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Oakland Mills State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 82

Located along the Skunk River near Mt. Pleasant in Henry County, a 104-acre former state park holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore what used to be Oakland Mills State Park.


Today’s park sits on the near the site of a small community by the name of Oakland Mills which first bloomed beside the Skunk River as American settlement arrived in Iowa during the 1830s. During 1839, settlers constructed a wood and stone dam to serve a grist mill under construction at the site. Soon after, a saw mill and woolen mill followed, all reaching completion prior to the inception of Iowa’s statehood in 1846. At its peak, the town featured a school, a church, a hotel, a railroad station, and the three mills stood alongside the river. The site of ferry during the town’s initial decades, completion of a wagon bridge by the Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Company in in 1876 at the cost of around $12,000 allowed for easier passage across the Skunk. In 1914, retrofitting converted the grist mill and dam into an electric power plant. Completed by the 1920s, the hydroelectric dam and power plant provided electricity to the small community. Never a large town, the population of Oakland Mills stood at 100 in 1940 and fell to around 30 by the 1970s.


While the town of Oakland Mills grew alongside the Skunk River, the park at Oakland Mills drew interest from outdoor enthusiasts during the early 1900s. The first land acquired by Iowa at the site came under control in 1920. By 1922, newspapers detailing the earliest public lands in Iowa held by the Iowa Conservation Commission as far away as Council Bluffs reported on the twenty-seven acre park popular for picnicking and fishing. The article suggested the park, as well as fourteen others, would soon gain state park status in Iowa. When a Des Moines Register travel-guide of Iowa’s state parks described Oakland Mills in 1926 the state’s holdings at the site had grown to 77-acres. The article further described plans for soon to be completed roads and camping accommodations at the park. During 1927, the state board of conservation commissed J.R. Fitzsimmons of Ames to confer with local officials about the construction of a golf course at the site.


A full-page spread of photographs taken at the park appeared in the Des Moines Register during August of 1931, and in the early 1930s the US Forest Service located a camp at Oakland Mills. Using labor from the Civilian Conservation Corps, efforts focused on trail work, construction of foot bridges, and improvements to the picnic grounds. With the work completed, the park entered a period of relatively dormancy. During the fall of 1944, a large wildfire considerably damaged the park.


During the mid-1960s, a movement came together locally in favor of removing the dam at the park site. Over 2,000 local land owners signed a petition, citing the dam as “a public nuisance” which caused flooding and crop loss. The Iowa Conservation Commission came out in favor of retaining the dam in order to provide for continuation of recreational opportunities at the site. When a state commission found in favor of keeping the dam, the property transferred to the Henry County Conservation Board in 1965. As a secondary part of the agreement, the maintenance responsibilities for the park also transferred to Henry County. New development soon followed, including the construction of a new shelter house, improvements to fishing access, electricity for campers, and the addition of new restroom facilities. The historic bridge, previously considered for demolition, also gained new life under the agreement with Henry County.


As the county settled into control, the park continued to develop in exiting new ways. A building hosting the park maintenance shop, administrative offices, and an interactive nature center developed over the 1980s. The nature center addition allowed for live exhibits of native wildlife species created a home for permanently wildlife unsuitable for release into the wild including barred owls, red-tailed hawk, and foxes.  The addition of four rental cabins, improvements to the campgrounds, and a swinging bridge all helped to round out the amenities at Oakland Mills over time. During the 2000s improvements to a self-guided nature trail paired with the introduction of a smart trail to further add to the enjoyment of Iowans visiting Oakland Mills.


Today, Oakland Mills Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in southeastern Iowa.  The Oakland Mills Nature Center and Outdoor classroom offer great opportunities to learn about the area’s natural history and view wildlife species. The dam site stands as one of Iowa’s most notable catfish sites for anglers who enjoy testing the waters for channel and flathead catfish. Three campground pair with cabin offerings for guests hoping to spend the night. Horse-shoe pits, a small fishing pond, an 18-hole disc golf course, trails, an observation tower, and picnic shelters provide a variety of activities for those hoping to enjoy the park.


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Oakland Mills 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, Oakland Mills Park shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.


Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore what used to be Oakland Mills 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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