Next year, Indiana will celebrate its 200th birthday as a state.
But the bicentennial celebration isn’t the only milestone in 2016. It’s also the 100th anniversary of Indiana’s state park system.
In fact, our first state parks were conceived as a gift to Indiana citizens as part of the centennial statehood celebration in 1916.
The architect of Indiana’s park system wasn’t a native Hoosier. It was German-born Richard Lieber, who moved to Indianapolis in his early 20s. His first job was as a reporter for the Indiana Tribune. Lieber later opened a bottling company, which provided him prosperity and entrée to the Indianapolis business community.
Lieber’s passion for nature stemmed from two vacations – a visit in 1900 to Yosemite, and a 1904 hunting and fishing trip to Montana and Idaho.
When President Theodore Roosevelt organized the National Conservation Congress at the White House in 1908, Lieber was a delegate. The event sparked a national movement to conserve America’s natural resources, and in 1912 Lieber chaired the 4th Conservation Congress in Indianapolis.
Inspired by his involvement, Lieber began pushing the concept of state parks in Indiana as the 1916 statehood centennial approached. He convinced Gov. Samuel Ralston to create a study committee. Lieber was named chairman and became a tireless advocate, using his influence to help raise private funds needed to purchase land that became Indiana’s first two parks – McCormick’s Creek and Turkey Run.
Three years later, the state legislature created the Department of Conservation that placed five existing agencies – geology, entomology, forestry, lands and waters, and fish and game – under one umbrella. Lieber became the first director and held the position for 14 years.
During his tenure, eight more parks were added – Clifty Falls (1920), Indiana Dunes (1925), Pokagon (1926), Spring Mill (1927), Shakamak (1929), Brown County (1929), Mounds (1930), and Lincoln (1932).
From the outset, Lieber insisted that park users should pay an entry fee, with the funds dedicated to park operations. That didn’t seem to dissuade visitation, which increased from 33,000 at two parks in 1919 to 623,000 at 10 parks in 1932 – a growth rate approaching 1800 percent.
Growth came in spurts. Four parks were added in the 1940s, four more in the ’60s, and six over the last quarter century. The last was in 2004.
However, in 1995, the Division of Reservoir Management was absorbed by the Division of State Parks, bringing eight properties to the renamed Division of State Parks & Reservoirs. Most are associated with flood-control projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Brookville, Cagles Mill, C.M. Harden, Mississinewa, Monroe, Patoka, and Salamonie. Roush also was part of the merger but has since been transferred to the DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife.
About a year ago, the division’s name was trimmed to State Parks.
Today, the 32 properties managed by the Division of State Parks draw in excess of 16 million annual visitors. Four sites consistently top a million visitors a year.
Visitors come for a variety of reasons. It could be the vistas overlooking the rolling hills of Brown County or the sand-swept shoreline of Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes.
It could be the fishing at Brookville, Monroe, Patoka or Summit Lake.
It could be the ancient fossil beds at Falls of the Ohio.
It could be the restored village at Spring Mill or the historic setting at Lincoln, the boyhood home of a future president.
It could be to ride mountain bike trails at Versailles or paddle canoes at Chain O’Lakes.
It could be to hike the ravines and canyons at Shades or Turkey Run.
It could be to revel in the colorful wildflower prairie at Prophetstown or the rugged terrain at O’Bannon Woods.
There is an endless variety to our state parks. The natural and historical features they protect for current and future generations of Hoosiers are summarized in the following statement by their founder, Richard Lieber:
“Our parks and preserves are not mere picnicking places. They are rich storehouses of memories and reveries. They are guides and counsels to the wary and faltering in spirit. They are bearers of wonderful tales to him who will listen; a solace to the aged and an inspiration to the young.”