Old Gold: Nature Comes to the Archives

By David McCartney
A newly arrived collection of journals and newsletters in the archives details the early days of Iowa’s state parks.
Backbone Nature Notes PHOTO: Aureal Cross Papers, Department of Special Collections and University Archives
Editor's note: In Old Gold, University archivist David McCartney looks back at the UI's history and tradition through materials housed in University Archives, Department of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.

Aureal Cross was 23 when he was hired to work as a field ranger in eastern Iowa's Palisades Kepler State Park in 1939. The young man from rural Waterloo had just graduated from Coe College in Cedar Rapids that spring, having completed studies in geology and music.

His interest in the relationships between paleontology and other disciplines was beginning to take hold. The following summer, he continued his work in the outdoors, this time at Backbone State Park in Delaware County, Iowa's oldest state park, dedicated in 1919.

Cross (1916-2013) kept journals of his experiences and produced newsletters documenting the activities of his fellow naturalists in Iowa's parks. His love of research took him to the University of Cincinnati, where he completed his master's degree in 1941 and his PhD dissertation in 1943. After several positions in the academic and private sectors, he joined the faculty at Michigan State University in 1961 and spent the rest of his career there. His development of graduate programs related to paleontology is recognized as one of the most distinguished in the field.

Nature Notes PHOTO: Aureal Cross Papers, Department of Special Collections and University Archives

His longtime friendship with a member of UI's biological sciences faculty led to a connection with our campus. Cross' journals and newsletters from his time as a park ranger for the state of Iowa arrived at Special Collections in late April, just in time for Earth Day. Bruce Ritchie (87BGS), facility coordinator for UI's Department of Biology, made this transfer possible after he noticed the materials in an area that had once been occupied by Diana Horton, a UI professor emeritus of biology who died in 2018. She and Cross were friends, and he had entrusted her with the collection.

The collection includes the very first issue of Backbone State Park's newsletter, Backbone Nature Notes, published in June 1939, as well as early issues of newsletters from other state parks, including Dolliver Memorial State Park near Ft. Dodge, Lacey Keosauqua State Park in southeastern Iowa, and volume one, issue one of Lake Ahquabi State Park's Nature Bulletin. The newsletters document sights and activities of many of Iowa's favorite outdoor spaces.

Cross' diary chronicling his work at Backbone during the summer of 1940 is also part of the collection. On Saturday, June 8, for example, he noted a long day beginning at 8 a.m. and finishing up at 9 p.m. Tasks that day included trail raking, identifying plants for field notes, hunting for snakes and insects, and repairing a stone fireplace and benches.

Associated with the Iowa State Conservation Commission and the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, the records capture a time of growing public interest in preserving land for conservation, public recreation, and research.

Old Gold is pleased that the UI Libraries' Department of Special Collections and University Archives is the new permanent home for Prof. Cross's journal and newsletters, a fitting celebration of Earth Day and the centennial of Iowa's oldest state park.

Iowa Magazine
Explore the latest stories from Iowa Magazine.

We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies in accordance with our Privacy Statement unless you have disabled them in your browser.