Situated on either side of the Shellrock River just south of Clarksville in Butler County, a 394-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Heery Woods State Park.
Although ambiguous in status due to not residing under the management of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources like most state parks, Heery Woods represents an incredible Iowa state parks story stretching back to the earliest American settlement of Butler County. John Heery, the first American settler to arrive in Butler County, claimed lands on both sides of the Shellrock River in 1850. Working to develop not just the land by the local economy, Heery built a grain elevator during the 1880s and found a successful life after relocating from Milton, Wisconsin.
The Heery family held onto the lands surrounding the Shellrock until well after John’s death, but decided to sell 380 acres to the state at a cost of $5,786.70 for the formation of a new state park in 1835. The following year The Clarksville Star reported a “Works Progress Administration transient camp” located at Parkersburg would move to Clarksville to start work on developing the park. As locals waited for the laborers to arrive, the local paper speculated about plans for a low-head dam on the river in the park. When the WPA arrived work soon got underway on the dam in order to deepen the channel upriver while improving fishing access downriver.
Additionally, the WPA used locally sourced limestone to construct an English country cottage-inspired building, picnic areas flanking the river on each side, trails, and access roads. The state also designated the site a Wild Game Refuge in 1937, and visitation started to climb as the WPA departed. By the late 1930s, local newspapers are packed with notices of pleasant picnics, family reunions, and other events at the park.
Minor improvements followed during the post-WPA era including the addition of an open picnic shelter, but the park largely remained much as it was during the late 1930s for decades. In the early 1970s, locals started to advocate for a shift in responsibilities related to the park, and in December of 1973 newspapers alerted readers to a potential transfer of improvement and maintenance responsibilities from the Iowa Conservation Commission to the Butler County Board of Conservation. One of the major wishes of Butler County residents for the park rested with the creation of a camping area, which the board of conservation completed almost immediately. In 1976 the local Jaycess added playground equipment to the park, and the Butler County Board of Conservation started work on a new headquarters building.
The following decades saw mindful maintenance and other additions to the park including the 1989 completion of the Heery Woods Nature Center on the same site as the WPA built lodge. Continuous improvements to modernize camping, bathroom, and other facilities continue to keep the Butler County Conservation Board busy as it maintains the park.
Today, Heery Woods State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in Butler County. Canoe and kayak access both above and below the dam allow for paddlers to peruse the Shellrock, and a variety of trails wind on either side of the river. A 2007 donation of additional lands from descendants of John Heery allowed for expansion of the trail system onto an additional ten acres of land. The Rolling Prairie Trail, a 21 mile trail stretching through Butler, Bremer, and Franklin counties, connects to the park. Additionally modern camping offers a quiet place to rest for a weekend or longer during the summer months.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Heery Woods 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, Heery Woods 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 Heery Woods State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!