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Minneopa State Park

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Color image of Minneopa Falls, Minneopa State Park, October 21, 2010. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user McGhiever.

Minneopa Falls, Minneopa State Park, October 21, 2010. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user McGhiever.

Minneopa State Park, located in southern Minnesota, is Minnesota’s third-oldest state park. It was created in 1905 to preserve Minneopa Falls, a two-tiered waterfall once described as nature’s masterpiece. The park has since expanded to include Minnesota River frontage, the historic Seppman stone windmill, and a herd of American plains bison.

The name Minneopa, a contraction of mni hinhe nunpa, is most commonly translated from the Dakota language as “water falling twice.” The park is situated in the Minnesota River Valley, which formed 12,000–9,000 years ago when glacial meltwater from Lake Agassiz drained south, creating the massive Glacial River Warren. This erosive force created a valley 320 miles long, up to five miles wide, and 250 feet deep. Also, beginning over 14,000 years ago, the erosion of limestone moved Minneopa Falls upstream about three-quarters of a mile. It’s still moving.

The first Euro-American settler-colonists began arriving in the area in 1853 by small steamboat and by wagon. Local newspapers and settler-colonists’ diaries describe a Dakota village, Makatosa, on the west bank of Minneopa Creek and just north of what became US Highway 68. Records tell of interactions with the Dakota leaders Sitomni Duta (Red All Over) and Wahpe Duta (Red Leaf).
Minneopa Falls, first owned by D. C. Evans, quickly became a popular local picnicking and gathering area. The first resort, called Minneinneopa, opened in 1858 just east of the falls. Prominent artists took photos; newspapers and immigration brochures promoted the area. In Euro-American literature from the 1860s and 1870s, the falls is referred to as Minne-inne-o-pa and interpreted as “singing waters where the elk play.”

In 1870, the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad reached Minneopa Falls and scheduled several daily trips from nearby Mankato. Excursions from churches, schools, and businesses came for the day. Large camp meetings (Christian religious gatherings, with attendance as high as 5000) came for multiple days. The upper falls area was said to be a natural amphitheater.

In 1903, Orange Little, the newest owner of Minneopa Falls, spoke of wanting to cut the trees and graze cattle. Alarmed by this possibility, local business leaders formed a committee to preserve Minneopa Falls by designating it as a state park. In 1905, Ezra Gates, a Minnesota state representative, introduced a bill to create Minneopa State Park. Some dissenters thought it should be a locally owned park. But this was an era when the state government had already created other state parks and historical monuments, setting a precedent. The bill passed.

From 1905 to the early 1960s, Minneopa State Park grew minimally. Local commitment to the park remained strong, and the site maintained its popularity (45,000 visitors were reported in 1935, a year of heavy rains). Between 1937 and 1940, the WPA (Works Progress Administration; later, Works Projects Administration) built seven rustic-style structures that were later added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Also during this era, the state park administration began to rethink what a state park should be and whether the minimum size should be 500 acres. By 1967, Minneopa State Park had just over 145 acres. Should it expand or should it revert back to local control? Local sentiment supported expansion.

Expansion supporters formed the Mankato Active Community Thought (ACT) Minneopa Expansion Subcommittee. They mobilized around three facets: the Minnesota state legislature and Governor Harold LeVander; US Senator Walter Mondale and the Department of Interior; and a local “Expand the Park” fundraising campaign. By these actions, they added almost 800 acres to the park. It expanded to the Minnesota River and the state-owned historical site Seppman Mill.

In 2015, eleven American plains bison were reintroduced to the park. The bison are part of the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd, which includes the Minnesota Zoo and Blue Mounds State Park. These herds are unique: they are considered genetically pure, largely free of genetic material that would have come from cross breeding with cattle. The bison reside on 332 acres of native prairie.
Minneopa State Park in 2017 consists of 2,599 acres. The southern, smaller section of the park includes Minneopa Falls and the WPA structures. The northern section borders the Minnesota River and includes the drive-through Bison Range, historic Seppman Mill, and camping facilities. Interpretive services include geocaching, birding, and naturalist programs.

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“450-acres Expansion of Minneopa State Park Finalized.” Mankato Free Press, December 31, 1968.

“92,205 OK’d for Minneopa State Park.” Mankato Free Press, December 20, 1968.

Blue Earth County Historical Society. Hanging folders on Minneopa State Park, divided by decades. Mankato, MN.

“Expand the Park” scrapbook
Manuscript Collection, Blue Earth County Historical Society, Mankato
Description: Lloyd Vollmer, chairman of the ACT Minneopa expansion committee, kept a scrapbook of newspaper articles and other related papers from the 1967–1972 Expand the Park campaign. It includes yellow Expand the Park button artifacts.

Herbst, Gordon H. Minneinneopa: 150 Year History; Minneopa State Park. Waseca, MN: Quality Print, 2007.

Hughes, Thomas. History of Minneopa State Park. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Conservation, Division of Forestry, 1932.

Journal of the House of the Thirty-fourth Session of the Legislature of the State of Minnesota. St. Paul: McGill-Warmer, State Printers, 1905.

Meyer, Roy W. Everyone’s Country Estate. A History of Minnesota’s State Parks. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.

