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Mini-Wakan State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 99

Located along the north shore of Big Spirit Lake in Dickinson County, a 20-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Mini-Wakan State Park.


Big Spirit Lake, Iowa’s largest natural lake, stands at over 4,000 acres. Carved by retreating glaciers in the distant past, the site drew human inhabitation for millennia prior to the arrival of American settlement. An abundance of archeological evidence pairs with the oral traditions of Indigenous peoples to clearly display the sites significance for peoples dating back to the Oneota era. A home of the Ioway-Báxoje, as well as the Dakota, still lived in the Iowa Great Lakes during the era of European exploration. Mini-Wakan, or Spirit Lake in the Dakota language, shows the significance of the site to the area’s earliest inhabitants. Believed to stand as the origination site of corn agriculture for the Dakota people, the history of the lake reaches back well before American occupation and understanding.


The southernmost portion of the Dakota, commonly the easternmost division of the group commonly called the Sioux, lived in sites ranging from Missouri River, up the Little Sioux River, and through the Iowa Great Lakes Region well into the mid-1800s. Early American settlers started to arrive in the area during the mid-1850s, including the Marble family who settled along the western shore of Big Spirit. When conflict erupted throughout the lakes region between the Dakota band led by Inkpaduta and American settlers, the Big Spirit site served as the scene of an indescribable tragedy.


Although the violence and aftermath temporarily slowed settlement to the area, by the late 1800s development quickly turned the Iowa Great Lakes into one of the state’s most popular summer destinations. When the Iowa Conservation Commission started acquiring lands for the Iowa State Parks System, the Iowa Great Lakes saw intensive focus. Gull Point, Mini-Wakan, Pikes Point, and Trappers Bay all entered during the earliest years of park development.


The state purchased the initial 12-acres of the Mini-Wakan site from J.H. and Maude McClelland on April 5, 1933 for a total cost of $1,250. Bordered to the south by the waters of Big Spirit and to the north by the Minnesota-Iowa border, the small park saw development proportional to the 20-acre size. In July of 1934, the state announced the park would be dedicated as Mini Wakan to honor the Dakota-Sioux past in the lakes area. During 1934, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps stationed at nearby Gull Point arrived at the small park constructed an entry road and parking area. The CCC men also constructed the east-west road connecting two previously existing roads to allow visitors to drive around Big Spirit Lake. Efforts also resulted in rip-rapping of the shoreline, and the construction of a stone-and-timber lodge building. The inlet directly west of the park, originally dammed by locals to prevent fish from swimming north into Minnesota, also underwent deconstruction. In place of the dam workers built a bridge to connect the park with public lands held on the northwestern corner of the lake. When the CCC pulled out, Mini-Wakan’s largest era of development came to a close and Iowans started to enjoy one of the finest parks in the state.


Over the decades, Mini-Wakan largely settled into status as a well-kept secret for anglers hoping to launch boats from the ramp or test the waters of Big Spirit from the shoreline or docks. The rustic shelter hosted many picnics and other events like family reunions across the mid-twentieth century, but little development took place at the small park.


In 2000, the Iowa DNR considered closing many small parks across the state, and Mini-Wakan found itself on the list of potential properties cut from the state park system alongside Pikes Point, Trappers Bay, and Okamanpedan in the Iowa Great Lakes area. Over the following years, the state government weighed options and ultimately decided to close the west side of the park beyond the bridge. The state also shelved a project to convert the rustic-CCC shelterhouse into a modern lodge due to budget constraints. However, in 2008, the Spirit Lake Protective Association stepped in to spearhead a revitalization project at the park. The group, chaired by Joe Ulman, worked to modernize the shelterhouse while also working on providing an improved boat dock at the site. Over the following decade, the group raised money while restoring and improving the facilities at the park. In August of 2012, the group hosted a restoration celebration at the site. During the same year, plans for an archeological dig at the site fell through due to potential costs. However, during 2021, state archeologist Jon Dorshuk and students from Iowa Lakeside Laboratory arrived and completed the exploratory work key to unlocking better understanding of the sites of deeper past.


Today, Mini-Wakan State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northwestern Iowa.  The modernized lodge and restroom facilities pair with pleasant grounds for those hoping to enjoy a picnic. The boat ramp, dock, and shoreline continue to offer opportunities for Iowa’s anglers. The place almost makes a great place to wrap up a long walk, say from the Keokuk area to the Iowa-Minnesota border, if one finds themselves inclined to chase the ghosts of the 1st United States Dragoons across the state.


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


Thanks for subscribing to the Notes on Iowa website, subscribing on YouTube, following on social media, and tuning in each Sunday over the past two years to explore the history of Iowa’s state parks, preserves, and other public lands. This video represents the 99th, and final, created for the Notes on Iowa State Parks series. Like the 2021 walk across Iowa, I decided to end on the Iowa-Minnesota border and the dock at Big Spirit Lake. Although this isn’t the end for Notes on Iowa, I wanted to take a moment to recognize and express my deep gratitude and appreciation for all of you who continue to join me on this journey exploring Iowa’s past.


As we continue into the future, I hope I’ll see you out there!


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