James Alexander Thom on the Indiana State Parks Centennial

The parks turn 100 this month, an anniversary worth celebrating for all Hoosiers—especially me.

July 2016Add a comment

As old coots like to do, my friend Alan Garinger and I often lamented the loss of the beautiful places we had known. He joked once as we walked along through urban sprawl on neon-lit asphalt, “My dream is to live long enough to see a strip mall rezoned ‘agricultural.’” Alan—an author who was the force behind the Midwest Writers Workshop where I taught now and then—didn’t live that long, rest his soul. I haven’t seen it happen, either. There aren’t many places where a Hoosier native my age can look around and see the same unspoiled natural beauty he first witnessed through a child’s eyes 80 years ago. But there are the Indiana State Parks.

James Alexander Thom admires the McCormick's Creek gatehouse.
James Alexander Thom admires the McCormick’s Creek gatehouse.

Photo by Tony Valainis

After all this time, I can still climb down those old steps in the McCormick’s Creek cliff-side, into the mossy limestone sound chamber where the waterfall plays its trickling, gurgling song. I can still pause among the ferns in the deep silence of a sandstone chasm at Turkey Run, marveling at the sculptural skills of Time and Water. I can still go up to the Indiana Dunes, those steep, golden slopes at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, where I once raced downhill with long, reckless strides so my bare feet wouldn’t be burned by the sun-heated sand before I plunged into the cool surf.

I can’t run like that anymore—I’m not what I used to be. But that place is exactly what it used to be because it’s a state park and has been protected. Today’s giggling tykes can careen down those slopes, feeling that same exhilaration I did when I was young.

May children in every future generation get to experience it. There is nothing, I’m sure, on any iPad or smartphone to compare. A child’s body, stoked with pure animal energy, barrels through a world of natural stimulations: hot sun, soft sand, wind in the ears and hair, vertigo, gull calls, wind-combed grasses, the sheer joy of exertion, the smell of campfire cooking. How can a handful of pixels compete with that?

 

I’ve spent half my life with Native Americans, a diverse group of people I got involved with while researching my historical novels about the frontier. Native Americans acted as if all of the land they lived on was a park. Their agreement with the Creator was that they could stay there if they ruined nothing and kept the campsite clean. They never dreamed of selling God-given resources for money. The fields and forests were beautiful places to pitch camp, and the tribes enjoyed and benefited from them, even though they didn’t own them. To those indigenous folk, the Earth was the people’s commons, meaning everyone’s place. Europeans came here with a different belief: that they could own land, and keep everybody else off. Their idea of a commons was, say, the town square or the parade ground. Whatever they chose to name those public spaces, they weren’t very big compared with all the private property. The newcomers felt they could profit from the land any way they wanted, even if they ruined it. And they often did.

The Indiana State Parks are the closest thing we have to a commons these days. Credit for the idea goes to a few visionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. John Muir (who spent some time in Indiana) proposed the national parks, and gained support from President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman. To get the same concept going here, we needed Richard Lieber, an immigrant from Germany who became a business and civic leader in Indianapolis. Lieber had the idea of marking Indiana’s statehood centennial in 1916 by establishing at least one protected park for the public. He got two done that year: McCormick’s Creek in Owen County (dedicated on July 4, 1916) and Turkey Run in Parke County a few months later.

Nearly 100 years ago, Civilian Conservation Corps workers build the McCormick's Creek gatehouse.
Nearly 100 years ago, Civilian Conservation Corps workers build the McCormick’s Creek gatehouse.

Photo courtesy of Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Lieber believed that people needed havens in nature. Work was really work in those days, and wholesome recreation was hard to find. He had the shrewdness to foresee that citizens near state park locations would favor them more if they had a stake in them, and that there would be less resistance to the idea if the protected areas supported themselves with users’ fees. He brought civic leaders and newspaper writers from nearby communities together and infected them with his enthusiasm. Residents of my native Owen County, for example, raised 25 percent of the $5,250 purchase price of the John McCormick farm, which became the first state park. About the same time, a reporter named Juliet Strauss began writing in favor of preserving the great trees and beautiful chasms of Turkey Run. That land was bought in the nick of time from a wood veneer company.

In the 1920s, six more state parks opened: Clifty Falls, Indiana Dunes, Pokagon, Spring Mill, Brown County, and Shakamak, each with its own particular virtues—historic, scenic, and geological. In the 1930s, Mounds and Lincoln state parks joined them. Most of the rest would come over the next 45 years, ending with the spectacular, fossil-rich Falls of the Ohio (established in 1990).

In my own boyhood stomping ground, McCormick’s Creek, the earliest physical improvements—trails, shelters, water supply—were made in the 1920s by the Purdue University Civil Engineering Camp. Then came the Great Depression, putting millions out of work. In 1933, the same year I was born, President Franklin D. Roosevelt started up a vast and visionary national work program for unemployed young men across the country: the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC planted millions of trees and created buildings, bridges, and infrastructure in parks everywhere, including our own green spaces.