——— . “Forestville: The Making of a State Park.” Minnesota History 44, no. 3 (Fall 1974): 82–95. http://collections.mnhs.org/mnhistorymagazine/articles/44/v44i03p082-095.pdf

Minneopa State Park WPA/Rustic Style Historic Resources. Minneopa State Park. National Register of Historic Places Nomination File, State Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www.mnhs.org/preserve/nrhp/nomination/89001663.pdf

“Minneopa Visited by 45,000 in 1935.” Mankato Free Press, January 14, 1936.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Minneopa Falls: A Changing Cascade.” Interpretative Services, 2014.
Description: an interpretative sign at Minneopa Falls, Minneopa State Park.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Rare Bison Herd Released.” News release, September 25, 2015.
http://news.dnr.state.mn.us/2015/09/25/rare-bison-herd-released-into-minneopa-state-park/

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd Reintroduction. Minneopa State Park.”
http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/minneopa/bison.html

Minnesota State Board of Immigration. Minnesota, the Empire State of the New North-west: The Commercial, Manufacturing and Geographical Centre of the American Continent. St. Paul: H.M. Smyth & Company, Printers, 1878.

Seppman Mill. National Register of Historic Places Nomination File, State Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www.mnhs.org/preserve/nrhp/nomination/71000435.pdf

Tilden, Freeman. The State Parks Their Meaning in American Life. NY: Alfred P. Knopf, 1962.
https://archive.org/details/stateparkstheirm006470mbp

Related Audio

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Sounds of Minneopa State Park, April 2017 | Details

Related Images

Color image of Minneopa Falls, Minneopa State Park, October 21, 2010. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user McGhiever.
Color image of Minneopa Falls, Minneopa State Park, October 21, 2010. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user McGhiever.
Black and white photograph of Minneopa Falls, Minnesota, ca. 1865.
Black and white photograph of Minneopa Falls, Minnesota, ca. 1865.
Black and white photograph of Minneopa Falls, ca. 1865. Photograph by Whitney’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Minneopa Falls, ca. 1865. Photograph by Whitney’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Seppman Mill, ca. 1890.
Black and white photograph of Seppman Mill, ca. 1890.
Black and white photograph showing the negotiating of the purchase of Minneopa State Park, October 13, 1905.
Black and white photograph showing the negotiating of the purchase of Minneopa State Park, October 13, 1905.
Colorized postcard of Minneopa Falls, Minnesota State Park, Mankato, Minnesota, ca. 1915.
Colorized postcard of Minneopa Falls, Minnesota State Park, Mankato, Minnesota, ca. 1915.
Blacka nd white photograph of of Minneopa Falls on the Minneopa River in winter, ca. 1920.
Blacka nd white photograph of of Minneopa Falls on the Minneopa River in winter, ca. 1920.
Color image of a WPA plaque near the Minneopa Falls at Minneopa State Park, April 8, 2017. Photograph by Karin J. Green.
Color image of a WPA plaque near the Minneopa Falls at Minneopa State Park, April 8, 2017. Photograph by Karin J. Green.
Color image of the rustic-style latrine built in 1939 by the WPA. Architect: H. Petersen.
Color image of the rustic-style latrine built in 1939 by the WPA. Architect: H. Petersen.
Advertisement for fundraising campaign printed in March 23, 1967 edition of the Mankato Free Press.
Advertisement for fundraising campaign printed in March 23, 1967 edition of the Mankato Free Press.
Color image of a pinback button promoting the 1967 fundraising campaign to expand Minneopa State Park by almost 800 acres.
Color image of a pinback button promoting the 1967 fundraising campaign to expand Minneopa State Park by almost 800 acres.
Color image of Bison at Minneopa State Park, ca. 2015.
Color image of Bison at Minneopa State Park, ca. 2015.
Color image of a Bison Range sign at Minneopa State Park, April 8, 2017.
Color image of a Bison Range sign at Minneopa State Park, April 8, 2017.
Color image of the Geocaching History Challenge, April 8, 2017.
Color image of the Geocaching History Challenge, April 8, 2017.

Turning Point

In 1967, the Mankato community creates the ACT Minneopa Expansion Subcommittee with the goal of adding 800 acres to the state park, preventing its reclassification as a local park. They work with the Minnesota state government and the federal government for approval and matching dollars. In addition, they create the “Expand the Park” yellow-button fundraising campaign.

Chronology

1700

The French explorer Pierre LeSueur leads an expedition to the Minnesota River and overwinters on the Blue Earth River, east of Minneopa Falls. His men harvest 400 bison for sustenance.

1700s

A group of Dakota people live in a village called Makatosa, on the west bank of Minneopa Creek and just north of what later became US Highway 68.

1851

The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux cedes millions of acres of Dakota lands in southern and western Minnesota, opening the Minneopa area to Euro-American settler-colonists.

1853

D. C. Evans purchases Minneopa Falls and the immediate area. He encourages its use for public excursions.

1862

Louis Seppman begins construction of a stone windmill initially used to grind flour. Two of the wooden arms, covered with sailcloth, are destroyed in three separate storms. They are repaired after only the first incident.

1870

The St. Paul and Sioux City railroad reaches Minneopa Falls, builds a depot, and schedules several daily runs from Mankato to Minneopa Falls.

1876

The James–Younger gang hides along Minneopa Creek in an attempt to escape a pursuing posse after their failed bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota.

1903

Minneopa Falls owner Orange Little reveals plans to cut local trees and graze cattle, triggering action by the local community to permanently preserve the falls area.

1905

The Minnesota legislature creates Minneopa State Park to preserve Minneopa Falls.

1937

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) begins a three-year building project to create seven rustic-style structures in Minneopa State Park.

1967

Local residents create the ACT Minneopa Expansion Subcommittee to expand Minneopa State Park. Working with state and federal officials, they successfully add almost 800 acres to the north side of the park along the Minnesota River.

1971

The Seppman Mill is registered as a historic property on the National Register of Historic Places.

1989

The WPA structures become registered as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.

1998

The Minnesota legislature expands the state park by another 1,475 acres.

2015

Eleven American plains bison are reintroduced to the park through a partnership with the Minnesota Zoo and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. These bison are significant because they are genetically pure from crossbreeding with cattle.