SIBLEY, Iowa | For the first time in years, a national convention came to Osceola County, settling in atop the highest natural point in Iowa.
The Highpointers Club, 250 to 300 members strong, gathered for three days in July at Hawkeye Point, four miles north of Sibley, celebrating a place that's 1,670 feet above sea level, a place that's one of Iowa's newest welcoming spots.
Seven years ago, the late Merrill and Donna Sterler family donated 1.6 acres of land that includes Hawkeye Point to Osceola County. The family's aim was to keep the spot open and accessible to the public.
Mike Earll, Hawkeye Point Committee chair and director of economic development for Osceola County, believes it might be the first national convention in his county in decades.
"Years ago we had a trappers' convention at the Osceola County Fairgrounds," Earll said. "But that was 25-plus years ago."
The Highpointers Club is a national organization with a mission of gaining access to, and developing, each of the 50 highest states' points in the U.S. Hawkeye Point was chosen as the 2015 meeting location, in part to honor the commitment of the Sterler family and the organizations, among them the Sibley-Ocheyedan High School FFA Chapter, that have helped make the park a welcome center.
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Earll notes that several states have "high points" located on private land and are largely inaccessible to the public. The highest point in Illinois, for example, is on a family farm. The site boats of two lawn chairs and has public access to it limited to just one day per year.
FFA members have joined various volunteers and members of the Westerners/Those Crazy Goat Kids 4-H Club in pouring cement at Hawkeye Point, erecting restrooms and a shower facility, a shelter house, an interpretive center of sorts, an observation deck and more.
In addition, there's now a campsite with 12 electrical hook-ups and even more tent sites, all within easy reach of four-lane Highway 60.
The old Sterler silo still stands at Hawkeye Point, around which the observation deck gives tourists a view of Iowa, Minnesota and, if conditions are right, a peek into South Dakota.
Years ago, a long cattle trough extended south from that silo and ended at the exact site that is Iowa's highest point. The trough is gone and in its place is a tiled decorative circle, a place that's a favorite photo spot for visitors from 50 states and dozens of foreign countries.
An old corn crib has been painted and now houses antique farm implements as well as historic photos showcasing important events from the county's past, including the day that President Theodore Roosevelt stopped by to address hundreds from the back of his passenger train.
"We've designed this as a walk-through agricultural museum, one that people can enjoy any time of the day," Earll said.
A separate kiosk with posts sunk seven feet into the ground (to withstand wind gusts at this elevation) has matted photos and information leading visitors to all sorts of Osceola County attractions, including Ocheyedan Mound, a site near Ocheyedan that was once believed to be Iowa's highest point.
Earll calls Ocheyedan Mound, at 1,655 feet, the "most picturesque high point in Iowa."