By Mary Giorgio
Indiana’s first state park, McCormick’s Creek, sits on almost 2,000 acres in the heart of Owen County.
Since its dedication in 1916, the park has delighted visitors with its unique geology and array of recreational activities. The park’s rich history is also part of its charm. Prior to its designation as a state park, the area served as ancient hunting grounds, a 19th century farm, and sanitarium.
Long before the first Europeans established settlements in America, the land that is now known as McCormick’s Creek State Park was used as hunting grounds by the Miami Indians. The Miami camped farther north and south along the White River.
In the early days of European settlement, the rocky canyons and ravines surrounding McCormick’s Creek remained uninhabited. It wasn’t until 1816 that a land grant was finally given to John McCormick. As a veteran of the Revolutionary War, the federal government granted McCormick 1,000 acres along the canyon.
McCormick, himself, never made a home on his new land. Instead, it was his daughter Nancy and son-in-law Jesse Peden who eventually moved to the site and took up farming on 640 acres. The Pedens farmed wheat and raised cows and chickens on their homestead. They also maintained a pear orchard and grove of butternut trees for nuts and syrup. Remnants of a barn erected in 1857 by Nancy’s son, Thomas, remain visible at the state park today.
Members of the Peden family farmed the land up until 1873, when they moved to Spencer, Indiana. In the late 1870s, a limestone quarry was established on the site. The limestone taken from the quarry was used to build Indiana’s state capitol building in Indianapolis, a distinction that resulted in the quarry’s nickname, “the Old Statehouse Quarry.”
By 1880, transporting the limestone across the White River to the nearest railroad lines proved too difficult and time-consuming. The quarry was abandoned.
In 1888, physician Frederick Denkewalter purchased the site for use as a sanitarium. At that time, it had become popular for wealthy Americans to recuperate from illnesses or fatigue at these secluded hideaways. The Denkewalter Sanitarium’s long porches allowed guests to enjoy the beauty of the natural surroundings.
Meanwhile, locals found other uses for the property: picnicking, hiking, and exploring. The canyon’s exposed limestone and waterfalls were sites of majestic beauty. Local interest in the site became so great that when Denkelwalter died in 1914, the community was quick to embrace the idea of turning it into a park. What they lacked, however, was sufficient funding to pay the estate’s $6,200 asking price.
Meanwhile, a larger movement within the State of Indiana had begun to establish the state’s first state park in time for Indiana’s centennial celebration in 1916. This movement was led by Colonel Richard Lieber, an Indianapolis businessman. Lieber believed it was vital to establish Indiana state parks.
These parks would not only preserved significant natural structures but provided visitors with place to experience nature. Lieber envisioned an accessible park system that allowed visitors to explore natural elements while preserving those same elements for future generations.
But, as the countdown to the state’s centennial celebration began, it wasn’t McCormick’s Creek that Lieber had his eye on, but a large old-growth forest in Parke County. After being outbid by the Hoosier Veneer Company, Lieber was left without a park to dedicate at Indiana’s centennial celebration.
It was then his interest turned to an available plot of 360 acres at McCormick’s Creek. After a successful bid of about $5,200 for the property, McCormick’s Creek was dedicated as Indiana’s first state park on July 4, 1916. It officially opened to the public on December 11, 1916.
Lieber eventually convinced the Hoosier Veneer Company to sell the land in Parke County for a whopping $40,200 (That was almost eight times the price paid for McCormick’s Creek!).
Indiana’s second state park, Turkey Run State Park, was dedicated in November of 1916. Lieber was later asked to become the first director of Indiana’s Department of Conservation, a position he held until 1933. Ironically, he died in 1944 during a visit to McCormick’s Creek State Park.
Shortly after dedicating the park, the old sanitarium at McCormick’s Creek was rebranded the Canyon Inn. In the early 1920s, the building was remodeled and sided in brick. In later years, new wings were added, along with a banquet room, swimming pool, and recreation center. Further updates were made in the 1970s, but the original building remains in use today.
In 1927, Indiana became one of the first states to begin a naturalist program that provided interpretive services like guided tours. Nature guides were hired for McCormick’s Creek, Turkey Run, and Clifty Falls State Parks. In the 1930s, McCormick’s Creek became the first state park to conduct programs for school groups.