Sharing their love for land

By Lori Southard Howe on September 12, 2016 in Landowner Stories

Gathered around the Hill House dining table, the stories flowed about Leonard and Mildred Grimes. “I think Mom was the visionary and Dad was more the implementer” was quickly followed by, “Yet, Dad had vision, too.” A third sibling adds, “And, Mom was out there working right alongside Dad.” Three of Leonard and Mildred’s children and their spouses wove a rich tale of their parents’ journey to create a nature oasis just west of Marshalltown.

Known as the Grimes Farm Conservation Area, this oasis is managed by the Marshall County Conservation Board (MCCB). The evolution of Grimes Farm was fueled by Leonard and Mildred’s vision and realized through their determination. Engaging Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and MCCB as partners to advise and work alongside them, Leonard and Mildred relied on the expertise and experience the partnership provided.

Love, nature and the seeds of vision

In a schoolhouse near Green Mountain, just northeast of Marshalltown, Leonard Grimes met Mildred Hach. “Mom said this red-headed, freckle-faced boy walked right up and introduced himself to her. From that moment on, they were inseparable,” said Carrie, the youngest Grimes daughter.

Leonard and Mildred had much in common: curiosity, intelligence and an appreciation for working hard. Mildred and Leonard married one year after graduating from Green Mountain High School.

The next few years took them across the country. After being stationed in New Hampshire while serving in the Marines during World War II, Leonard earned his bachelor’s degree at Dartmouth, followed by a law degree at Harvard University.

The couple returned home to Iowa, and Leonard began practicing law at the firm known today as Grimes, Buck, Schoell, Beach and Hitchins in Marshalltown, where he specialized in estate law. Believing that moving to the country would benefit their younger children, Leonard and Mildred searched for the right property.

GrimesFrom eroded land to natural gem

In 1964 they purchased 700 acres of treeless farmland etched with gullies. Where their parents saw the land as a business venture with little chance of profitability, Leonard and Mildred saw potential for natural beauty. Their goal was clear — restore most of the land to its original prairie and woodlands, while farming the land suitable for crops in a responsible manner.

The work was grueling and seemed never-ending. Working side by side, their children pitching in, they first cleared the land of outbuildings, cars and debris. Over the next several years, Leonard and Mildred led their family in planting over 200,000 oak, walnut and hickory trees.

In 2006, Mildred wanted to try her hand at creating an “instant forest.” Fifteen kinds of tree seeds were spread thickly over 12 acres. Based on a survival of the fittest theory, the most healthy seedlings grew straight and strong. Many of these trees now stand over 25 feet tall in Instant Forest 1.  Instant Forest 2 was seeded in 2008 and includes eight acres of healthy trees. With the instant forests, Roger Grimes believes the family has planted over one million trees!

There are also four restored prairies on Grimes Farm: Island, Horseshoe, Upper Hilltop and Lower Hilltop.

Today, 200 tillable acres are sustainably farmed, with the remaining 500 acres supporting woodlands, wetlands and prairies and serving as the site for the Grimes Farm Conservation Area and Conservation Center.

Conservation centerA passion to teach

Mildred had a teacher’s heart. She worked as a music teacher and later as a librarian in Marshall County schools. “From the start, Mom always had the dream of sharing their land to ensure kids had the chance to learn about nature and how the land sustains us all," Roger said.

Mildred initiated a program with area schools to bring elementary children to Grimes Farm. On these field trips, Mildred would lead the way through prairies and woods, delighting when children oohed and ahhed at nature’s wonders. Carrie continues the nature education tradition, regularly participating in reading programs at the Conservation Center.

Mildred's TowerMildred’s Tower, erected in 2006 as a memorial to Mildred who passed away the same year, offers visitors to Grimes Farm views as far as the Story County wind turbines and Marshall County Courthouse. Mildred’s Tower stands 30 feet tall and is the second highest point in Marshall County. The Grimes siblings say several marriage proposals have occurred at the top of Mildred’s Tower.

Vision realized with astute planning

Leonard and Mildred wanted to provide 160 acres of their land as a place for area citizens to enjoy woodlands and prairies, and learn about nature and responsible farming. They designed a long-term plan with INHF to accomplish this.

First, they donated the land to INHF in four transactions in 1991, 1993, 1995 and 1997. This allowed Leonard and Mildred to spread the benefits of tax deductions over several years, and to retain lifetime use (known as “reserved life estate”) of the cropland and their home site.

During those same years, Marshall County conservation leaders and donors were working with the family to plan and raise funds for the education center. INHF transferred to MCCB the portion of land for the building and natural areas.

The final piece of the plan is now in process. With Leonard’s passing earlier this year, the cropland and home site will now transfer from INHF to Marshall County. INHF has been able to help MCCB investigate ways to demonstrate conservation farming. After a 25-year relationship with this family and this place, INHF is pleased to have helped bring their vision to reality. 

In a note to the MCCB and INHF dated January, 13, 1993, Mildred wrote: “We have been applying many conservation measures to our farm to try to sustain that topsoil for the future. These practices have been of sufficient measure to cause the schools of Marshall County to use the farm as an example when teaching conservation. Hundreds of children have tramped the hillsides as they ‘experienced’ conservation….

Living on the land, close to Nature, and raising our children with those special opportunities has been a privilege for us. May our efforts to preserve, conserve and even restore this farm be of value to those who seek a quiet place for relaxation, contemplation, inspiration and joy.”