The people who lived near Brush Creek in northeast Iowa knew it was a beautiful area, with a cold-water stream and 100-foot bluffs.
In the mid-1930s, the citizens of Arlington — in the midst of the Depression — came up with $1,700 to buy 155 acres surrounding the creek about 2 miles northwest of Arlington. That left the citizens of three other Fayette County cities — West Union, Oelwein and Fayette — to raise the remaining $2,700.
The citizens came through, knowing the state would add the area to the state park system as a nature preserve and stock Brush Creek with trout.
Workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps — stationed at Backbone State Park near Strawberry Point — showed up in February 1937 to build a park shelter that backed up to the canyon walls.
The CCC workers added a stone toilet facility, stone steps leading to the bottom of the canyon, signs, fireplaces and picnic tables. They cleared trails and put in a well and pump.
As plans for the park materialized, the history of the area was recalled by local newspapers.
After the Black Hawk Purchase in 1833, the area around Brush Creek was opened for settlement.
Among the earliest settlers was Charles Moe, who built a cabin in 1842 in a settlement he called Moetown. The name stuck until 1856 when it was changed to Brush Creek. By 1875, Brush Creek had 500 residents and would eventually change its name to Arlington.
In 1878, Robert H.P. Rathbun and his friend, Franklin D. Arnold, decided to pan for gold in Brush Creek at the spot where the Moines Creek connected with it,
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The pair found gold, though not enough to make them rich. Rathbun’s son, Louis, still had a small vial of about five grams of fine gold panned from the creek in the early 1930s.
Arnold had sent it to Louis and his brother, Frank, after their father died. It apparently was the only proof gold had been found in the creek.
The Brush Creek Canyon Preserve, once established in 1937, was left alone.
The preserve had no park custodian and no designated maintenance funds. The facilities slowly returned to nature.
Windows of the toilet facility were never safe. A state conservation officer from Strawberry Point replaced 22 windows one year, only to return in two weeks to find them all broken again. The windows were replaced with screens.
In 1958, the citizens of Arlington decided to spend May 11 cleaning up the preserve. Shops closed for the day, and volunteers headed out to the preserve for a work day.
A Gazette report of the day was dramatic:
“There were men with power mowers to mow through the long grass in the picnic areas. There were men with rakes to collect the cut grass and brush.
“There were men with power saws who went around picking off overhanging limbs, dead limbs and heavy undergrowth. There were men with axes, too. And between the men with the saws and the men with the axes, some trees marked by the conservation people were felled and cleared from the areas.
“There were men with paint and brushes to coat the picnic tables and the wood on the toilet building. There were men with trucks to haul away the debris. There were men with power cranes to lift and drag the biggest obstructions. There were men with saws, hammers and pitchforks.”
And then the women arrived with a hearty supper for everyone.
The cleanup day became an annual event.
In 1967, Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes showed up for an unannounced three-day fishing trip with Conservation Commissioner Bill Noble of Oelwein. They reported catching “a lot” of fish.
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By 1969, the preserve was again showing signs of neglect. The buildings’ shingles were rotting, and the well had stopped working.
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The Conservation Commission considered turning the preserve over to the Fayette County Conservation board, which wanted to expand and modernize the facilities.
Paul Christiansen, a botany instructor at Cornell College, protested, urging that the preserve be “left as is and not destroy its natural attribute, its wilderness.”
His position prevailed, and the preserve remained primitive.
Later, the Iowa State Preserve Board began playing a role in protecting sites like Brush Creek, maintaining them as primitive areas of scientific and educational value.
Today, Brush Creek Canyon Preserve covers 217 acres, with fishing and hiking as its main attractions.
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