Briggs Woods Park marks 100 years

Iowa’s oldest county park celebrates a century

— Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Anne Blankenship
The Red Barn Shelter at Briggs Woods Park. The Park is celebrating its 100th anniversary this weekend with activities planned Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

April 17, 2019 is a milestone for Hamilton County and Iowa history. Today marks the 100th birthday of Briggs Woods Park, Iowa’s first county park.

Much has changed since the Briggs Family gave Hamilton County those first 60 acres back in 1919. The park has grown to offer a beautiful lake with a swimming beach, an 18-hole golf course, comfortable rental cabins, a campground for RVs and tents and a six-mile walking trail that connects with Webster City.

A large celebration is planned for June to commemorate the anniversary.

The following tells the story of the Briggs Family and their donation of land for a park. The piece was written by the late Martin “Ed” Nass and was included in his book, “Hamilton County Memories.” It is reprinted here with the permission of his family.

Briggs Woods

Our First County Park

Hamilton County has the distinction of being the first in Iowa to have a county park. Our park, Briggs Woods, came into existence in 1919. The story of the park starts back in England in 1821, when Ulysses Briggs was born. When he was eight years old, he was apprenticed to a potter, for whom he worked eight years. His pay was equivalent to 12 1/2 cents a day. Then he went to work in the mines. In 1845, he married Ellen Brown, and they came to the United States seeking a better life.

The gate into Briggs Woods Park bears a plaque commemorating the Briggs Family donation.

They first settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Ulis, as he was usually called, worked in the mines for eleven more years. In 1857, they decided to try farming and came to Hamilton County. They settled on a farm north of Webster City, near the present day Kendall Young Park. He and his wife became the parents of eight children, the first five being born on that farm. These children were Thirza, Agnes, Steven, Ella, and Charles. They were members of the Methodist Church in Webster City. During these years he served as Justice of the Peace for his township. He was called to become a juror in Dec. 22, 1869, for the first murder trial in our county, that of John Ross, who was charged in the murder of his uncle, John Ross.

In 1862 the Briggs family moved to a farm along the bank of the Boone River, south of Webster City. Here the last three children, Frank, Marion, and Ulis, Jr. were born. This farm was located in Section 18 of Independence Township, though it was named Boone Township at the time of the purchase. Ulis became a stonemason and realized the great need for lime to make cement. He had discovered good limestone along the river before he moved, so he built a kiln in which he heated the stone and crushed it to produce lime. This kiln was located on the south side of the Boone River about a quarter-mile downstream from where the Northwestern Railroad bridge crosses the river today. He built a large frame house near where the present day Barn Shelter is located.

Ulis ran an advertisement in the Hamilton Freeman on March 25, 1868, announcing that he had lime for sale and would deliver it to Webster City for 55 cents a bushel. This ad continued to run for many years. He also operated a successful farm, which he expanded to 202 acres. He raised cattle and hogs. His son, Charles, helped him operate the kiln and became a stonemason and bricklayer. Charles later left home and moved to Webster City to practice his trade. The Briggs lime was used in the construction of the Hamilton County Courthouse, which was located at Des Moines and Banks Streets as well as in most of the brick work in Webster City.

In 1880, Ulis built a larger two-story brick home a few rods from near their old frame house. The brick work on this house was done by D. N. Stearns. After the new home was completed, the family started moving their furnishings into the new home. They were butchering hogs at the time. It was very cold, so Ulis built a fire in the old house to heat up water. This house caught fire and was totally destroyed. The family lost most of their possessions. This new brick home stood for many years on the highest point of land and is pictured in this article.

Ulysses Briggs died on Aug. 26, 1890, at the age of age 69. His son, Charles, inherited 85 acres of the farm. Frank took over management of the farm and, with his wife, Grace, took care of his mother, Ellen until her death in 1898.

On April 17, 1919, Thirza Briggs Aldrich, the oldest daughter, transferred 60 acres of the farmstead to the Hamilton County Supervisors to establish the park. The Webster City Daily News reported, “The beautiful county park, known as Briggs Woods, lies three miles south of Webster City, on primary road No. 60, and was given in the memory of Ulis and Ellen Briggs.”

The gift contained three special provisions:

One was that brother, Frank, and his wife, Grace, could live in the farmhouse for the rest of their lives, and Frank could graze his cattle in the pasture. Frank was required to keep the fences in good condition.

Another brother, Charles, could harvest firewood from the park for his personal use during the remainder of his life.

For the third condition, Thirza requested that the county never allow any hunting in the park.

The Supervisors who accepted the deed were N. H. Bawden, G. J. Knickerbocker, and O. J. Johnson. The document transferring the property was notarized by V. C. Crosley.

In 1921, an ornamental gateway was constructed by son, Charles. It is in a semicircular shape in two parts. Two huge iron gates, each 12 feet wide swing to the center. They are supported by two brick columns 6-feet by 8-feet which have an ornamental light on top. The arch is five feet high and runs twenty feet on each side of the columns. A bronze tablet was installed with the inscription “In memory of Ulis and Ellen Briggs, pioneer settlers. Their children gave this park to Hamilton County April 17, 1919.” Beneath the tablet is a smaller tablet stating “C. L. Briggs, Builder.” The west portion contains a stone marker that reads “Briggs Woods” and the east portion contains a similar marker that reads “Public Park.”

The board of supervisors, acting in conjunction with a local committee composed of V. C. Crosley, C. H. Currie, and Allen Park, have placed several conveniences for the public, such as tables, stoves, shelters, toilets, and a bridge over Terwilliger Creek, which runs across the park. This creek was later dammed up to form Briggs Woods Lake.

Prof. H. S. Conrad, of Grinnell College, inventoried the trees in the park. They include: oak, elm, walnut, butternut, wild plum, wild grape vines, crabapple, hickory, hackberry, hawthorne, juneberry, ironwood, dogwood, maples and fine specimens of bittersweet vine.

Tomorrow: The park grows with new attractions and amenities.