Indiana’s Oldest, Busiest, and Biggest State Park…
By Mary Giorgio
Located in rural south-central Indiana, the secluded beauty of Brown County State Park offers visitors a chance to commune with nature.
The state park, Indiana’s largest, offers a full range of recreational opportunities. It also serves as a peaceful haven for numerous indigenous plant and animal species. Despite having some of the most beautiful views in Indiana, the park’s creation was far from a certainty in the early twentieth century. Its preservation and eventual designation as a state park was a result of patience and perseverance.
Brown County was created by the Indiana State Legislature in 1836. The county was named for General Jacob Brown, a veteran of the War of 1812 and later the Commanding General of the U.S. Army. The area’s first settlers soon arrived, attempting to tame the wild landscape. Most of the area was hilly and covered in dense forest. Slowly, the settlers cleared the land for farming. Between 1840 and 1900, the majority of forested areas were cleared. Felled trees were used to produce wood for housing, furniture, and railroad ties.
Initially unaware that the removal of forested areas would result in erosion, farmers further depleted their newly acquired lands by failing to institute healthy land-use practices. Consequently, poor soil quality and worsening erosion ultimately led many farmers to abandon the area. Reforestation eventually occurred on some of the abandoned lands.
The beauty of the remaining untamed landscape inspired many visitors in the early twentieth century. In 1910, Colonel Richard Lieber, an Indianapolis native and later the first director of Indiana’s Department of Conservation, visited the region and was impressed with its majesty. Lieber supposedly told an acquaintance, “This whole county ought to be bought up so that all the people of Indiana could enjoy the beauty spot.” After 10 state parks were created during his tenure in the Department of Conservation, Lieber would later become known as the “Father of Indiana’s State Parks.”
It wasn’t until 1920, however, that serious efforts were made to preserve the natural landscape in Brown County. That year, Lee Bright, a native of nearby Nashville, Indiana, began to seriously investigate options for creating a state park in the area. Much of the county’s majestic forests had disappeared by this time, and Bright sought an avenue to preserve the remaining woodlands, while simultaneously making land available for public enjoyment. Bright hoped that a state park would bring tourists to the area and thus stimulate the local economy.
Bright immediately hit a roadblock. Indiana law didn’t allow state funds to be used for the creation of a state park. Parkland could be donated to the state, but not purchased using state funds. Exploiting a loophole in the law, Bright eventually lobbied for the creation of a game preserve. By then, Lieber had taken up his post as director of the Indiana Department of Conservation and gave his full support to the plan. In 1923, Bright was given permission to act as the state’s agent in the purchase of 7,600 acres of land for use as a game preserve.
After purchasing the vast tracts of land, the Department of Conservation announced its plans to reforest depleted acres within the game preserve’s boundaries. In 1927, approximately 4,000 additional acres were purchased and added to the preserve. An observation tower at Weed Patch Hill, one of the highest points in Indiana, was soon constructed. A man-made lake was completed in 1929.
In 1927, the Indiana State Legislature passed a law allowing county commissioners to acquire land and subsequently donate it to the state for use as a state park. Locals immediately grasped that the new law would provide them with a viable path forward in the creation of their still much-desired state park. A petition requesting that county commissioners purchase land for use as a state park gained over 200 signatures. Commissioners subsequently allocated $15,000 for the purchase of just over 1,000 acres of land adjacent to the state’s game preserve. Acreage ownership was transferred to Indiana on December 3, 1928.
Brown County State Park opened in 1929. It became Indiana’s eighth state park. Within a few years, the site contained a lodge, cabins, swimming pool, and saddle barn. In 1932, the park was officially dedicated to the memory of Indiana humorist Frank McKinney Hubbard. Mr. Hubbard’s cartoons, featuring fictional rural characters purportedly from Brown County, were hugely popular features in the Indianapolis News. Eventually, his cartoon was syndicated in around 200 newspapers across the country. The Abe Martin Lodge is named for one of Hubbard’s most popular characters.
The 1930s saw impressive development to the Brown County State Park and adjacent game preserve. This was largely due to the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a government program designed to employ young men during the Great Depression. In 1933, eleven CCC units were established across Indiana to work in state forests, parks, and game preserves. Each unit contained approximately 200 young men.
The CCC was responsible for the construction of much of Brown County State Park’s current infrastructure, including Trail 2, numerous outbuildings and shelters, picnic tables, roads, and two lookout towers. They planted black locust, black walnut, pine, and spruce trees to correct erosion. The CCC workers also cleared most of the vistas along the state park’s roadways and constructed Ogle Lake. By the time the CCC was disbanded in 1942, Brown County State Park had been transformed.
In 1941, the state unified the Brown County game preserve and state park into one 15,696-acre state park. In 1970, the first of the park’s two nature preserves was established. Ogle Hollow Nature Preserve provided additional protections for 41 acres of the state park’s oldest and least disturbed forest. A rare yellowwood tree was discovered here by the CCC in the 1930s.
In 2010, the Ten O’Clock Line Nature Preserve was created to protect an additional 3,349 acres of parkland. The preserve is home to a number of unusual species including the red bat, timber rattlesnake, and broad-winged hawk.
Today, Brown County State Park is Indiana’s most visited state park, with over 1.3 million visitors annually. The park is also Indiana’s largest. It offers a host of amenities including modern cabins and a lodge, a swimming pool, hiking trails, bike paths, horseback riding, and two lakes for fishing. The peaceful, scenic spot, has become a favorite recreational haven for visitors across the Midwest. While the park boasts plenty to do and see year-round, it is thought to be at its most beautiful in the fall.