Column: Owatonna has a nearly forgotten state park

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 25, 2006

Ed Shannon, Between the corn rows

Horace Austin State Park isn’t the only former state park in this area.

This other now nearly forgotten state park is about 28 miles north of Albert Lea and just off Interstate 35. This 28-mile determination is based on the mileage between Exit 12 on I-35 (County Road 46 out by the truck stop) and Exit 40 just south of Owatonna. Exit 40 is for U.S. Highways 14 and 218 and was constructed to bypass Owatonna on the south side. And this particular four-lane highway goes right through the area once designated as Kaplan Woods State Park.

In 1935 the state purchased a 180-acre hardwood forest area to the south and southwest of Owatonna along the Straight River. The very prominent Kaplan family of Owatonna had owned this woodland and successfully preserved it for recreational purposes. Thus, it was logical to continue using the local name of Kaplan Woods as the designation for this new park.

However, there was a feeling within the state park administration that this place, like Horace Austin, was more like a glorified city park. As a result, very little was done to provide facilities that would improve this park for the public. Also, having the four-lane highway cutting through the woods really degraded a portion of this park’s land.

Finally, in 1963, the control over this state park and its remaining 154 acres of land was transferred to the city of Owatonna.

I’m not too sure what happened to this woodland between 1963 and Sept.12, 1987. That’s the date what’s now listed as Kaplan’s Woods Parkway was dedicated. Now one of Owatonna’s city parks, the parkway has expanded to 225 acres. And what really gave this place a superboost was a $300,000 contribution from the late Rueben A. Kaplan, founder of Owatonna Tool Co., for the park’s development.

Thanks to the Kaplan bequest, plus added federal and state funds and local allocations, this park now has over six miles of hiking and cross-country skiing trails, two miles of hard-surfaced, handicapped- accessible trail, and picnic and recreational facilities.

I’m not sure if Kaplan Woods State Park included a lake. However, the present Kaplan’s Woods Parkway has its very own man-made lake. This is the 35-acre Lake Kohlmier.

Right at this point the mention of a lake gives me the opportunity to stress an interesting point. Lakes have had an important role in the selection of state park sites in Steele, Mower and Freeborn counties.

While doing research on the state park topic for this area, I came across a reference which mentioned State Auditor Ray Chase who served in the 1920s. In 1923 he suggested several places where state parks should be located. One of those places was based on Albert Lea Lake.

As part of other research projects, I’ve found information that indicates this proposed park should have been along South Shore Drive (180th Street or County Road 19) at several sites, including what’s now St. Nicholas Park and Juglans. Nothing evolved from this proposal until 1947 when Helmer Myre State Park was officially created on the other side of the lake and based on the Big Island.

Another place once considered for either a small state park or wayside was what’s now Pickerel Lake County Park and just off U.S. Highway 69.

Mower County may have lost out when Horace Austin State Park (or Wayside) had its status changed to being an Austin city park in 1949. Their loss was balanced off with the creation of Lake Louise State Park in 1965.

This park consists of 1,147 acres, is located 1.5 miles north of Le Roy on Mower County 14, and is based on an old Upper Iowa River millpond.

Steele County may have lost Kaplan Woods State Park in 1963, but this loss was offset with the creation of Rice Lake State Park in the same year.

This park is seven miles east of Owatonna on Rose Street (Steele County Road 19). It has a total of 1,071 acres and is partly in Dodge County.

(Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.)