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Mill Creek State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 51

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Mill Creek State Park.

When flooding swamped Mill Creek during 1933, two local men named George Callenius and Robert Mattice, watched the waters swell and devised a plan to dam the creek’s south end of the eventual parklands. During the initial era of state park development in Iowa, the citizens of Paullina and the surrounding area came together to raise more than $20,000 in the hopes of gaining a state park through the selling of bonds. In late 1935, the state accepted a transfer of lands and work to develop the site began soon after.

In 1937, with the help of the Works Progress Administration many of the parks amenities came into existence. An initial 30 men assigned swelled to 300 men to staff the camp focused on building the dam. By December of 1937, the gates of the newly completed dam closed and the springs feeding Mill Creek slowly filled the pool. Forty-four days later, on February 2, 1938, the first water started to trickle over the spillway signifying the lake reaching full pool at an initial 23 acres. Workers also completed other work to provide trails, shelters, and habitat management. The Iowa Conservation Commission officially opened and dedicated Mill Creek State Park on October 1, 1938.

After ten years of idyllic picnics and fishing outings, a major setback occurred when rapidly rising flood waters damaged the dam in late April 1947. The flash flood badly undermined the earth supporting the spillway, and workers scrambled during June and early July to make necessary repairs. By late summer, newspapers noted swimmers again started to flock to Mill Creek to cool off in July.

The dam again underwent work during the 1950s. The project focused on raising the dam height, and repairing the spillway. As a result of the 1959 project, the lake grew to an acreage of 52 and a maximum depth of 18 feet. Following the project, work at the lake largely stalled for two decades. Popular 4th of July celebrations allowed record crowds to make memories at Mill Creek during the early 1960s. However, problems arose in the mid-1960s when the state restricted camping at the site. A flurry of public outcry eventually led to the reestablishment of the camping, but the confusion and struggle portended eventual changes to come.

By the early 1970s, the state surveyed the Mill Creek State Park site and started to mull permanently closing the park. Concerns over siltation in the lake, pollution, and funding for maintenance led to a series of public meetings focused on finding solutions. The community of Paullina answered the call and went to work volunteering on a variety of projects to help improve the facilities at the site.

In 1975, O’Brien County Conservation entered an agreement with the Iowa Conservation Commission to take over management of the park. A new era for Mill Creek dawned, as a variety of projects greatly improved the lake’s water quality and amenities at the site. An 1978 partnership with Northwest Iowa Technical College provided dredging of the lake and the construction of diversion channel meant to lessen siltation. Additionally, a partnership with the local Boy Scouts led to the construction of Boy Scout Island in the northeastern portion of the lake. Another revitalization project during the late-1990s helped to provide new cabin camping opportunities while making renovations to existing facilities. In 2010, local student Ryan Brasser designed and completed the park’s Herbert Hoover Trail System.

Today, Mill Creek State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northwestern Iowa. Swimmers still flock to the beach each summer to soak up the sun, and anglers enjoy testing the waters for largemouth bass, sunfish, and channel catfish. 4 cabins pair with 48 modern campsite to provide an opportunity to spend the night. Hiking trails, interpretive panels, and playgrounds provide different options for anyone hoping to enjoy an afternoon. A lodge suitable for gathering up to 80 people continues to welcome a variety of events.

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