MANKATO — Gordon Herbst grew up near Minneopa State Park. He also helped grow Minneopa State Park.
The acreage just south of Mankato was a lifetime passion for the idiosyncratic lifelong bachelor, who died Monday at age 82.
“He’s just synonymous with it. I don’t think there was anything that happened at Minneopa State Park that Gordon wasn’t involved with in some way,” said former Friends of Minneopa State Park President Jeff Brand.
Herbst’s love for the park and its signature waterfall, the largest in southern Minnesota, was manifested in the books he wrote on the park’s history.
Friends and acquaintances said the studious Herbst was a wellspring of information on the park and its fascinating minutia — if one could coax the cryptic chronicler to share his tales.
“He was kind of a secretive guy, definitely a different kind of person,” Friends of Minneopa member Brand Frentz said.
Frentz said Herbst would display a quirky little smile when he didn’t want to get too far into answering a question about his past.
“He’d just say, ‘Well, wouldn’t you like to know that?’”
A man of eclectic interests ( “He knew a lot about a lot,” Brand said), Herbst’s life included a career with a pathology firm and a passion for horticulture that netted him certification as a Master Gardener.
Several years ago, Herbst oversaw a gathering of more than 100 volunteers, who separated seeds from park plants as part of a restoration project to help return the grounds to a thriving area of natural prairie plant life.
The gathered seeds were then re-sown by hand in specified areas, thereby speeding up nature’s natural process.
“We’re trying to bring (the park) back to what it used to be,” Herbst said at the time.
In 2012, as Herbst joined others to watch the razing of the park’s aged falls bridge to make way for a new one, he shared a personal anecdote with The Free Press.
The park-area resident recalled the long-ago image of a man who delivered coal to Mankato homes and businesses.
When the coalman’s work day was done, he’d come to the falls to clean up under its cascade.
“This is where he’d come to strip off a certain amount of his clothes,” Herbst said in his typical fashion, sharing just enough of the tale to keep it tantalizing.
Said Frentz, “He’d hint at something but not tell you anything.”
Brand said Herbst’s quirkiness also came into play when Friends of Minneopa held meetings in a local restaurant.
Others would order food and drink, but Herbst never did.
“He’d say, ‘I don’t eat anything I don’t make myself.’”
Frentz said Herbst’s zeal for Minneopa State Park was demonstrated thusly a few years ago:
When it came time for Friends members to fill out their yearly volunteer work-hours forms for the state Department of Natural Resources, Herbst penciled in about 400 hours.
“He beat all of us put together,” Frentz said.