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State Park Series - Union Grove State Park

Tucked between Garwin and Gladbrook in Tama County, a 282-acre State park holds natural and historic treasures.

Come along with Notes on Iowa, as we explore Union Grove State Park.

Upon the creation of the lake, initially named Gladbrook Lake, newspaper accounts note a profusion of cold springs throughout the area which drew Iowa’s early Indigenous peoples to the area. An abundance of deer, elk, and other wild game also made the area an attractive place to live. Today, the Meskwaki Settlement rests just under 15 miles directly south of the Tama County park.

A group from Maquoketa including David Bowen and L.S. Frederick sought out the area after getting word of the beauty and abundance present. After an initial 350 acre purchase, William Bywater bought an additional 200 acres and other settlers soon followed suit. By 1855, the town of Union Grove started to manifest along Deer Creek on the current park site.

Development followed with the opening of a school in 1856, and the erection of several other buildings over the ensuing decades. However, when the railroad opted to bypass the town, the residents combined with the small community of Badger Hill to form the community of Gladbrook roughly six miles to the north.

During the early 20th century, officials in Tama County conceived of the idea to form a park in the Deer Creek Area. After seeking counsel from the Iowa Conservation Commission, residents formed the Lake-Park Holding Corporation to raise funds for the purchase of lands.

Even as the Great Depression raged in 1935 and 1936, President John Norris worked to sell $100 membership certificates to raise the necessary $35,000 for the project. The drive succeeded because residents could exchange the face value of their investment toward lots on the lake once workers completed the project.

Developing an ambitious timeline for the construction of 1100’ dam and adjacent spillway, local labor paired with the Works Progress Administration to start construction during 1936. By November, the Toledo Chronicle reported Norris planned to have the park open for ice skating later in the year.

The WPA employed out of work men from Tama and nearby Marshall County, but construction stalled and frustrated the Lake-Park Holding Corporation.

In June of 1937, the Traer Star-Clipper reported the Lake-Park Corporation decided to move on from the WPA to hire B.L. Anderson of Vinton to complete work on the spillway by the end of the following month. The delays and other problems plagued the Lake-Park Corporation, and in 1940 the group sold the 160-lake and an additional 100 acres of land to the state for $10,000.

After entering the state system, development proved slow at the park. Several buildings, including a picnic shelter, added amenities during the 1950s, and the 1960s saw some state investment. In 1960 the Conservation Commission obtained $32,000 in funding for beach improvement, a new service building, and other minor upgrades.

However, only a decade later, officials faced a major problem: silt flowing into the lake clogged the waters, reducing the body of water by 40 acres. Water quality also represented a major issue to the recreational lake, and officials met and decided to drain the lake, use some silt to form new fishing jetties, remove other excess silt, and build silting ponds north of the lake.

The plan came to fruition quickly, and by 1971 the improved lake refilled. Other major water quality and lake improvement projects followed in the 1980s and 2010s, and continues to serve as a focus for maintaining the quality of the lake.

Today, Union Grove State Park offers visitors over three miles of trails, diverse wildlife habitat including hardwood forest, pine plantation, and prairie restoration, as well two modern family cabins at the park’s modern campground. Additionally, a swimming beach, two boat ramps, and a scenic waterfall at the spillway offer diverse opportunities to enjoy the area.

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

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