IN – James Alexander Thom on the Indiana State Parks Centennial

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

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.


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.


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.

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