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Pioneer State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 59



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


As the Little Cedar River winds into Iowa on its way to meet the main channel, it passes by a small park largely forgotten in time. During the earliest era of Iowa state park development, citizens of Mitchell County organized the Little Cedar Valley Conservation Club in 1933. One of the group’s first projects focused on acquiring lands for donation to the state in the hopes of gaining a state park. A total of $584 bought the initial ten acres for the park near the small town of Brownville, and local papers consistently refer to the project as Brownville State Park prior to dedication. The site included an old mill, as well as a 25-acre mill bond on the Little Cedar. Prior to turning the lands over to the state, the Little Cedar Valley Conservation Club worked to develop initial roads, trails, and picnic areas. With much of the initial development completed, the club decided to disband and hand the lands over to the state in 1938. An opening on July 7, 1938 was followed by an official dedication the following month on August 7 with thousands in attendance. The dedication featured two mill stones salvaged from the former mill site, as well as a pine tree planting, and the formal naming of the park as Pioneer State Park.


Following dedication, the state set about providing several other amenities. Workers placed six-ton glacial boulder near the park’s entrance, and a 73-year old stone mason named Anfred Olson constructed a shelter out of locally sourced stone. Rudimentary camping options paired with the shelter and previously developed trails to offer the citizens of Mitchell County a great escape into the outdoors.


Locals remained interested in the park, going so far as to head down to Des Moines to advocate for further improvements, especially relating to the dam on the Little Cedar. However, despite the warnings, the state did not improve the dam and it washed out during the 1940s. The loss of the dam and mill pond led to a decline in visitation, and by 1952 the Mitchell County Press advocated for rebuilding of the dam to form a lake suitable for outdoor recreation. The state considered the idea, going so far as to allot $75,000 to the park. However, the effort quickly flamed out and by 1954 a revived Little Cedar Nature Club paired with the Riceville Conservation Club and the state to consider the park’s future. Two years later, further newspaper reports opined the park’s future might be brighter under local control. Citing neglect of the park, at the time the state’s smallest, calls for local control paired with a desire to form the Mitchell County Conservation Board. Despite the innovative plan, the state did not initially bend to local wishes and Pioneer State Park continued to languish in the state park system through the 1960s.



However, change arrived in 1974 when the state struck a 25-year deal with the Mitchell County Conservation Board to provide maintenance of the park. Although initial gusto suggested a variety of improvements for the park, development never really picked up at Pioneer State Park. Over the course of the 25-year maintenance agreement the county managed the park, and when time came for a new management agreement the state instead decided to offload the parcel. In 2003, Iowa officially deeded Pioneer State Park to Mitchell County and the park dropped the ‘state’ from its name.

Today, Pioneer Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in north Iowa. A small modern campground and playground flanked by woods offer a scenic escape into Mitchell County. Small trails through heavy woods and along the Little Cedar offer visitors an opportunity to stretch their legs. One of the original mill stones still sits proudly near the campground entrance, and the shelter built by Anfred Olson still welcomes gatherings thanks to maintenance and modernization work over the years.


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