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Wildcat Den State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 53

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

A stunning geological wonderland featuring Illinoian age glacial deposits, Pennsylvanian age sandstone, and Devonian age limestone shale, the area surrounding Pine Creek drew awe-struck onlookers well into the pre-historical past. Pine Creek, a small stream, meanders through the park while moving toward the nearby Mississippi River. Upland forests comprised on old-growth white and red oaks, as well as hickory, intermix with pines, and an incredible diversity of plant-life sprouts in the diverse habitats constituting Wildcat Den. Over twenty-five varieties of ferns grow in the park, as well as other unique plants and lichens.

When American settlement arrived in Iowa during the early-1800s, the unique geological formations of the park drew in visitors. One of the area’s first settlers, Benjamin Nye, constructed a gristmill along Pine Creek during 1848. Although Nye died in a fight with his son-in-law only a few years later, his mill continued to use water-power to grind local crops for decades. in According to local legend, in 1856 a wildcat inhabiting one of the park’s caves attacked a young boy. Although the boy managed to escape, locals started to refer to the rocky piece of land along Pine Creek as Wildcat Den. Over the late 1800s, much of the landscape of Wildcat Den underwent change as settlers cut timber on the hills and plowed flatlands for farming. Nearly five decades later two sisters named Emma and Clara Brandt who lived on a 70-acre homestead near the park, purchased the primary 67 acres of the current park site during 1905. Determined to protect the significant site, the sisters went so far as to hire a watchman to make sure vandals couldn’t deface the geological formations at the site. The preservation minded sisters set aside the popular picnicking ground and allowed naturalists to undertake study of the unique plant and animal life of the site.

With the formation of the Iowa Conservation Commission in 1917, the Brandt sisters sought to permanently preserve the lands for the enjoyment of all Iowans. Over the following decade a plan slowly came together which featured the Brandt sisters’ donation of 67-acres, while the state acquired an additional 141 acres, including the site of the historic Pine Creek Grist Mill and 1878 wagon through-truss bridge. Several years later the Brandts further enhanced the park with the donation of their 70-acre homestead, as well. The Pine Creek Grist Mill, originally constructed only two years after Iowa statehood in 1848, served as a working mill from the middle-19th century until 1920 and joined the parcel controlled by the state. The bridge, built in the 1870s to accommodate wagon traffic headed for the mill, still stands proudly over Pine Creek.

As with many other parks throughout the country, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration arrived during the 1930s to help develop amenities. A non-modern campground located above the Devil’s Punchbowl provided the key project for the CCC men who also worked on trails, constructed a shelter, and provided habitat management.

During the 1960s, locals moved the 1887 Melpine School to a site near the mill. A late-1970s restoration project temporarily closed the mill, and in 1980, the Pine Creek Gristmill found listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The 1878 bridge soon joined the nearby mill on the national register. During the summer of 1988, workers toiled to construct wooden stairs to create better accessibility to the area overlooking the Devil’s Punch Bowl. In 1996, the formation of the Friends of the Pine Creek Grist Mill and the Friends of the Melpine School groups helped to unite local people in preserving the park’s important historic structures. During 1999, further restoration of the Pine Creek Grist Mill helped to ensure the structure would continue to welcome visitors for decades to come.

Today, Wildcat Den State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in Southeastern Iowa. The Friends of the Pine Creek Grist Mill and the Friends of the Melpine School continue to preserve the historically significant structures within the park. Miles of well-marked trails wind through the native forests broken by formations including Steamboat Rock, Devil’s Punch Bowl, and Fat Man’s Squeeze. A non-modern campground in the park pairs with the modern camping options along the Mississippi River at the nearby Fairport State Recreation Area to offer options for those hoping to spend the night. Interpretive panels help share the site’s history while seasonal tours of the grist mill offer an insight into the past of early Iowa. The park hosts events throughout the year including a 5k race and a Buckskinners Rendezvous each held in September.

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