Clay County's Little Gem:
Buffalo River State Park
By Mark Peihl, HCSCC Senior Archivist
from CCHS Newsletter, May/June 2004
updated August 2, 2018
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My wife and I recently spent an afternoon strolling through the Buffalo River State Park. This little jewel in the center of Clay County is one of our favorite haunts. We cross country ski and hike its many trails and marvel at the constantly changing panorama of its wild prairie flowers. An unusual combination of geology, farming practices, drought, a nationwide depression, evolving government agencies and the efforts of a dedicated group of sportsmen brought about the park. But it was a difficult birth. This article looks at the park’s origins.
The Buffalo River State Park today sits squarely on the Buffalo River Delta, a geologic remnant from thousands of years ago. Many of our readers know that at the end of the last ice age, some 12-15,000 years ago, water from melting glaciers pooled here to create glacial Lake Agassiz. Changing drainage patterns affected the level of the lake. At each level, beaches, like bathtub rings, formed all around the lake. Two of those beaches are visible near the park. Campbell, right at the entrance to the park, is marked by a plaque on a huge bolder just off Highway 10. Herman beach, marking the highest level of the lake, runs north and south about 2 ½ miles to the east, near the park’s eastern border. Between the two is the Buffalo River Delta.
Many rivers carried water and sediments into the lake, including the Buffalo River. Rocks and gravel settled out near the mouth of the Buffalo, lighter sand and silt flowed further out before settling. This created a fan-shaped delta at the Buffalo’s mouth. Wave action from storms crossing the lake eroded back the western edge of the delta creating Campbell beach. Unlike most of the rest of Clay County, the soils in the beach/delta area are pretty marginal, better suited for haying and grazing than crop production. It’s one of the few places in the state where virgin prairie escaped the plow.
The area is also marked by flowing springs which feed the Buffalo. Through most of its length the Buffalo is a muddy, lazy, typical little prairie stream running in a trench, but through the beaches and delta it tumbles over rock and sand cutting a deep ravine. Here the river is a clear, cold, fast spring-fed creek with a mix of elm, ash and basswood trees along its banks.
This delightful combination of environments, a wooded clear stream running through virgin prairie, has attracted people for ages. It’s a natural place for a park.
The park buildings today are located in the southeast quarter of section 10, Riverton Township. Jacob Henry Smyser and his wife Mary acquired the quarter through the Homestead Act in 1883. But Smyser was no ordinary sod buster. He’d been born in Pittsburgh to a wealthy steel family, graduated from West Point in 1861 and joined the 4th US Artillery. After the Civil War, Smyser remained in the Army’s Ordinance Department for a few years then contracted tuberculosis and retired from the military. He and Mary moved west for his health, arriving in Clay County in April 1878. He filed on his quarter and bought up much of the surrounding countryside, eventually owning over 1600 acres. Though far from ideal for farming, the area was perfect for Smyser’s needs. He raised pedigreed horses and cattle, grazing them on the rich prairie grass. Jacob and Mary built a twenty-room mansion on the banks of the Buffalo about where the park’s contact station now stands. Surrounded by servants, Smyser lived the life of a country gentleman. They called the place Willow Bank Farm. Mrs. Smyser entertained eastern guests in high style, throwing lavish parties. Visitors picnicked, swam in the Buffalo and toured the estate on splendid saddle horses and in a fancy carriage driven by a cockney groomsman. Their home featured a spectacular curved mahogany banister, built by a cabinet maker brought from the east specifically for the task.
But Captain Smyser’s TB eventually returned. He died in May 1885 at age 46. After his funeral in Pittsburgh, Mary returned to Willow Bank Farm for a time but she soon sold the property. A succession of owners raised livestock on the parcel. Locals used the area for hunting and other forms of recreation. Eventually Moorhead businessman William H. Davy acquired much of the land.
A Fargo Forum photographer took these pictures the Jacob and Mary Smyser home in 1941, long after it had been abandoned. It still boasted its spectacular custom-made mohogany staircase and the heavy mirror hanging above the glazed-brick fireplace. The home was later burned. Fargo Forum, June 22, 1941.
Agriculture was changing the rest of Clay County. High grain prices during World War 1 induced many farmers to put more land into production. Falling commodity prices after the war depressed farm income. Farmers responded the only way they knew how – by increasing production, breaking up more prairie land. This sent prices even lower.
