It’s hard to believe that Hickory Grove Lake is nearing 50 years old. Although the lake didn’t fill right away, that’s about how long ago it was when work first began on the lake and park. The early history of the area is nearly synonymous with the early history of the Story County County Conservation board. Back in the late 1950s, it was nearly an hour’s drive to the nearest public fishing lake. There was Aquabi near Indianola, Pine Lake at Eldora and Little Wall near Jewell, but that lake was still more of a prairie pothole marsh than an open water lake at the time. The founding fathers of the county conservation board wanted a lake and park that was local and easy to get to. That was main thing they had in mind when those five men finally sat down as the newly formed conservation board in 1960. Things like the conservation center, McFarland Park, the Skunk River Greenbelt, the new Dakins Lake Park and other parks, trails and wildlife areas weren’t even on their long-range radar.
It took that original board several years to find the right location, raise the funds for necessary land acquisition and hire an engineering firm to design the lake and park. The original design had something for everyone. There was camping, of course, but there was also a proposed golf course, shooting range, a beach with a changing house and concessions, a boat house where paddle boats, canoes, and rowboats could be rented, and several open shelters and enclosed lodges. The golf course and shooting range didn’t end up being built, but everything else, with the exception of the original boat house, is still there and being enjoyed by the public. The lake’s original spillway was found to be defective and had to be replaced in the 1990s. The original shower house at the campground was replaced just this year with a more modern, up-to-date structure that doubles as a storm shelter for campers and park users. Primitive and modern campground areas have had major upgrades.
The park’s primary feature was, and still is, the nearly 100-acre lake. Sitting, as it is, at the bottom of a 4,000 acre watershed that is dominated by row-crop agriculture, the lake has suffered from excess nutrients and algae blooms since its early years. The upper end of the lake (south and east of “the tubes”) has accumulated many feet of silt and is no longer usable for most forms of recreation. The beach has had to have warnings posted numerous times in late summer over the past 15 years, due to unsafe bacterial levels. Somewhere along the way, a careless angler dumped a minnow bucket into the lake that contained common carp. The bottom-feeding activity of this invasive specie has virtually eliminated rooted aquatic vegetation that’s important for healthy fish populations and contributes to reduced water clarity.
The conservation board has been working hard on a watershed and lake improvement plan for the past several years. Progress has been made on stabilizing shorelines, improving plant communities near the lake to reduce erosion into the lake and upgrading several old septic systems in the watershed to reduce bacterial contamination. Much remains to be done, though. The board will be hosting a meeting to share its plans for additional work on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 6:30 p.m. at Oriole Ridge Lodge on the north side of Hickory Grove Lake. Long-term management options, fishery improvements, additional water quality improvements and more will be discussed. Interested members of the public are strongly encouraged to attend to learn how Hickory Grove Lake and Park can continue to offer quality fishing and recreation for the next 50 years.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.