M. Bankes

Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey Bureau,
Technical Information Series 30, 1994, 12 p.

by Kathie Bentley

I met Mary Bankes in 1990 while researching the historical development of Big Spring, a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) trout rearing station. Mary and her husband Otto had developed the farm land and large natural groundwater spring into a private fishing club in the 1930s.

Although Otto died in 1984, Mary Bankes was quite willing to share her memories of their Big Spring business. She grew up learning how to care for fish at her uncle's fish-out pond. Mary was intimately involved in the development of Big Spring along with her husband and her Uncle Earl. She helped with construction, fish rearing and club operation. Scores of scrapbooks and boxes of old photographs and slides are her link to years past when they operated the Big Spring Trout Pond.

Mary kept detailed handwritten records of rainfalls, floods, and weather affecting the spring, as well as fish growth, and fish kills throughout the years. After several months of inverviews and reviewing old scrapbooks, newspaper clippings and notes, Mary and I collaborated on a historical narrative of Big Spring development. I wrote a feature story from Mary's notes including several black and white photo reproductions from the mid 1930s. It was published widely in newspapers across northeast Iowa and submitted to Iowa natural history publications, the Iowan, and several Midwestern magazines.

A Luther College anthropology student, Jill Robinson, was hired to expand this historical narrative into a more complete oral history. Meanwhile Mary continued to find more old photographs and slides of Big Spring. She also amended Robinson's oral history text with an additional eight pages of handwritten notes, corrections and descriptions which I edited into the final manuscript after Jill Robinson left the project.

The amended history, including 40 reproduced black and white photographs, has been given to the Elkader Historical Museum for future display, and is part of a permanent wall display developed for the Big Spring Trout Hatchery. Large mounted photographs showing historical development of the spring have been used during Big Spring Project tours conducted by both project and hatchery staff.

Besides the historical significance of Mary Bankes work, it was interesting to share with tour groups the Bankes' early efforts to tie erosion, farming practices and voluntary land use changes to water quality. Sinkhole cleanup and closings and erosion control methods were tried privately throughout the 1930s to contend with silt loads at the spring.

The very economics of the Bankes' trout rearing business was affected by each major flood in the Big Spring watershed. Cost of continually repairing silt and flood damage led the Bankes' to accept an offer from the Iowa Conservation Commission ([ICC] which later became the Iowa Department of Natural Reources [IDNR]) to purchase Big Spring in 1961. After the sale Otto stayed on at Big Spring as an ICC fisheries biologist until his retirement in Dec. 1973.