Minnesota was a pioneer in our nation with the creation of a state park system to preserve the jewels of our landscape for the enjoyment of all its citizens. This truly novel idea in the late 1800s came from leaders like Teddy Roosevelt with the intent to protect, in their natural state, some of our most unique places for future generations. The idea was directly contrary to the dominating ethos of western expansion and modern industrialism that was at its zenith in 1903 and which had at its center the exploitation of our natural resources. As a result of that exploitation, most of Minnesota’s forests had been systematically clear-cut by then with few pristine places left where one could walk through the natural cathedral of the great white pines. One of those places still remaining in 1903 was around the source of the Mississippi: Lake Itasca.
“I will put my hand there, and you will not shoot it off either.”
Mary Gibbs, Itasca State Park Superintendent
Jacob V. Brower was a well-connected Minnesota politician who also fashioned himself a little bit of an explorer. He led a survey team to Lake Itasca in the 1880s to finally settle the dispute of what was the true source of the Mississippi. Upon his return he led a spirited and successful campaign to designate Lake Itasca as Minnesota’s first state park and one of the first such parks in the nation. The 1891 bill authorizing the park barely passed — by one vote. The exploitation mentality was being challenged, but it was still very much alive and hungry for more natural resources of this region.
Brower served as the first superintendent of the state park and had to work tirelessly to protect it from logging exploitation. The future superintendent at the turn of the century was J. P. Gibbs. He worked closely with his young daughter Mary to protect the park in the face of the continued apathy of the government with regard to logging. In 1903 the Legislature passed a law protecting the park from flooding by logging dams but state officials were turning a blind eye to loggers as they cut timber roads through the park. Loggers built the dam on the Mississippi River just downstream from Itasca so they could fill up the lake with downed timber to make it easier to float them down to the mills.
Unfortunately, J. P. Gibbs passed away during this crucial time, and out of respect for his service, young 24 year old Mary Gibbs was given the post. She was the first woman ever to be appointed a superintendent of a state park in the nation and state officials didn’t think she would be a problem for the logging interests. What the politicians in St. Paul didn’t know was that Mary Gibbs had a little fire in her soul. When the lumber companies raised the dam so high that it was flooding the park and doing damage, she served notice to the lumber company that she would not allow it. After being rebuffed twice at the site of the dam by armed lumbermen, Mary returned with warrants in hand accompanied by the sheriff and a citizen’s posse from around the Park Rapids area.
Lumberman M. A. Woods was determined to protect the levers that kept the dam sluice gates raised. The rifle toting lumberjack declared to the sheriff, “I’ll shoot anyone who puts a hand on those levers.” The sheriff timidly returned the warrant to Gibbs. One can easily imagine the steely glare given by young Gibbs as she declared, “I will put my hand there, and you will not shoot it off either.” The gun toting lumberjacks had met their match that day in a determined Mary Gibbs as she marched on top of the dam to open the gate. Unfortunately, it was all too heavy for her to do alone; the brave citizens of Park Rapids joined her at the top of the dam where it took six of them to pull the gate open. That day the Mississippi flowed free and the park was saved. Well . . . maybe not for long.
The loud protests of the lumber barons quickly proceeded through the court system and the halls of power in St. Paul. Ms. Gibbs was soon replaced by a superintendent who was a little less strident about lumber moving through the park. It wasn’t until another 14 years before the dam was fully removed after most of the trees had been exploited.
Despite her dismissal, Mary Gibbs and the citizens of the Park Rapids area helped build momentum for a change in ethics in natural resource management. This momentum grew, and in only a few decades it was well established that state forests were for sustainable logging and state parks were to be preserved in their natural state. Because of that momentum, many of the old-growth pine trees survived. To commemorate Mary Gibbs’ courage and commitment to the preservation of Itasca, the visitor center at the park was recently named in her honor.
Minnesota again has been a pioneer in the nation with the passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment dedicating resources to the preservation of places like Itasca State Park for our children and grandchildren. Like the citizen’s posse of 1903 from Park Rapids that helped Mary Gibbs protect the park, the citizens of Park Rapids in 2011 are showing they still possess that forward thinking spirit of those past pioneers by being the proud host of a Clean Water Land and Legacy weekend.
These weekends highlight of some of the positive things happening to protect our great outdoors in their area. Katie Magozzi, director of the Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce, has been the leading voice promoting the clean water benefits of the headwaters and the lake surrounding Park Rapids. The area chamber recognizes that preservation of their pristine lakes and the stately pines of the park are just simply good for business.
For more details on the Park Rapids Legacy Weekend go here.
Thanks to Katie Magozzi and the rest of the dedicated citizens of Park Rapids for keeping their hands firmly on the lever to protect our great outdoors. It’s that kind of spirit which will ensure that we can preserve some of our state’s great gems for future generations, like our first state park at the headwaters of the Mississippi. I think Mary would be pleased.