“None of the lakes hereabout are very deep. They are all marsh-like, only distinguished from a thousand marshes by the courtesy of the pioneer who called them lakes to suit his fancy, recognizing their greater width and possibly, in some cases their bluffy shores.”

-Thomas H. McBride, Geology of Hamilton and Wright Counties (1910)

Two of the four lakes shown in the 1875 map (by A.T. Andreas) have been drained.


The governor has proclaimed July as Lake Appreciation Month. We’ve got a few lakes in the South Skunk River basin that we appreciate for different reasons.

  • Hickory Grove Lake is a 100-acre impoundment that we appreciate for swimming and fishing. The effort involved in constructing it and now restoring it is a testament to how much Story County residents value our lakes.
  • Ada Hayden Heritage Park Lake is a 137-acre former gravel pit that we appreciate for paddle sports, fishing, and admiring from the trails.
  • Little Wall Lake is a 249-acre natural lake that we appreciate most for swimming and motorized sports.
  • Cairo Lake is a 1300-acre former lake that we now appreciate as corn ground.

Did you know about that last one?  Located between Jewell and Kamrar, it was drained starting in 1895 by a system of ditches (71 and Rahto Branch) and tiles, but you can still see the shoreline on aerial photos. “Lost Lake Farm,” a dairy on the north “shore”, is named as a nod to that history.


The scale of the work involved is impressive, especially given the technology available at the time, and was just one of many such alterations that built up Iowa’s agricultural economy. In this case it made farmable over 1000 acres of Blue Earth muck loams with a corn suitability rating of 63 to 66.

The work could not have happened without statutes adopted by the Iowa Legislature around 1890 that allowed for the formation of drainage districts, and reinforced by an amendment to the Iowa Constitution in 1908 to provide drainage districts with additional authority.

Today we have plenty of good farm ground but few clean lakes.  We’ve got amazing yields but not reliable profits. We’ve got too little carbon in the soil and too much in the atmosphere.  We’ve got too much nitrogen washing off our fields toward the Gulf.  The environmental challenges are daunting, but when I look at old maps, it makes me wonder what today’s Iowans could accomplish, if we had the legal framework and economic incentives to make it possible.

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