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Lake Ahquabi State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 64

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Lake Ahquabi State Park.

During the early era of Iowa State Park development, the Iowa Conservation Commission put together a 25-year plan aimed at creating artificial lakes throughout the state. Far-famed conservationist and cartoonist Jay N. “Ding” Darling” allegedly located the site roughly 25 miles south of Des Moines. The city of Indianola took the first step at developing the park with a 25-acre purchase of failed and highly erodible farmlands during 1934. Soon after the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived to start work on a body of water initially known as “White Oak Lake.” From 1934 to 1937, CCC Company 769 also built a nature trail, planted trees, and constructed several buildings out of locally sourced sandstone. In July of 1935, completion of the dam allowed waters to start filling the basin while work continued on amenities for the park. The CCC also built iconic bathhouse and lodge buildings, as well as three fountains. With the dam complete, waters started to fill and the city of Indianola deeded the lake and surrounding parklands to the Iowa Conservation Commission for the creation of a state park. On May 29, 1936, officials dedicated Lake Ahquabi State Park.

Seeking to create a unique name for the new park, a Norwalk resident named Mary Louise Brownrigg won a name-the-park contest with the suggestion of “Lake Ahquabi.” The entrant claimed the word meant “Place of Rest” in the Algonquin-language family of the Sauk and Meskwaki, however tribal members almost immediately informed the press the name did not. Despite the misnomer, the name stuck, and Iowans continue to know the lake as Ahquabi today.

In 1938 the Iowa Federation of Women’s Clubs donated an additional forested parcel of lands adjacent to the park and named the area to honor early female conservationist Francis E. Whitley. The park proved incredibly popular with Iowans from initial opening as crowds flocked year round to enjoy the bathing beach, hike the trails, and hold gatherings at the lodge. Almost immediately after the lake’s creation, siltation issues related to the highly-erodible soils started to plague the waters of Lake Ahquabi. As early as 1939, the Iowa Conservation Commission worked to limit the issues through acquiring additional surrounding lands and promoting soil conservation practices among other area landowners.

During 1966 major work again started on the lake. A spillway repair project shored up the dam, while workers also constructed thirteen jetties to provide improved fishing opportunities. By late May, heavy rains helped to bring the pool back toward normal levels and Iowans again started to enjoy the varied recreational opportunities present at Lake Ahquabi.

By the late 1970s, siltation again proved a major impediment for the lake, shrinking the pool by more than 11 acres while agricultural runoff created water quality issues. Efforts at soil conservation practices within the 3,321 acre watershed paired with the creation of buffer wetlands and sedimentation basins in seeking to address the issues. A major restocking effort during the early 1980s stocked the lake with tiger muskies, walleyes, largemouth bass, channel catfish, bluegills, bullheads, sunfish, and crappies. Additional projects during the restoration installed a new footbridge over the spillway and constructed a new footpath encircling the lake.

Again in the 1990s, water quality issues forced officials to pour resources into the lake with an extensive dredging project. Shoreline stabilization, dam improvements, and the installation of an aeration device all hoped to help offset the historically significant issues at the site. On November 15, 1990, three of the parks areas found listing on the National Register of Historic Places: the picnic area containing the park’s entrance portals, the bath house and concession area, and the historic lodge facility.

By the 2020s, the lake again needed significant work. During 2021, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources started a draw down on the lake in order to undertake a two-year long project aimed at rebuilding the health and quality of the lake. The project repaired the lake’s water outlet structure while also seeking to eliminate the gizzard shad population. Beyond addressing aquatic issues, the project also made rode improvements and campground updates.

Today, Lake Ahquabi State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in central Iowa. With the successful completion of the large renovation project, the park reopened to visitors in July of 2023. Some Iowa’s oldest oaks stand proudly within the park, and documentation of over 150 species of wildflowers keeps plant enthusiasts busy throughout Iowa’s warmer months. More than six miles of trails provide great lake views and wind through diverse habitats. No-wake boating pairs with canoe, kayak, and paddleboat rentals to offer unique ways to enjoy the restored waters of the lake. An accessible, all-season fishing shelter pairs with numerous jetties and shoreline fishing opportunities for those hoping to test the waters for a variety of fish species. A modern campground offers great amenities for those hoping to spend the night.

Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Lake Ahquabi 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, Lake Ahquabi 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 Lake Ahquabi State Park.

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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