DAWSON -- Lac qui Parle County's only park is getting discovered for all the right reasons.
"You can come down here any day of the week and there are people,'' said county park board member Bernice Oellien. She is among those who see more users coming to the park to ride or hike its trails, fish or paddle its waters, or enjoy a picnic under a canopy of century-old oak trees.
Soon, the growing numbers of park users might have much more to discover. Oellien and other friends of the park are working to raise funds and obtain Legacy grant funding to add about 130 acres to the existing, 230-acre park along the winding Lac qui Parle River southeast of Dawson.
The land being eyed for acquisition is adjacent to the park's east side. Most of it (approximately 115 acres) is privately owned, but there is also an area of land (roughly 15 acres) owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The land matches the park in the scenery and recreational opportunities it offers, as well as in historical significance. It offers spectacular river valley views -- including one perch situated atop a 75-foot-tall bluff. It's a mix of meadow and woodlands, with oaks and other trees, some of which are 170 years old.
Landowners Paul and Lori Schwendemann had purchased the land for recreational use in 1998. They worked with the county's Soil and Water Conservation District over the years to restore native prairie and wild lands on the non-wooded acres of the site.
Paul Schwendemann said they'd like to see the land kept whole and preserved for its natural attributes and historical significance to the county. One of the earliest homesteads in the county was located here, and it is at or near the former William Mill's homesite that one of the earliest church services in the county was believed to have been held.
The land is also where Williamsburg was platted in the late 1860s. The townsite had aspirations of being the county seat.
Schwendemann said he and his wife had talked about options for the land, and felt best about the idea of seeing it made available for people to enjoy now. "That'd be the best thing to do,'' he said.
This is the best time to make it happen, too, according to friends of the park. They are hopeful of obtaining a $270,000 Legacy grant from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. It would require a $90,000 match.
The growing use and interest in the park also helps make this a good time to move ahead, according to Harold Solem, a Lac qui Parle county commissioner and park board member. He said the current economy may be playing a role in leading more local residents to discover and take advantage of what they have so close to home.
But no matter the economy, the park has always been a popular destination for many, said Solem. It's also benefited by the help of many volunteers who maintain the park's trails.
The saddle clubs have always done a great job of maintaining the park's trails, and now there is interest by others as well, said Solem. Among the most recent projects has been to expand a trail area that could make it possible for high school cross country running meets to be held in the park.
Oellien has led many of the horse riders to the park's trails. An avid saddle club enthusiast, Oellien and her family have hosted trail rides in the park and have heard over and over again from riders how much they appreciate its scenery. This last Labor Day weekend saw over 120 riders, with many of them camped at the park for the weekend.
Trail riders are among a long list of those who enjoy camping in the park. Boy Scouts have a long history of hosting campouts in the park, and 4-H groups and even high school science classes are starting to discover the park.
The Lac qui Parle River attracts many canoe and kayak enthusiasts who make the park their launching point. Anglers ply its waters for catfish and northern pike.
Winter enthusiasts find the park the perfect place for toboggan runs and cross country skiing.
Perhaps best of all, the park is seeing plenty of visitors from families with children, said Solem.
The park was established in the 1970's, and has always been appreciated for its historical significance. The park holds a pioneer cemetery, where many of the markers hold the names of young children who died in an 1870's diphtheria epidemic.
The summer home of Theodore Christenson, the state's 21st Governor in the late 1920's, overlooks the park lands.
To learn more about the park, visit the web site at www.lqpcountypark.com.