During the Great Depression, the Civil Works Administration — a New Deal program — surveyed the nation’s forest and wasteland. Allamakee County in northeast Iowa was one of the counties covered in the 1934 survey. By 1936, the state of Iowa had bought several thousand acres of forest in the county to preserve it.
Within a year, state forester G.B. MacDonald bought more acres in hopes of adding a forestry camp there like the one in Keosauqua in southeast Iowa.
In 1942, the Iowa Conservation Commission established the boundary for the Yellow River State Forest in the northeast corner of Iowa near Harpers Ferry.
The forest covered 6,000 acres in 1961 when it was opened to the public.
That also was the year inmates from the Anamosa Reformatory — as it was called then — started working and serving out their sentences in the 3,000-acre Paint Creek unit of the forest.
The 17 honor inmates lived in trailers set up in the Luster Heights unit, a “camp” that would operate for more than 50 years before closing in 2017.
The inmates began work at 7 a.m.
One crew worked with a rock crusher, building roads on former logging trails. Another crew cut timber at the state-owned sawmill. Another crew built a recreation building, using lumber from the sawmill.
The trustees stocked forest streams with trout, built fire lanes, access roads and fences and planted trees to replace the ones hauled to the sawmill.
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A few helped the camp’s cook, also an honor prisoner, while two others policed the grounds. One trusty built a large fireplace from native stone. Another helped with electric wiring.
“The chief carpenter was brought from Anamosa on a temporary basis just to get the work started,” The Gazette reported. He stayed on, hoping he’d not have to go back inside the prison walls.
‘They work hard’
When the inmate’s workday ended at about 4 p.m., the men ate their evening meal and were free to fish, play Monopoly or basketball or pitch horseshoes. The prisoners’ families were allowed to visit on the weekends.
“All this may sound like these prisoners are living the ‘life of Riley’ with a little work thrown in,” The Gazette reported. “Such is not the case. They work hard, and, while they enjoy their privileges, they are saving the taxpayers money.”
“Where else,” a foreman asked, “will you find men who work like this for 25 cents a day?”
The Luster Heights prison camp was supposed to be temporary, but it worked so well that a new building was added the following year to house 40 inmates year-round. The building contained bunks, showers, laundry facilities, a rec room and a barbershop.
In 1978, the Iowa Department of Social Services abruptly ended its association with the camp, and the Iowa Office for Planning and Programming turned it into a young adult conservation corps camp funded by the federal government. That lasted three years until funding ran out.
The camp returned to housing inmates. A federal grant of $104,000 helped offset the prison camp’s $250,000 annual cost. Again, it was pointed out the prisoners provided cheap labor.
Nevertheless, area residents weren’t happy with the camp.
“Nobody wants these people, nobody does,” Warden Calvin Auger said. “The fact is these are Iowa people … and Iowa’s going to have to take care of them.”
As a minimum security facility subject to overcrowding, inmates sometimes walked away. Up until 1991, walkaways from Luster Heights averaged about six per year (out of about 75 inmates). The three years after that, an average of 10 walked away. The majority, however, stayed put, knowing they were close to the end of their sentences.
By 1994, the walkaway problem had been reduced to half.
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In 1991, the state reported Luster Heights inmates, over the past 12 months, had worked 23,000 hours at the sawmill and at Pikes Peak and Backbone state parks.
The Department of Corrections announced in 2001, 2003 and 2010 that budget cuts would force the camp to close. It was finally shuttered in 2017 and returned to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
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