The Wetlands That Ate A County


Kossuth doesn’t look like other Iowa counties—it is notably larger—appearing almost as two counties combined together. As it turns out, that’s exactly the case! The story of how that happened is fascinating. It’s all about the wetlands: wetlands caused a county to fail and then be subsumed into another county forming our current supersized Kossuth County.

“But Paul,” you say. “Too many wetlands—is that even POSSIBLE??” Well, yes—at least, too many wetlands to support a density of farms (and resident farm families). The failure of Bancroft County was the result of an overly-sparse population such that combining with the adjacent county to the south, was be the only practical solution.

As you visit the Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge in the heart of the resulting (Kossuth) County, it is easy to imagine a landscape so covered in wetlands as to thwart normal land development. This is Prairie Pothole country, covered in shallow freshwater marshes and slow-draining lands. A poor place to farm crops, but a perfect place to farm waterfowl. And in 1938, FDR established the wildlife refuge. According to their website,

The name “Union” refers to the connection of two watersheds, the Blue Earth River and the east fork of the Des Moines River. Native Americans called this area Mini Akapan Kaduza, meaning “water which runs both ways”. During the early settlement times, Union Slough covered 8,000 acres and was considered useless for farming. Many levees and ditches were built in this area in an attempt to control water levels and improve the area for agriculture.



What about today? What did I find at the Refuge on my visit in early November? I am delighted to report that both a thriving wetland, and a history lesson are yours to enjoy. Informative signage interprets the land across the years, and the story of the refuge. Interestingly, none other than Iowa political cartoonist and conservationist Jay N. “Ding” Darling designed the iconic “Blue Goose” logo still used as the symbol of the National Wildlife Refuge System.


And I did indeed see waterfowl near the headquarters. Swans and geese were noisy and active, and I confess to snickering as several attempted an amphibious landing on the “water,” only to discover it was transparent (“black”) ice. Nearby open water was filled with many of their compatriots however. Meanwhile on adjacent land I saw a waterfowl public housing project.



It would be fun to come back in the warm weather and see if waterfowl like Wood Ducks use this “government housing” to nest. It would also be fun to drive the auto tour route (which was closed the time of year I came around). But any time of year, this huge wetland site is a lively and beautiful reminder of the vast wetlands once covering so much of this land, whether one county or two.


Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

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