In 1923, a group of Moorhead area sportsmen, alarmed at the disappearance of game and fish from the fields and waters of Clay County, formed the Moorhead Rod and Gun Club. Some of the tactics of this active bunch seem today, at best, quaint. They declared war on the crow, (“the most destructive enemy of game birds known to man”) and shot thousands. And they failed to recognize the real culprits - loss of habitat and declining water quality. But they did create a game refuge in the beach ridge area, introduced the Ring-necked Pheasant and Hungarian Partridge to Clay County and stocked countless fish fry in local lakes and rivers – including Brook and Brown Trout in the delta section of the Buffalo River.
In 1934, the club received word that parties planned to create a private resort along the Buffalo in Riverton Township. Members and others in Clay County realized this would keep the general public out of this long-popular recreational area. By early the next year, the club formulated a counter proposal. They planned a 20-foot-high dam (near the present state park dam) which would back up a lake half a mile wide and a mile long for the propagation of fish, establish a public recreation area, create relief construction jobs for those unemployed by the depression and to provide an emergency water supply for Moorhead, Dilworth and Glyndon.
The idea attracted lots of interest and support all over the county. There were only three lakes in the county with real fishing potential, all in the southeast corner of the county. Nineteen-thirty-four had been an extremely dry year. Dust storms from Dakota darkened the skies, lakes dried up. The Red River, sole source of water for Fargo, quit running. And water levels in the deep wells Moorhead relied on dropped precipitously. The proposal looked pretty good.
A petition quickly gathered over 500 signatures supporting the “Muskoda Dam and Reservoir Project.” (Pronounced MUS ke dee, the name came from a railroad siding and small community two miles to the east.) The Clay County Commission, Moorhead city council, Rotary Club, Kiwanis, Chamber of Commerce and American Legion Post also signed on. In March 1935 Rod and Gun Club President C. P. Brown began the process to seek federal and state funds for the project. (Moorhead resident Brown was the manager of the Fargo and Moorhead Electric Street Railway and later Chairman of the Buffalo River Dam Committee. His nephew donated copies of his correspondence to the Buffalo River State Park. Much of the information in this article comes from that collection.)
By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as President in March 1933, the Great Depression had reached critical proportions. FDR responded to the emergency with a series of relief programs to aid those out of work. Among the first was the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Under FERA the states, through State Emergency Relief Administration offices (SERA), distributed the federal funds. Because of the urgent unemployment situation, FERA initially relied on direct relief – cash payments to the needy. But FDR hated direct relief. He called it “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” He much preferred the poor to work for their assistance. By the end of 1934 FERA had shifted to funding projects designed to improve the nation’s infrastructure and employ those in need.
The Minnesota SERA divided the state into eight districts, each with a supervising engineer. Local groups submitted project plans to the district engineer who examined the proposal, made recommendations and forwarded the project to the state level for final planning and funding. Brown and the Rod and Gun Club launched a two-pronged attack for money. They submitted plans to the SERA engineer and sent a delegation to meet with the SERA administration in St. Paul. And they mounted a savvy and aggressive lobbying campaign to get the state Executive Council (the Governor, Lt. Governor, State Auditor, Treasurer, Secretary of State and the Attorney General) to approve state money to purchase flowage rights to the land to be flooded. The club enlisted state legislators, local politicians and party leaders of every political stripe in the effort.
Public funding was necessary for the project to succeed but trying to get it involved a long slog through federal and state bureaucracies. In May, the Executive Committee approved the land acquisition funds but the rest of the plan took years to complete, morphing along the way into a completely new project.
In March 1935 the SERA engineers surveyed the proposed reservoir site and submitted a preliminary plan to the state. A series of frustrating delays followed. SERA took all summer to come up with final engineering drawings. In September the US Army Corps of Engineers refused to approve the plans because of “engineering deficiencies” and sent them back to SERA for revision. Meanwhile, the federal government gave preliminary approval to the venture, subject to agreement by the Army Corps and the Minnesota Department of Conservation. It received Works Progress Administration (WPA) project number 7-178.
The FERA plan of funneling money through the states never worked that well. The feds did away with FERA December 31, 1935 and turned relief projects over to the WPA. With this program, the federal government administered projects directly. Local groups had to come up with money for materials and the feds paid for the labor. Federal regulations also required that a local governmental body had to accept responsibility for the project and see to its continued maintenance.
