In the spring of 1903, 24-year-old Mary Hannah Gibbs faced off with an armed lumberman near the Mississippi River headwaters at Itasca State Park in what became one of Minnesota’s first clashes between conservationists and industry.
Lumberjacks had felled countless giant red and white pines that winter, sledding them to Lake Itasca for a massive spring log drive to sawmills stretching 480 miles downriver to Minneapolis. The higher the water level, the higher the profits for loggers floating their product to market, and they wanted the dam kept shut.
In the meantime, Gibbs had become the first woman to run a state park in the United States upon the death of her father, John Puckett Gibbs, Itasca’s second park commissioner, when his kidneys failed in February 1903. Seven weeks later, she wrote her boss in St. Paul, Attorney General Wallace B. Douglas:
“The water in the lake is now about 20 inches above high water mark, and it is rising from one to two inches per day … If the gates of the dam are not raised the lake shores will be ruined.”
The showdown escalated when a lumberman with a rifle told Mary Gibbs — who reportedly carried a gun herself — and a warrant-waving constable that he’d shoot anyone who put a hand on the sluiceway lever to open the dam.
“I said: ‘I will put a hand on there and you will not shoot it off, either.’ And I did,” Gibbs recalled more than 50 years later, second-guessing her bravado a bit. “I don’t think it was a very smart thing for me to do that, as he might just have done what he said.”
Gibbs won the battle but lost the war. Her gutsy stand proved mostly symbolic. It took a half-dozen men, led by a local sheriff, to open the dam and drop the water level a foot and a half. Lumbermen soon won injunctions, barring Gibbs from what she called further interference.
Her expected appointment to succeed her father never came. She moved to Minneapolis and then Canada, dying in Vancouver, B.C., in 1983 at the age of 104.
“Mary Gibbs was an amazing woman in step with the times,” said longtime Minnesota folk singer Charlie Maguire. He began researching Gibbs in 1990 when the state commissioned him to write songs about state parks for the 100th birthday of Itasca in 1991. He’s since combed through her 1903 letters and tracked down her descendants in Canada.
Maguire notes that when President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir met at Yosemite National Park in 1903 to hash out ways “to preserve the last natural places, there was already a woman at Itasca State Park doing it, at the risk of her own life.”
The second youngest of nine siblings, Mary Gibbs was born in 1879 near Atwater, Minn., 80 miles west of Minneapolis. Her father, an Indiana-born farmer and Civil War veteran, was tapped in 1901 by Gov. Samuel Van Sant to run Itasca. Only one state park in the U.S. was older: Niagara Falls in New York, founded in 1885.
Mary, then 22, joined her father at Itasca. Maguire can track letters from park headquarters to Attorney General Douglas, pinpointing when the “painfully crabbed scrawl” of John Gibbs gave way to the clear Palmer Method script of Mary, who served as his secretary.
After her father’s death, according to Maguire, Mary Gibbs was called to Douglas’ office and asked if she would consider taking his job since a new manager couldn’t be appointed in the middle of winter. She said yes.
Back in Itasca, she continued corresponding with the attorney general, once asking, “If I am to stay, am I to serve under father’s commission or am I to have one of my own?” Douglas promised to talk to Gov. Van Sant, who he assumed had acted on her appointment “long ere this.” But her formal appointment never happened as the timber industry applied pressure to keep her out of the job, and she was replaced by the Wadena County attorney.
Only two months after her showdown with the armed lumberman, Mary Gibbs was living with her widowed mother Susan in a downtown Minneapolis apartment. Susan Gibbs died on Jan. 3, 1904, Mary’s third loss within nine months along with her father and her job.
Mary buried her mother next to her father at the Bird Island City Cemetery and then moved to Alberta, Canada, where a sister lived and where she married homebuilder William Logan.
“She was a very forceful person in a way,” her son, Ken Logan, told Maguire. “Not dictatorial but she knew what she wanted.”
“That little slip of a woman who had buffaloed the tough old lumberjacks” was how Cleve Stillwell, the nephew of an early park manager, heard the story.
In 2005, after Gov. Jesse Ventura heard Maguire’s song about Gibbs, the new Mississippi Headwaters Center at Itasca was named in her honor.
Jacob Brower, the founder of Itasca State Park, credited Mary Gibbs’ “energetic defense of the beauties of Itasca Park,” saying: “Someone ought to assert the rights of the state against such threatening destruction.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.