, local efforts during the 1960s started to push for improved amenities and maintenance at the site. Opinions differed, and official state reports suggested further development at the site would lead to the sure destruction of the archeological and historical resources present at the site. In 1961 the state rebuilt the shelter house roof at the CCC era shelter within the preserve’s bounds, and newspaper reports decried graffiti present on the shelter and stone outcroppings throughout the park. Local law enforcement and state officials struggled to stop vandalism and partying at the remote park site, raising further concerns about the future of the site within the park system. Adding fuel to the ferment, someone burned the newly completed roof of the shelter house during the summer of 1963. Although discussion of plans swirled, the concerns over the difficult in creating a safe park led to a stall in plans for improvements. When the State of Iowa created a new category of public lands for lands containing significant geological, archeological, historical, and biological resources in 1969, Gitchie Manitou officially became a state preserve.


On November 17, 1973, one of the most infamous crimes in Iowa’s history occurred at Gitchie Manitou State Preserve. The perpetrators, three brothers, killed four teenagers while kidnapping and raping a fifth victim. The well-documented murders represent one of the darkest days in Iowa State Parks system history, and the tragedy continues to largely define public awareness of the preserve.


As the years turned to decades, Gitchie Manitou State Preserve languished along the Big Sioux on Iowa’s northwestern border. Minimal management under a shared plan with the nearby Blood Run site, the preserve received routine maintenance but no further development.


Today, the Gitchie Manitou State Preserve offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northwestern Iowa. Since Shimek’s initial studies, observers have documented over 285 native vascular plants within the preserve. Remnant native prairie stands amongst the exposed Sioux Quartzite in the park, providing further interest to those interested in Iowa’s Indigenous flora. Mowed paths welcome visitors, and a small parking area in the southern portion of the park allows for access.


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Gitchie Manitou 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, Gitchie Manitou 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 Gitchie Manitou 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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