Troutbirder II

Troutbirder II
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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Father of Waters (Part II)

Buildings are usually named for people who have had long careers, but the new Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center at Itasca State Park celebrates a brave young woman whose tenure at Itasca, although brief, had a significant impact on the park.
In 1903, at age 24, Mary Gibbs was appointed park commissioner (manager) at Itasca following the death of her father who was manager at the time. She served as commissioner for just three months in 1903, but what a tumultuous three months they were.
Mary loved the park and the river that ran through it-that tiny trickle that emerges from Lake Itasca as the Mississippi River and begins its meandering 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Young Miss Gibbs felt it was her duty to keep the river flowing freely and the park pristine. When those core tenets were challenged, sparks flew, but the young park manager stood her ground. The saga of her daring stand against the powerful logging interests is one of the main focal points of the new center.
To keep a logging company’s dam from flooding the lakeshore and killing the magnificent pine forest, Mary stared down the company foreman who threatened her at gunpoint. Mary eventually got her way. The logging company gave in, opened the dam, and lowered the water level. Thanks to her actions, the tall pines and lakeshore were saved. After she left Itasca, she spent the next 80 years of her life in Canada. Although Mary never saw the park again, she never forgot it.
Mary may not have forgotten the park, but her own story was nearly forgotten until 1991 when folksinger Charlie Maguire was commissioned to write songs about the history of Itasca State Park for its Centennial Celebration. His diligent research for information to use for a song about Gibbs led him to Mary’s family. Maguire spoke with Mary’s son who told him that she treasured two books, the Bible and a book about Itasca written in 1904 by the park’s first commissioner, Jacob V. Brower.
Maguire also discovered an album of photos Mary had taken during her time in the park. They provide a priceless record of life at Itasca at the turn of the Twentieth Century and have been reproduced for inclusion in displays throughout the Center.
Maguire’s research also helped him determine that Mary was the first woman in North America, and possibly the world, to manage a comparable park.
"I have carried the torch for Mary for almost 14 years," he said, "and I was constantly revising the song to include new information."
The song was part of the dedication ceremony on Saturday, Sept.10, and Maguire gave a concert at the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center that evening.
In September, part of the park’s story came full circle when the descendants of Mary Gibbs came to Itasca for the dedication of the Center.

Itasca State Park is, perhaps, the crown jewel of Minnesota's many fine state parks. The survival of many of its magnificent Norway Pines can be attributed in no small measure to the courage of one young woman - Mary Gibbs.

For more details on the Mary Gibbs story see -


  1. May we all be as courageous as Mary or at least as persistent as the songwriter who wanted to spread the word about her courage. Thank you for writing such an inspiring post.

  2. Thanks for the history lesson and the trip to the headwaters of the Mississippi. Much attention is given to presidents and military leaders, but it is the Mary Gibbs of our nation and every day citizens with courage that have made this country the wonderful country that we have.

  3. I'm glad her courage is being remembered. And I'm glad your told us about her.

  4. Mary Gibbs sounds like she was a very strong young lady dedicated to her belief in maintaining the beauty of nature. This is a wonderful tribute to her.

    Thank you for your visit to my blog.
    ann at nature tales

  5. Such a great story troutbirder. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. What an admirable woman! Thank you for sharing this history.

  7. Great story, you are such a good story teller.

  8. Great story!

    And those are some collosal pines.
    We grow a lot of them down here near the other end of the Mississippi but not nearly as big!

  9. Trout Birder,
    thanks for sharing the Itasca pictures. I spent a week or two there every summer until I was about 20 and have good memories of the old head waters buildings.
    My uncle, Ben Thoma, was a naturalist at the Park for many summers and a Biology teacher in the winter.
    He and my aunt Lou lived at Itasca 3 months a year for about 45 years. They retired about 5 years ago from the park. He's written several articles on the Park's history that you might find interesting. A story about his retirement is at

    thanks for the pictures of the new Headwaters. I was wondering how it would turn out


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