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Wanata State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 44


Nestled along the Little Sioux River just south of Peterson in Clay County, a 144-acre former state park holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Wanata State Park.


The Little Sioux River snakes through Clay County and offers insights into the distant past of Iowa. Named for the Sioux confederacy a tribal group known as the Oceti Sakowin, various Dakota bands occupied the northern half of Iowa from the earliest available French records. The Wahpekute band of the Dakota led by Inkpaduta often passed through the park area during the 1850s while moving between their winter Village site near Smithland in Woodbury County and their summer village site near the Iowa Great Lakes. After the close of the frontier era, the scenic lands along the Little Sioux welcomed American settlers who formed the community of Peterson in 1856.

The construction of a fort during the US-Dakota War of 1862 speaks to the frequency with which native peoples passed through Peterson during the frontier era. Platted in 1881 when the railroad arrived, the city grew slowly into a community where people took great pride in the potential of Peterson. As rural Iowa electrified during the early 1920s, Peterson hosted Northwestern Light and Power on the parcel south of town ended up a state park only a decade later.

After the inception of the Iowa State Park system in 1917, locals quickly came together to advocate for a state park. Although initially unsuccessful, by 1931 the Peterson Patriot reported Louis Pammel arrived to look over a site south of town for potential state park status. Despite the urging of a Spencer man that Peterson residents needed to ‘get busy,’ the park idea took a few more years to fully formulate. On November 2, 1933, papers reported Peterson would have its state park. Northwestern Light and Power deeded the lands over the state, and the park crept closer to reality in early 1934.


Over 1,500 locals came out on June 10, 1934, to celebrate the dedication of Peterson State Park. Karl King and his band from Fort Dodge amused the crowd with stirring songs, and the state park era of Peterson officially began.


Shortly thereafter, officials renamed the park to honor the Sioux Chief Wanata. Part of more westerly portions of the tribe, newspaper reports prove unclear on exactly why the name change occurred or when. The site initial featured a dam constructed by Northwestern Power and Light, however in 1939 the original structure broke under high water pressure.


Like many Iowa state parks, New Deal Era programs greatly influenced park developments. Flooding often overwhelmed the banks of the Little Sioux, and the community asked for Works Progress Administration workers to help with shoreline bank improvement work. Constructing an earthen dike to protect the park, the WPA project helped to ensure the preserved enjoyment of the park. WPA workers also constructed a stone and timber shelter reminiscent of others constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the New Deal era.


Years of idyllic picnics and family gatherings, bird watching and snagging channel catfish, helped endear Wanata to visitors over the decades. By 1981, however, the state started mulling a changeover of control for the parklands to local authorities. When city and county level officials considered solutions, the state proposed an internal transfer from the Department of Natural Resources to the Fish and Wildlife Division. Effectively transitioning the site to a state of minimal maintenance and shifting official status from state park to refuge status.


Despite the changeover, improvements still awaited the park. In 2006, the Clay County Conservation Board official gained control of Wanata, moving the site completely out of state control. In 2008, grants helped fund the construction of a new boat ramp on the Little Sioux. Repairs and improvements to the New Deal era shelter also helped to preserve the pleasures of Wanata for future generations.


Today, Wanata State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northwestern Iowa. The stone shelter still sits proudly in an open meadow, and hiking trials traverse the heavily wooded park. A favorite of Iowa birdwatchers, Wanata also offers fisherman a chance to test the waters of the Little Sioux either from the shoreline or by providing boat ramp access.


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