Rice Lake State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 45
Tucked next to one of Iowa’s natural lakes near Lake Mills in Winnebago County, a 15-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Rice Lake State Park.
At one time, the waters of Rice Lake spread over 500 acres. An additional 700 acres of marshlands flanked the 15’ deep lake home to marsh birds and naturally growing wild rice. Wildlife thrived in the natural environment representative of the immense wetlands spread across the Des Moines Lobe at the time of American arrival in the area. Abundant populations of small fur bearing mammals, fish, and waterfowl called the lake and mash home. Evidence of Iowa’s Indigenous peoples also speaks to a deeper human past at Rice Lake, and archeological evidence of the Middle Woodland and Late Prehistoric peoples abounds at the site.
A scenic spot, Rice Lake quickly gained the attention of Iowans who constructed cottages along the lake’s south shore where the waters reached their greatest depths. In 1906, however, a state proposal succeeded against local opposition to drain the lake and marshes to open the rich soils to agricultural production. Although the efforts remade the landscape, the flat terrain shaped by receding glaciers over 12,000 years ago refused to fully-submit to the plans of eager Iowans to complete destroy the site. Although the lake dropped to only 4’ of maximum depth and many of the marshlands yielded to the plow, Rice Lake stubbornly remained.
With the onset of the Iowa State Park era in 1917, local efforts quickly came together to help preserve and protect the small lake. Spearheaded by the Rice Lake Outing Club of Lake Mills, efforts to raise funds using excise tax on sales of guns and ammunition through the Pittman-Roberts Program succeeded. Locals presented the opportunity for the state to create a state park at the site on 1,600 donated acres. The state additionally purchased the core 14 acres of today’s park on the south shore of Rice Lake. The conditional agreement kept the lands locally held, stipulating the state move toward state work on lake restoration. In 1928, reports suggested the state would build a dike at the site, but the project largely stalled. Part of the site transitioned into new status as a game preserve in 1932.
Although initial worked proved slow, the park developed with the assistance of Civilian Conservation Corps workers stationed nearby in Forest City during 1934. The crews toiled on shoreline improvements and other conservation related projects, and also left an enduring legacy visible today in the park’s stone and timber shelter house. Additional federal funding came in 1941 to allow a large-scale lake restoration project. Focused on restoring the adjacent wetlands while also increasing the lake depth to 8’.
In 1939, the Lake Mills Outing Club hosted members of the Sauk and Meskwaki tribe at the lake for a celebration of the site’s Indigenous past. Band concerts, political visits, and other events helped to drive high visitation to the park. The Lake Mills Outing club constructed a golf course during the 1930s on part of the locally held lands, and plans came together for a new club house in 1940. During the 1950s, efforts to reestablish waterfowl populations and habitat reconstruction helped to improve the site. In 1955, the state worked on a project to try establishing a beach at Rice Lake State Park. During the 1960s, the Winnebago County REA and the Lake Mills Lions Club came together to electrify the shelter house.
Although the redemptive story of Rice Lake resounds, other recreational opportunities influenced the park’s fate. In 1977, in a land trade agreement, the golf course lands transferred to private ownership, Iowa gained control of today’s state protected lands, and the development at the site largely came to a close. Over the years local groups, notably from Lake Mills schools and the Boy Scouts, have continued to help provide for the park’s care. In 2002, a project to renovate the shelter helped to ensure the park’s enjoyment for a new generation of North Iowans.
Today, Rice State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in North Iowa. The stone and timber shelter constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps welcomes family gatherings and picnickers. Shoreline and dock access offers anglers an opportunity to test the waters of Rice Lake. Bird watching, especially during waterfowl migration, and hunting proves popular on the wetlands adjacent to the park site.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Rice Lake 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, Rice Lake 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 Rice Lake 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!