Marilyn King loved mastodons. Katharine Ordway loved prairies. Luella Agnes Owen loved caves.

Marilyn King loved mastodons. Katharine Ordway loved prairies. Luella Agnes Owen loved caves.

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.

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 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.