Tomorrow, hundreds of lycra-clad cyclists will roll through Itasca State Park on the Headwaters 100 bike ride, part of the Park Rapids Legacy Destination Weekend. That’s a long way to ride and chat, but, on their minds, undoubtedly, will be thoughts of not getting a flat, not finding an empty water bottle under their seat, and not finding a closed sign at a Park Rapids pub at the end of their ride. Regardless of whether the talk is on a bike saddle or a bar stool, here’s a nice story to share. It’s that the magnificent forest of Itasca State Park almost never came to be, and without it, since it was the first state park in Minnesota, the entire state park system might never have been established.
In the late 1800s Minnesota was at the height of its lumber era with millions of acres of virgin forest being consumed by our growing nation’s insatiable demand to build. After a camping trip at the source of the Mississippi River, Alfred J. Hill, a prominent archaeologist, pressed for the creation of Minnesota’s first state park before our wild places were all devoured by this demand.
Jacob V. Brower, another Itasca forefather, 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.
Jacob Brower, a railroad and newspaper magnate is also called a founder of Itasca State Park. Brower’s passion was exploration and archaeology. Although he had no formal education beyond country school, he established himself as a credible voice in the field. One of his most important efforts was spending two months surveying Lake Itasca to confirm that it was the true source of the Mississippi.
The headwaters of the Mississippi.
In 1890, a vision for a state park system that was more than just a picnic playground but included the preservation of Minnesota’s wild and scenic places was truly ahead of its time. This was not long after the protection of Yellowstone by the federal government and the Adirondacks by the State of New York, but the Minnesota Legislature was very much beholden to the lumber interests. Itasca is graced with some of the largest white pines in Minnesota. The 1891 bill authorizing the park barely passed — by one vote. It was signed into law on April 20, 1891, by Governor William R. Marriam. Minnesota now has 74 state parks and recreation areas and 56 state forest campgrounds.
Besides the 100-mile ride, visitors can see Legacy-funded art and cultural projects at: Celebration of the Arts, Friday night, September 23, Art Leap 2011, September 24-25, and the Northern Light Opera Company production, Saturday, September 24. More details are at www.prlacc.org or www.parkrapids.com.