In 1938, the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) bought a tract of land that would eventually become the nucleus of Hartman Reserve. The property, along the bluffs of the Cedar River in the eastern part of Cedar Falls, was purchased in order to establish a camping ground for "Y" members. The acquisition was made possible by John C. Hartman of the Waterloo Courier. Mr. Hartman, who had a strong interest in natural history, saw this as an opportunity to do his part for the environment. Over the years, the Reserve began to acquire more and more land, mostly from private donors. In 1966, the YMCA purchased seven more acres of land and donated it to the city of Cedar Falls in order to build River Hills, a school for the mentally disabled.
Initially, the site was used for camping and other outdoor activities. Due to increasing expenses and lack of interest, the "Y" was forced to close the facility in the early ‘70s. In 1975, the YMCA put its river-bluffs property up for sale. Briefly, the area was threatened by developers wanting to lay a stretch of Highway 380 through it. The cities of Waterloo and Cedar Falls were quick to react to this news. Both communities saw the area as a valuable natural asset and were determined not to let it disappear. In 1976, the Black Hawk County Conservation Board bought the land and created the Hartman Reserve Nature Center. The determined resistance of the community and the Board prevented highway construction from occurring and developers were forced to find an alternate route. The Conservation Board actually acquired a total of 287 acres, a considerably larger tract than the 56 acres with which the park had originated, and the Reserve has remained the same size since then. Over the years the highly qualified staff of Hartman has done an admirable job of developing and maintaining the Reserve through the addition of several new buildings and the construction of new trails.