By ANDREW MCGINN
Sixty years ago, the county parks system was still in its infancy.
In the summer of 1959, the county owned only Squirrel Hollow and a 9.13-acre area known as Henderson Camp, which had been deeded to the county just a few months before.
Sixty years later, Greene County Conservation manages 20 areas, encompassing 2,000 acres.
But considering that Iowa remains one of the worst states in the nation for recreational land open to the public, County Conservation Director Dan Towers is always happy to add more.
He’s thrilled by the planned gift of land owned by former county supervisor Jerry Kelley that would expand present-day Henderson Park south of Jefferson by as much as 15 acres, including a 2-acre pond.
A farmer with lifelong Greene County roots, Kelley will turn 90 in November — and, admittedly, he’ll have to die first before the public can start fishing his pond, but he’s clearly in a mood to begin pondering his legacy.
As an opening act, Kelley on May 22 presented Greene County Conservation with a check for $50,000 to benefit Spring Lake, the county’s most popular outdoor destination and a park that began to be modernized during his term as a supervisor.
When asked how often people give money to the county parks system, Towers barely even blinked.
“Almost never,” said Towers, conservation director for 34 years. “It’s a very generous donation. It allows us to do something we couldn’t have done otherwise.”
Kelley’s gift will be used to expand Spring Lake’s most popular shelter house — the lakeside shelter house — to the west in the fall, Towers said.
The new section will be open on all four sides.
The lakeside shelter house is far and away the most in-demand of Spring Lake’s three shelter houses. Towers said people begin calling to reserve it at midnight Jan. 1. Consequently, you stand a better chance of reeling in a trophy northern pike from Spring Lake than you do at reserving the lakeside shelter house for a Saturday or Sunday in the summer.
Close to water’s edge, the shelter house sits at the former site of the Spring Lake dance hall, the Crystal Ballroom, a venue that played host to a who’s who of big bands during the swing era. The park was a private resort then.
Kelley, who lives in Jefferson, was perhaps only half-joking when he explained his donation of $50,000 for Spring Lake.
“I can deduct some taxes off it,” he said.
But on a deeper level, Kelley has always had a soft spot for Spring Lake.
“It’s a nice place,” he said. “It’s needed here. Look at the people who come here.”
He cited his own doctor in Ames, who brings his family to Spring Lake every weekend.
“A lot of people from out of town come here,” he said. “You talk to a lot of people, it’s the cleanest park that is.”
The 240-acre park now generates $160,000 annually in camping revenue for the county, Towers said, mostly thanks to visitors. Eighty percent of campers hail from outside Greene County, according to Towers.
Kelley was on the board of supervisors (1997 to 2000) when Spring Lake began taking strides toward modernization.
Developed 95 years ago as a summer resort, the site was eventually purchased in 1949 by the state of Iowa and operated as a state park for the next 20 years.
The county took over management of Spring Lake in 1969, and has only officially owned the park since 2003.
But until the early ’00s, one thing at Spring Lake remained constant: there were no flush toilets, and campers went without showers.
That changed in 2000, when the county supervisors added dozens of new campsites with electrical hookups (and also consequently increased camping fees) in order to finance construction of a shower house.
That paved the way for eventual county ownership of the park — and in 2001, the state first floated the idea of handing the park over to Greene County.
That, Towers said, has been a good thing.
“We can do whatever we want without DNR looking over our shoulder,” he said.
Kelley believes that in the county’s hands, Spring Lake is safe.
“There’s no telling what they might do with it,” Kelley said of the state. “Could sell it if they could get enough money for it.”
Kelley’s planned gift of land adjacent to Henderson Park once he dies will be a boon to local anglers, according to Towers.
“Being so close to town, it will get used,” he predicted. “There’s a shortage of places to fish in Greene County.”
The future gift would add an additional 14 or 15 acres to the 39-acre park, located just outside of Jefferson along Highway 4.
Henderson Park was actually the first park to be developed by the county. While Squirrel Hollow is considerably older, it was developed using mostly federal funds during the Depression.
Until state law changed in the late 1950s, counties in Iowa were prohibited from even maintaining parks with tax funds. Each year, Greene County had to seek special permission to use $500 in an emergency fund for maintenance at Squirrel Hollow.
That, too, changed, and in 1958, Greene County voters OK’d the creation of a Greene County Conservation Commission.
Within just months, the commission accepted its first gift of land — a wooded acreage south of Jefferson that had formerly been the home of John Henderson, a combat veteran of World War I who had seen plenty of action in “No Man’s Land.”
Henderson died in 1958. Later that year, his sister specified that this new park bordering the North Raccoon River was to be called Henderson Camp for use by the Boy Scouts of America.
There was just one problem with Henderson Camp. It was split into two — a 7-acre section and one that was 2.13 acres.
Private property ran between them, and there was no road to the river.
Henderson Camp became Henderson Park in 1960 with the county’s purchase of 30 acres.
Much like Spring Lake to the northeast, Kelley’s pond near Henderson Park started out as a gravel pit. Underground springs turned the pit into a pond.
“It needs more maintenance, and I’m getting too old to do it,” Kelley said.
It promises to one day make for a nice little public fishing hole.
“No swimming,” Kelley warned, breaking into a grin. “Unless it’s midnight.”