Okamanpedan State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 39
Located east of Estherville and north of Dolliver located on the Iowa-Minnesota border at the headwaters of the Des Moines River’s East Fork in Emmet County, a 19-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Okamanpedan State Park.
The park, named for a Dakota word loosely translating to “nesting place for blue herons,” rests on the shore of Tuttle Lake on the Iowa-Minnesota border. A popular place among the southernmost portion of the Dakota, also known as Sioux, the lake rested in one of the greatest waterfowl production sits on planet Earth when Europeans arrived. The French explorer Jean-Nicolas Nicollet first surveyed the area in 1838 while working for the United States government, and noted the presence of the Dakota people throughout the area. As settlement followed, the Dakota-language name stuck.
The next major record related to the site resulted from a group of American soldiers under the leadership of Major Thomas W. Sherman who camped at the site during 1860. The men passed through while moving from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Fort Ridgely, Minnesota, where they joined the former garrison moved from Webster County upon the closure of Fort Dodge in 1853. Even before the soldiers passed through, an early permanent settler named Calvin Tuttle arrived at the lake in 1856. Today the 2,750-acre body of water his name, although when the official change from Okamanpedan Lake to Tuttle Lake is unclear as newspapers as early as the 1890s commonly use both names interchangeably.
One of the people to frequent the lakeshore during the late 1800s was Eugene O. Ellsworth, the namesake of Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls. An earlier financier, real estate agent, and imaginative Iowa innovator. Responsible for the first steamboat located on Spirit Lake, Ellsworth bought up large tracts of land throughout north Iowa and southern Minnesota including a parcel along Okamanpedan Lake. Ellsworth constructed a small cobblestone cottage which still stands within the park’s bounds today.
When the Iowa Conservation Commission first compiled a report of potential state park sites in 1919, Okamanpedan made the list. Before the state worked to develop the park, efforts to dam the lake and raise water levels took place in 1920. Although the state of Minnesota fought Iowa’s right to dam the lake of which 2/3 lies in the land of 10,000 lakes, Iowa ultimately constructed the dam to stabilize levels in the body of water. Fish stocking followed, and by 1924, two local men, E.L., and J.C. Williams, decided to donate 10 acres along Okamanpedan Lake to develop a park. Initial development of a road followed to provide better access, and on July 4, 1926, over 2,500 people gathered for Okamanpedan State Park’s dedication ceremony. As a part of the festivities, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a plaque in the park to honor the quest of Nicollet to survey from the Mississippi River to the Missouri River in 1838, as well as the 1860 campsite of Thomas Sherman’s soldiers.
The most significant development at the park resulted when Civilian Conservation Corps workers established a camp at Tuttle Lake to work on Okamanpedan in August of 1934 and worked on constructing a bath house made of locally sourced stone. The group also completed trail work, tree planting, and shoreline improvements at the site. The workers also hosted a dance at the local Oddfellows hall during September of 1934.
After the departure of the CCC, development at Okamanpedan largely stopped. Small maintenance projects helped keep the park open to the public, but over the years the site has degraded. The stone bath house, once a great testament to the work of the CCC in Iowa, now stands largely open to the elements.
Over the years, some local efforts have sought to help preserve and reinvigorate Okamanpedan. For instance, during 1980, Youth Conservation Corps workers helped to clean up brush throughout the park. In 2008, Emmet County offered to take over maintenance of the park, although the state deferred the proposal.
Today, Okamanpedan offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northwestern Iowa. Unsupervised swimming is allowed at the site, and nature enthusiasts enjoying soaking in the lake’s beauty from within the park. An adjacent boat ramp offers access Tuttle Lake, and shoreline fishing opportunities also abound. Picnic spots, limited trails, and the ruins of the CCC era shelter offer interesting sights for visitors to enjoy. The adjacent Tuttle Lake Marsh, a 160-acre river, upland, and wet meadow habitat provides a variety of wildlife viewing opportunities. The nearby Tuttle Lake Recreation Area offers camping opportunities near the park.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Okamanpedan 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, Okamanpedan 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 Okamanpedan State Park.
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