Amazing gift

'It’s not going to be spent overnight. It’s going to be spent over time.'

Hamilton County Conservation Executive Director Brian Lammers is pictured on a portion of the current Briggs Woods Trail.

Consider it a final lesson plan from a principal who always retained the heart of a teacher. If you have the opportunity to be generous, be generous. If you are generous, be humble.

Delma McLaughlin did not want a fuss about her very generous donation. She wanted to be humble about it. McLaughlin passed in August 2022, and this summer the community learned that she left as her beneficiary the community itself, through city and county government, as well as her church.

Friends have noted that she wanted little attention on herself, only to give back to the community she called home.

Denny Bahr, a former superintendent and principal who worked with McLaughlin for some 15 years, is now chairman of the Hamilton County Conservation Board.

“She was fun to work with, had a good sense of humor, she would follow through, and was very, very professional,” Bahr said. “I was touched by the fact that she gave this to the city, to conservation, and her church. A lot of people can do a lot of things, but this is totally community-based.”

Scot and April Ely met Mick and Delma McLaughlin when the couples were neighbors several years ago. They became good friends, and even more like family as the years went by, acting almost like adopted grandparents and grandchildren. When Delma became a widow, it was the Elys that she knew she could count on for help and companionship.

“I feel like she was a very humble person,” said April Ely. “She enjoyed living a quiet, private life.”

“Everyone knew her because she had been a principal for so long,” Ely recalled. “When I took her out shopping to the grocery store, everyone would come up and say hello.”

Delma was truly known by all in the community, but few knew what she and Mick had planned together so many years ago.

“Really, this is a gift from both Mick and Delma,” Ely noted. “It’s just that Delma was the surviving spouse.”

The McLaughlins always seemed to be out and about on the trail system in Webster City and Hamilton County. Normally riding their bikes, occasionally walking, they loved spending time together on the trails.

“She and Mick were avid bikers,” Ely said. “They would walk those trails almost every night if they could.”

It was their shared enjoyment of the trail system that inspired a combined gift of more than $1.8 million that became known only after McLaughlin’s passing. The sum total resulted in three equal gifts of $616,000 to Hamilton County Conservation, the City of Webster City, and Delma’s church, Faith United Methodist in Webster City.

“This was their home and they loved Webster City and Hamilton County,” Ely said. “I think it’s their way of giving back something that can be used by everybody, and for all the people.”

Brian Lammers, executive director of Hamilton County Conservation, is humbled by the gift.

“I had to sit down,” Lammers said of the moment he heard the size of the gift. “I was astonished, and very grateful. This is something for the public. The trails are something that everybody can use.”

The gift, he said, is comparable to the original gift of the Briggs family to create the first county park in Iowa more than a century ago. In monetary terms, it’s difficult to compare the value of the original 60 acres donated by the Briggs family to create Briggs Woods Park in 1919, but it was that gift that really gave birth to conservation and the park system in Hamilton County.

Since that time, the entire park, including the golf course, has grown to approximately 500 acres. It has been used and enjoyed by every generation from the Greatest Generation to Millennials and beyond. Lammers sees the same potential to have a positive impact on the quality of life for generations to come as the result of this new gift.

“This is a transformational gift,” he said. “To think how far this gift can go is incredible. It’s not going to be spent overnight. It’s going to be spent over time.”

Careful planning by board members and conservation leaders of the past, Lammers noted, enabled Hamilton County Conservation to deposit its share of the funds so that they can be set aside in trust while it begins planning how to honor the wishes of the McLaughlins.

The Friends of Hamilton County Conservation Trust Fund was established decades ago, in the very hope of encouraging people to give back to their community, and enrich the lives of residents here through conservation and recreation activities.

Within the trust, Lammers said interest rates are now very favorable to earn significant dollars in just one year on CDs.

“At today’s rate, we can make $30,000 in just maintenance money,” Lammers said. “That gives us time to get our plans together and know what we want to do.”

As specified in the McLaughlin will, the funds can be used for the establishment and maintenance of walking and biking trails.

Lammers considers the donation to be a rich source of seed money to go after grants that can help the gift go even farther.

“Monies like this are going to be so helpful when you try to match grant dollars, because trails are not cheap,” Lammers said.

However, they are durable.

The current Briggs Woods to Webster City trail is now more than 20 years old and it’s in remarkably good condition. While Lammers noted that a few areas need some maintenance, including the Boone River bridge and some benches, on the whole the trail has held up very well, and is heavily used.

So where do trail ambitions head next for Hamilton County?

Lammers is turning to a Master Plan for Trails started as a joint city/county effort several years ago. The late Kent Harfst, who had served as assistant city manager and Parks and Recreation director, was a critical leader working hard to make the Webster City to Briggs Woods trail a reality so many years ago.

The work he left behind, his talent and devotion to trails, will even touch this new project as well.

“Before Kent passed away, he and I started a Master Plan for Webster City and Hamilton County,” Lammers said. “When Kent passed, we kind of got delayed on finishing that up, but we did get it done. Both the city council and county conservation approved the plan, so we have a plan in place for the county.”

On the county side, Lammers said trail development has long been a goal in the southern part of Hamilton County. Currently, a trail exists between the cities of Jewell and Ellsworth. What’s left out of that loop is the very popular Little Wall Lake.

“Little Wall Lake is our highest revenue-producing park for camping,” Lammers said. “We just have a lot of campers there. We would like to see more amenities there for campers and for everyone to enjoy.”

A proposed trail route would be approximately two miles between Jewell and Little Wall Lake.

“We do not have an exact route, but we are having positive conversations,” Lammers said.

Patience, he emphasized, is key to any trail project. Most trails are several years in the planning, including grant applications, and public input, long before actual construction. But it’s a beginning, and keeping the public in the loop throughout the process is fundamental.

For those who like to dream — and now with the McLaughlin gift have even more reason to believe in those dreams — the next link that has long been theorized is a trail that connects all the way from Little Wall Lake to Briggs Woods Park.

Only time will tell how the gift will ultimately grow and be put to use for future generations.

“Having the Master Plan in place, it can be tweaked as we go along, sometimes things have to be,” Lammers noted. “But having those gifts like Delma and Mick were able to do really helps catapult things along. Rather than the plan just being a book on a shelf, we can seriously start to look at it.”

With Webster City and Briggs Woods already connected, great hope for Little Wall Lake to be connected to Jewell, it’s the middle link from Jewell to Briggs Woods, the longest link, that remains. To make it happen will take many more years, and many more dollars.

But, 30 years ago none of the current trails existed. In another 30 years, more planners like Harfst, and donors like the McLaughlins just might surprise everyone.


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