Trekking through Gitchie Manitou State Preserve, the site of a horrific 1973 mass murder

February 19, 2019

There are places that simply become defined by some event that happened there at some point in time. That is certainly the case for Gitchie Manitou State Preserve in Lyon County. 

 

Gitchie Manitou State Preserve is quite literally the farthest northwest property in our state. If you leave the property to the north? You are in South Dakota.  If you leave the property to the west? You are at the Big Sioux River and that is what helps create our border with South Dakota. It's mere minutes from Sioux Falls, the largest city in South Dakota.

 

Growing up in Northwest Iowa, I was aware of Gitchie Manitou but I had never visited until a recent weekend stop. It's a State Preserve which means it is state owned property and managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Iowa has a number of these such properties across the state.

It's about 90 acres in size and is noted for it's natural prairie, its ancient Native American burial mounds, and Precambrian Sioux Quartzite outcroppings, which are about 1.6 billion years old. 

But mostly, it's known for the November 17, 1973 mass murders carried out by three brothers from Sioux Falls. The crime became a huge news story at the time. Four teenagers, Roger Essem, Stewart Baade, Dana Baade, and Michael Hadrath were murdered and a fifth, Sandra Cheskey, survived, but was raped. It's an obviously sad and horrific story and there are several sites on the web with much more detail about the crime if you are into true crime stories. The three brothers, Allen, David, and James Fryer are all serving life sentences at the State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. In the time since, a book called "Gitchie Girl" has been written and there are even some rumors on the web that a film has been made or will be made. The preserve is rumored to be haunted and there have even been reports of extra-terrestrial sightings, including one in 1976

 

On a recent chilly late Saturday afternoon, I spent maybe 45 minutes wandering around the property. There is a small parking lot, and there was one other car there but I never actually saw anyone else.

 

There is a path to walk on but it is roped off to prevent unauthorized vehicles (and horses) from entering onto the preserve.

As you will discover, there's graffiti on lots of things.

The path is mostly gravel and dirt and on my particular jaunt, it was pretty frozen with some snow and icy spots as well.

 

There are some good views of the Big Sioux River from the path.

 

I spotted a giant mansion on the South Dakota side of the river. I am sure that is a nice view of the Big Sioux River and surrounding area from up there.

Of course, much of this is simply prairie with some rocks popping through in places.

 

Though, as you get closer to the river, there is some thicker tree cover.

After about a 10 to 15 minute walk from the parking lot, you encounter a large concrete or brick structure that has a place for a fire. I'm not sure if this is where the murders transpired exactly - but almost every square inch has been covered in graffiti. In a way, it's quite pretty when you see it up against the snow and blue sky.

 

 

Some of the "art work" is quite nicely done - but a lot of it is just words.

 

I will have to admit, it did feel a bit eerie being there alone. It's certainly a place that has a history. It's also quite a beautiful spot if you are looking for a place to explore for an hour or two. I might have to go back sometime when it is greener and warmer, but I'm not sure you could convince me to go there in the dark. However, I would certainly encourage you to head up to Lyon County and see the place for yourself. There's a lot more to do in the area and the Preserve is just minutes (literally) from the Grand Falls Casino and Golf Resort

 

If you are into true crime stories (that seems to be a really popular genre for podcasts and TV shows these days), I would highly encourage you to do a little more research into the Gitchie Manitou murders. It's quite the sad and tragic story. 

 

As always, I welcome your suggestions of places to visit and profile whether in Lyon County or any of the other 98 counties in Iowa. If you have a good idea or would like host the Iowa Adventurer, please drop me a note through my website.

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