Today, the Indiana State Parks comprise 170,000 acres and 700 miles of trails, used by millions of Hoosiers. The Department of Natural Resources has been involved for decades funding nature guides in the parks, among other things. To me, it’s inspiring to see what a nation’s people can do working under right-thinking leaders to build a more habitable world. As the Native Americans understood long before our arrival, the measure of a good society is what it leaves unspoiled.

 

With my childhood spent in the state parks, I came to believe I was born to be a park ranger. I vividly remember a Career Day at my high school, where representatives of many professions set up displays in the gym and invited us to learn about the challenges and rewards of doing their particular thing for a living. I came out depressed. There wasn’t a single thing I could imagine doing for the rest of my life except sitting in a park fire tower wearing a Smokey Bear hat and gazing out over the treetops. And there hadn’t been a park ranger there on Career Day.

I developed that yearning by climbing and hanging out in the 86-foot-high fire tower in McCormick’s Creek State Park for long periods. Being a shy boy, I was comfortable in solitude. I had never wanted to join a scout troop or a sports team. I didn’t need to. My Grandpa Brown, who had been a hunting and fishing guide in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when he was young, had already taught me how to make moccasins and snowshoes, shelter huts, fishing gear, and fire from dry sticks. He had shown me what you could eat in the woods and fields. There isn’t a scoutmaster anywhere near his equal.

McCormick's Creek
McCormick’s Creek

Photo courtesy of Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Like many athletic young men, I could run, leap, climb, dive, and swim well, but I didn’t need to compete. My arena was the wooded hills, not the gymnasium. My few buddies were fellow antisocial ridge-runners and grapevine swingers, all experts with bows and arrows, spears, and slingshots.

I lived in Spencer at the time, which was a mere three-mile walk from McCormick’s Creek by way of the old River Road before the Highway 46 bridge was built and cut that distance in half. On most non-school days, I made that walk, usually with a Mark Twain book, Pogo Possum comics, and a sketchpad in hand. Twain, Pogo, and wildlife comprised my summer school. Twain and Pogo taught me to laugh. Mother Nature taught me to think seriously. Pogo was especially good reading in a state park. He was a conservationist in his own cartoonish way. In one of his most famous strips, Pogo stares into a woodland strewn with trash and old appliances, and remarks: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” I soaked him up.

As I got older, I learned more about our state parks and their wonderful hardwood forests—the uses and beauties of which eventually enabled me to become something of a carpenter and a woodcarver. The men and women who built the parks’ infrastructure did admirable work, much of which is still evident and in use. The hewn-timber joinery of the little gatehouse at McCormick’s Creek so impressed me that I would try to emulate some of it 40 years later when I built my log house here in the same county. When I took to writing, the most successful of my novels were those set on the Indiana frontier and throughout the Ohio Valley watershed. Thanks to my immersion in the parks, I knew enough about the natural world to write frontier history that looked, smelled, and sounded authentic. Some of the major efforts in my journalism career were in environmental reporting, too. Looking back, almost every phase of my life has some origin in an Indiana State Park.

 

Some old Hoosier friends of mine now live in distant parts of the country, but make occasional visits back to see me at McCormick’s Creek. We meet for breakfast at the Canyon Inn, where we watch birds and raccoons at the feeding stations outside, eating as heartily as we are. My friend Alan Garinger lived in Muncie, but his favorite retreat was McCormick’s Creek. We’d see him and his wife there at least once a year. In my memory, he and that park are part of the same picture. Alan often quoted Twain and Pogo the Possum. (I suspect Pogo sometimes quoted Alan.)

Over this long lifetime, I’ve been to all of the Indiana State Parks, but that one remains special to me. In recent years, I’ve been setting up at a table at the annual “Arts in the Park” fair at McCormick’s Creek, where I sign my books, display my hardwood carvings, and swap tool talk with duck-decoy makers and other craftsmen. Usually, some old Owen County man or woman will amble up to say hello and reminisce about being delivered into the world by either my father or my mother, who were their family doctors during the Depression. State parks are more than gathering places for communities—they are communities themselves.

That’s surely what Richard Lieber envisioned a century ago. He later called the state park program his life’s work, and said he was one of the luckiest immigrants in America because the government and people let him do it. “Our parks and preserves are not mere picnicking places,” he said. “They are rich storehouses of memories. They are guides and counsels to the wearying and faltering in spirit, a solace to the aged and an inspiration to the young.”

Amen to that. Lieber died while vacationing at the Canyon Inn in 1944, a pleasant place to go if there ever was one. Assuming the weather was decent that day, I might have been reading Pogo comics up in the fire tower. I didn’t even know who Lieber was then. I was just an Owen County kid 86 feet above the world, surrounded by the beautiful place he had preserved for us all, daydreaming about one day being a park ranger there.

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