Your Village: Is it Lake Macbride or McBride?

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Looking north at “Lake McBride” from Macbride Nature Recreation Area. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

According to the maps I find online, the lake in Lake Macbride State Park is Lake McBride. Are they named after the same person? Or did Macbride get the park and Macbride Hall at UI named after him, and McBride basically didn’t get anything other than me, years later, doubting his existence? —Matt, Iowa City

It would be possible for a lake called McBride and a park called Macbride to be named after the same person, because Thomas Macbride — 10th president of the University of Iowa (1914-16) and expert on North American slime molds — was born a McBride and later changed the spelling.

But that didn’t happen, because there’s no Lake McBride in Iowa, regardless of what a map tells you. The lake, like the park and the UI building, is Macbride. McBride is a decades-old spelling error that refuses to die.

Why Thomas McBride, son of James and Sarah McBride, made the “b” lowercase and added an “a” isn’t clear. The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa just says, “By 1895, he had restored the spelling of his last name to its earlier Scottish form, Macbride.”

By then, he was 47 years old and had been teaching what was called “natural science” at UI (then called the State University of Iowa) for 17 years. Macbride would be at the university for another 21 years. After he retired in 1916, Macbride and his wife, Harriet, moved to Washington to be near their two adult children who lived in Seattle.

“A scholar, a poet, a scientist of unusual ability — but above all, a man of character, of high ideals and of deep understanding,” his colleague Bohumil Shimek wrote after Macbride’s death in 1934. Shimek doesn’t mention the name change beyond noting Macbride’s early work was published under the name McBride, “but he later corrected this. Some other members of the family, however, continued to use the first form.” (And yes, that’s the Shimek the elementary school is named for.)

Macbride is considered the father of the conservation movement in Iowa. He was a major advocate for the creation of state and local parks. His 1896 address to the Iowa Academy of Science, titled “County Parks,” led to the creation of the Iowa Parks and Forestry Association.

One of the projects Macbride pushed for was the creation of an artificial lake in Johnson County, but he had already been in the Pacific Northwest for 16 years when the State Conservation Board recommended the creation of a state park with an artificial lake along Mill Creek near Solon in 1932.

Names traditionally used for the area — such as Sugar Bottom and Horse Thief’s Cave — weren’t considered appropriate for what would would be the largest state park in Iowa, so a contest to name the park was held. The public sent in over 600 submissions, and Onie Strub of East Lucas Township won $50 for suggesting Lake Macbride.

The name was announced at the lake’s dedication ceremony on May 30, 1934. Unfortunately, it was too late for Thomas Macbride to enjoy the honor — he died two months before the ceremony.

Everyone agreed Macbride was a fitting name for the lake and the park (and, later, the neighboring Macbride Nature Recreation Area, which is operated by the University of Iowa and sits on federal land), but the spelling error started almost as soon as the name was announced.

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The first detailed map of the lake was published in 1935, and it calls the lake “Lake McBride.”

A search of Iowa newspaper archives shows the misspelling popping occasionally in almost every decade since the park opened. Online maps have given the misspelling new life.

Even the map on Lake Macbride’s official page on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ website gives the name of the park as Macbride, but labels the body of water “Lake McBride.” The lake’s name is spelled properly on it printed material.

But it’s not just the lake that’s been haunted by the original spelling. In 1899, Thomas Macbride published his magnum opus, The North American Slime-Moulds. It was immediately called the essentially book on the subject by Nature, the most important scientific journal of the day. That book review, however, listed the author’s name as McBride.

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