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Women’s History in State Parks

Marilyn King loved mastodons. Katharine Ordway loved prairies. Luella Agnes Owen loved caves. And Rita Piacenza loved Thomas Hart Benton.

Women played major roles in the creation of many of Missouri’s state parks and historic sites, so it’s fitting to honor their impact in March, during Women’s History Month. Here are a half dozen of the women, and the stories of their important contributions:

Perhaps no other state park or historic site owes its existence to women more than Mastodon State Historic Site, an oasis of green space at the southern tip of the St. Louis area in Jefferson County.

Marilyn King was one of the self-described “four crazy housewives” who objected when developers sought to buy the archeological site known as the Kimmswick Bone Bed. Archeologists had been digging there since the early 1800s, recovering the bones of animals that lived more than 11,000 years ago.

The women organized a fund-raising drive and succeeded in purchasing the land in 1976, turning it over to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for a park. The excavations later became famous when archeologists found bones and spear points that were the first to prove that early Americans hunted mastodons.

Today, the site is home to a handsome museum, with a central diorama that features a replica of a full-sized mastodon. Marilyn King still works as a volunteer at the site, but her three comrades in the project – Dorothy Heinze, Hazel Lee and Rita Naes – passed away.

“We had tailgate sales, bakes sales, walks, dinner dances, bumper stickers and collection cans with ‘Save the Mastodons’ on them,” King said. “School kids went door to door and asked for pennies, nickels and quarters. We’d say, ‘We can’t raise this much money,’ and then something else would happen and we’d say, ‘Yes, we can.’”

Preserving the Prairie

In the southwest corner of Missouri, a bison herd grazes on 4,000 acres of tall-grass prairie – a scene that greeted the first pioneers. This remnant of a disappearing landscape remains untouched thanks, largely, to the efforts of Katharine Ordway.

Ordway was a Connecticut heiress who donated more than $40 million to buy up large and small tracts of prairie wherever she could find them. She came to Barton County in Missouri in 1972 and liked what she saw, providing financing for the first land purchases for what would become Prairie State Park.

Missouri once was covered by some 13 million acres of prairie, nearly a third of the state. The park is the largest intact tall-grass prairie in the state, land that never was broken by the plow.

 “Without Katharine Ordway, and her dedication to preserving what remained of the rich diversity of what we call tall-grass prairie, Prairie State Park as we know it would not likely exist today,” said Brian Miller, natural resource steward of the park.

‘Little Beauties’

Called the Cave State because of its wealth of underground caverns, one of Missouri’s most impressive geologic formations is at Grand Gulf State Park near Thayer.

Known as the “Little Grand Canon of the Ozarks,” the park has a canyon, deeper than it is wide, with sheer rock walls dropping some 130 feet to reveal the remnants of a cave that collapsed some 10,000 years ago. The mile-long canyon leads through a 250-foot-long natural bridge to an underground river.

When Luella Agnes Owen, an avid cave explorer born in St. Joseph, Mo., in 1852, visited the area she took a small boat onto the underground river and chronicled what she found in her 1898 book, “Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills”.

Swimming about her boat, she wrote, were “numerous small, eyeless fish, pure white and perfectly fearless; the first I have ever seen, and little beauties.”

Owen, herself, was fearless. “Her guide didn’t want to go on the boat ride because he was too scared,” said Matthew Kantola, interpretative resource specialist at Grand Gulf State Park.

Grand Gulf later was designated a National Natural Landmark, and became a state park in 1984. Because of the explorations and writings of Owen, lawmakers passed legislation protecting caves.

“The gift of beauty should always be honored and protected for the public good,” Owen wrote.

Artistic Genius

Rita Piacenza was a young Italian immigrant in New York when she enrolled in an art class taught by Thomas Hart Benton, who would become one of America’s top regional artists. They married in 1922.

“She thought Tom was a genius, and he had always thought he was a genius, so they got along well,” said Evadene Judge, who works at the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site in Kansas City.

The adage that behind every great man stands a great woman is fitting when examining the couple’s 53-year marriage, Judge said.

“Rita ran the show,” Judge said. “She believed so wholeheartedly in Tom that she did absolutely everything, except the painting. She sold his paintings, she got him commissions. She even used to make his picture frames.”

She also scolded her husband when he left cigar ashes around the house, or used vulgar language, and made sure he spent time every day working in the studio behind the home.

Benton was busy in the studio on Jan. 19, 1975, when he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 85. Rita passed away 11 weeks later.

Benton often complained that his wife was hard to live with, Judge said, but he also told friends, “I would have been a bum without Rita.”

In Tune With Politics

Arrow Rock, a 15-minute drive north of busy Interstate 70 west of Boonville, is a charming, quaint village where history is preserved. Sallie Hallie worked to keep it that way.

Arrow Rock has been designated a National Historic Landmark that recognizes its association with Westward Expansion, the Santa Fe Trail and artist George Caleb Bingham.

A life-long resident, Hallie was a former mayor of Arrow Rock and a founding member of the Friends of Arrow Rock. Active in politics, she was a member of the Democratic National Committee and a Saline County judge from 1965 to 1966.

“She had considerable influence and clout, and connections in Jefferson City,” said Mike Dickey, who is site administrator of the Arrow Rock State Historic Site. “She was in the governor’s cabinet, and was a real advocate of parks and historic sites.”

Hallie was a guiding force in creation of the state visitor center at Arrow Rock, promoted the town’s Lyceum Theatre and pushed to preserve an important collection of Bingham works in state museums when they were about to be broken up at auction.

“Sallie died in 1992, the year after we dedicated the visitor center,” Dickey said. “She was a sweet person, very knowledgeable and very in tune with politics.”

Protecting the park

Helen Coffer Hawn grew up in the hills of Ste. Genevieve County and dreamed of creating a “little park” for others to enjoy the beauty of the sandstone bluffs, shortleaf pine woods and granite shut-ins along sparkling streams.

From her income as a public school teacher, she began acquiring small tracts of land. Upon her death in 1952, her will donated nearly 1,500 acres to the state. That land formed the core of what today is the 5,000 acres of Hawn State Park.

“She just wanted to make sure that the land was protected,” said Ed Schott, superintendent of the park. “Her old homestead was on the original acreage.”

Hawn includes a bounty of hiking trails winding along River Aux Vases and Pickle Creek. Schott noted that Coffer’s donation was the impetus to preserve the land forever.

“There was a plan to dam Pickle Creek back in the 1960s when a lot of impoundments were going up along creeks and rivers,” Schott said. “Hawn would have been a much different state park had those plans gone through.”