An Introduction to the State Park

by Julia Pearson
Brown County Archives photo

In the fall of the year, colorful trees blanket the over 15,776 acres of the Brown County State Park. Opening in 1929, it is the largest and most visited Indiana State Park, with over 1.3 million visitors recorded in 2008. Multiple archival boxes and a photo album put together by the Civilian Conservation Corp yield a wealth of items on the history of the Brown County State Park. Here are some of the tidbits with an invitation to readers to visit the Brown County Archives for additional stories and inspiration.

Lee Bright should be remembered as making the contacts to make the case for Brown County State Park in Indianapolis. After several letters to Colonel Richard Lieber, the Director of Conservation, Bright made several attempts to meet with Lieber face to face. After several fruitless tries to get into Liber's office, he stopped at the desk of the head game warden, Fred Ahlers. Ahlers had hunted in Brown County and facilitated discussion with George N. Mannfield, who was the first superintendent of the Division of Fish and Game. At that time, there was no authority for the purchase of land for parks in the state.

However, it was possible the Conservation Commission might be able to be persuaded to buy the land for a game reserve. Mannfield took Lee Bright in directly to see Colonel Lieber. Bright's hopes were realized, when a fish and game reserve was established in Brown County at the recommendation of Colonel Lieber in 1923. The purchase of 16,000 acres was approved for acquisition, with Lee Bright appointed as agent of the State of Indiana to secure this acreage. Moneys for the purchases came from the Division of Fish and Game. In its 10th Annual Report, it was reported that a total of 11,810.41 acres had been purchased in Brown County for a total cost of $119,310.61. Only 18 tracts of land were occupied by the owners, most of which stayed relatively close to the area. The Brown County State Game Preserve opened to the public in 1924.

During the 1927 General Assembly a bill was passed by the state legislature that allowed counties to give tracts of land to the state for state parks. Soon after, the Brown County Commissioners were presented with a petition signed by over 200 county citizens requesting that the county acquire land with the purpose of turning over to the state for a state park. The commissioners accepted this plan and included authorization of $15,000 be used for the project. On December 3, 1928, 1,059 acres were transferred from the county to the state. The following landowners sold their land for the creation of Brown County State Park: J.M. White, Andy David, Henry Seitz, John Schwer, Thomas Wilkerson, Everett Ogle, and Alvert Hedrick.
In 1929, just over 1,000 acres of land adjacent to the Preserve was given by the Brown County Commissioners for the Brown County State Park. The lands of the game preserve were later sold to the Department of Conservation and added to the State Park making it the largest in the state with over 13,000 acres.

It's an interesting historic note that Lieber was a guest in the Brown County cabin of Fred Heatherington years before in 1910. Gazing at the countryside, Lieber is quoted as saying: "This whole county ought to be bought up so that all the people of Indiana could enjoy this beauty spot."

Mr. Enos Mills, National Parks spokesman and credited with intitiating the movement to create Rocky Mountain National Park, stopped in Indianapolis in 1915. The Indianapolis News published this quote from Mills in an interview on November 17: "The state of Indiana should buy as much of Brown County as possible. It should acquire at least 1,000 acres in the wildest part of the county. The heart of Brown County is purely wild….From the scenic standpoint, Brown County is one of the best spots that ever existed in the great stretch between the Applachians and the Rocky Mountains."

Lieber himself envisioned a cabin community to honor the Frank McKinney "Kin" Hubbard, who gave the world the Abe Martin characters through the Indianapolis News as well as 300 other newspaper outlets through the country. Hubbard died in 1930, but plans continued to name the lodge in Brown County State Park the "Abe Martin Lodge," and the visitors' cabins with the names of Abe's neighbors. By 1933, a saddle barn was an additional facility that made Brown County Park one of the most popular recreational spots for tourists. Spanning Salt Creek, the covered bridge was added to the north entrance. Originally erected in Putnam County by Henry Wolfe just a hundred years before, the State Highway Department moved the bridge and then rebuilt this well-known landmark.

In June 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Battalion #1557 began work on the park and game reserve property. Reclaiming the hillsides that were left barren by timbering and erosion, the CCC planted many of the pine, walnut, spruce, and locust trees. Records show that the steepest areas were planted in about 1,000,000 Scotch, white and red pine and 21,450 Norway spruce. Several more plantations consisted of 200,000 locust trees, along with Japanese barberry and multiflora rose as well.

Construction of the park and game reserve's buildings continued, using timber that was cleared from the many overlooks and vistas. Timber was also used from the cuttings during the clearing and construction of the fire roads, and roads of the main park and reserve. A stone quarry located within the park boundary in the vicinity of Five Points yielded the sandstone used in the ovens, shelters, and building foundations.

A camp area located north of Hohen Point housed the personnel of the CCC in several small barracks and large mess hall on the site of an old village called Kelp. During its active life in the earlier part of the century, Kelp had several homes, a church, school, store with a post office, and other buildings. By the 1930s though, Kelp itself had passed into memory.

Within the park today are two lakes, Ogle Lake and Strahl Lake, which are 17 acres and 7 acres respectively in size. There are 70 miles of bridle trails and 20 miles of hiking trails, some rugged and others easy from 0.5 to 3 miles in length. Weed Patch Knob is the third highest summit in Indiana. Besides the Abe Martin Lodge and cabins already mentioned, visitors will find multiple campsites, RV sites, and a horseman's camp. Brown County park and surrounding area is known today as one of the best locations for mountain biking trails. It is loved by Brown Countians, both for its natural beauty throughout the year, and for the infinite number of visitors who contribute to the local economy.