Problems started in December when the Clay County Commission refused to take responsibility for the project and the feds dropped a bombshell. A water source for Moorhead was a central part of the project. Regulations required that the Moorhead City Council agree to definitely make use of the water before the reservoir could be completed. Pumping facilities and a pipeline could cost the city between $250,000 and $500,000. The city tried to submit a vaguely worded letter of support for the project but it did not satisfy the feds. With money nearly in hand, the project was close to unraveling. The city council asked federal and state officials to come to Moorhead to discuss the project. The brutal cold and blizzards of early 1936 delayed the officials’ visit until April. Meanwhile, the state went forward with condemnation proceedings on the 122.8 acres of land the proposed reservoir would inundate.
On April 7, WPA officials finally met with local authorities. The meeting concluded with the dropping of the water reservoir part of the project and the county commission agreeing to take on the dam responsibility. But it was a moot point. Without the water source component, it was highly unlikely that the feds would approve the plan, money allocated or not.
Even with the water component, the plan would have been in trouble. The Department of Conservation was clearly never pleased with the dam and reservoir project. But a new plan was coming together in St. Paul which would change the venture’s direction completely.
Since the 1880s the state of Minnesota had haphazardly acquired properties as state parks with no real plan for their development or use. By 1923 twenty-three such “parks” were in place, many little more than monuments to events related to the US – Dakota Conflict of 1862. Most were administered by the State Auditor, some by the Forestry Department. In 1925, the legislature created the Department of Conservation (predecessor to today’s Department of Natural Resources) and placed the parks under its jurisdiction. But real professional park management did not begin until a separate Division of State Parks within Conservation took over in 1935.
Harold Lathrop, the first Park Commissioner, brought a new ethic to park management that tried to balance the inherent paradox of maintaining natural environments with use of the parks by recreationists. Lathrop also attempted to address the uneven geographic distribution of state parks. Most were located near the twin cities or in the Minnesota River Valley. None existed north or west of Itasca State Park near Park Rapids. With advice from the National Park Service, state funds to buy lands and WPA funding to outfit the parks, the late 1930s saw the biggest and best planned expansion of the state park system in Minnesota’s history.
In July, 1936, Department of Conservation Engineer Abbott G. Smith and WPA Division Engineer Walter Macgregor visited the proposed dam site with members of the Rod and Gun Club and local game wardens. They proposed a new plan. Instead of one huge dam and reservoir (which they pointed out would drown out every tree in the vicinity) they suggested building a series of three to five small dams creating pools for wading or swimming in the channel of the Buffalo and saving the timbered land proposed for inundation for a state park. Excited by the idea, practically every official in Clay County quickly lined up to sign on to the new proposal. A couple of weeks later, Lathrop also visited the site with Smith, Macgregor and about 50 local officials, liked what he saw and promised to push the state park. Within days 500 county residents signed a new petition supporting the park.
Their enthusiasm was well placed but a bit premature. A new round of maddening delays began. Designs for the first of the smaller dams were not completed until fall. Park officials also entered negotiations with William H. Davy for the donation of a 200 acre parcel just west of the dam site. The proposed park would bear his name. Things were close to a resolution when the 92 year old Davy died in December 1936. To everyone’s surprise he died without a will. His attorney, William Adams, was not appointed executor of his estate until February. The state arranged a purchase agreement that spring. A bill in the 1937 legislative session passed establishing the “Buffalo River State Park” but the legislature, dominated by fiscal conservatives, refused to allocate any money for maintenance. Lathrop refused to submit the dam plans to the WPA without a way to maintain it.
A visitor views the dam at the Buffalo River State Park in 1939. The original plan called for a 20 foot high dam hundreds of feet wide at this site. The resulting lake would have drowned nearly all of the trees in the proposed park. The Department of Natural Resources has since replaced the this dam with a series of rock rapids. Fargo Forum, May 21, 1939.
Clay County eventually agreed to provide maintenance and Lathrop submitted a new proposal calling for only one dam, picnic facilities and a 300 foot wide sand bottomed swimming pool. Other features included a road into the site and a fence around the grounds. Construction proceeded through summer but halted in fall 1937, ironically because of a lack of workers.
Work progressed intermittently over the next year and a half. During the winter 1938-39 the WPA built shower facilities, a latrine, garage and park manager’s residence. All, like the dam before, were built with cut fieldstone, donated by local farmers.
The park opened with little fan fair in spring 1939 but pollution in the Buffalo kept the pool closed until the next year. A new chlorination system fixed the problem. No newspapers covered the park’s official (but anti-climactic) opening on Memorial Day, 1940.
Since then the park has been expanded several times. The Buffalo River State Park is a lovely, quiet little gem… a place which belies its stormy origins.