Brown County State Park
Celebrates 80 Years

by Jim Eagleman
photo by Cindy Steele

The Brown County State Park will celebrate its 80th birthday this year. Established in 1929 with a small land parcel near Salt Creek, our state park is now Indiana’s largest with nearly 16,000 acres. Along with its noteworthy size, it has an interesting beginning. Historians say that to know where we’re headed, we learn from the past. Hindsight can be a good road map.

It was in Brown County, outside of Nashville, on September 24, 1910, that Richard Lieber (who would later become Indiana’s first director of the Department of Conservation) conceived the idea of an Indiana state park system.

“Colonel” Lieber vacationed in Brown County and was friends with local resident, Fred Heatherington. Both enjoyed nature, talk of the future, and their time together. It was at the Heatherington cabin on Lower Jackson Branch Ridge Road that Lieber first talked of saving Indiana’s natural assets. Although a state park in Brown County was not to happen for another 19 years, the idea of preserving the beauty of the rugged hills was discussed. Lieber recognized the misty views of ridge tops and ravines that were an inspiration to artists and visitors. But a portion of Parke County’s virgin timber and the steep canyons near Spencer took precedence. He knew these sites, threatened by development and lumber interests, needed his quick attention.

Unique geologic features and large trees are precious things to set aside. Land owners joined conservationists in 1916 to establish Indiana’s first state parks at Turkey Run and McCormick’s Creek. Lieber took the lead on these acquisitions adding to a growing Hoosier reputation of Indiana’s preservation efforts. In the process he also became the “Father of Indiana State Parks.” Lieber shared ideas with colleague Steven Mather, director of the newly-formed national park system (also established in 1916). Both men recognized fees charged at entrances could maintain the parks for visitors. Gate revenues were used to improve properties, create safe and friendly campgrounds, and help build family-oriented inns. Lieber became the first Indiana Department of Conservation director in 1919 and continued until 1933. Throughout his term, he believed people would seek and utilize natural areas for rejuvenation, rest, and personal renewal. The continued use of those first parks confirms his beliefs.

Park maps years ago included the following statement. Although it can’t be identified as a Lieber quote, many think he said: “Along these quiet trails through these reservations, it is to be expected that the average citizen will find release from the tensions of his over-crowded existence; that the contact with nature will re-focus with a clearer lens his perspective on life’s values and that he may counsel with himself to the end that his strengths and confidence are renewed.”

Brown County State Park first began as a state game farm. In the early1920s, local businessman and insurance salesman Lee Bright had an idea to create a state park in Brown County. He approached Lieber with his proposal, but received little encouragement. Lieber told Bright to meet with George Mannfeldt, the director of the department’s fish and game division. Mannfeldt was interested in parcels of Indiana land to add to the state’s game farm program. Much of Brown County’s land had been heavily timbered by early settlers, then farmed and cleared again. Many farmers moved on to more promising futures when faced with the unproductive soil. Mannfeldt knew the abandoned land would work well to reintroduce native animal species. The brush stage of slowly-recovering vegetation is an invitation to wildlife. Game birds, deer, and other woodland species were released here during the mid-1920s. The park parcel adjoined the game farm property at what is now the fire tower. A final deed transfer in 1940 from the department’s Division of Fish and Game (now the Division of Fish and Wildlife) to the Division of Lands, Parks, and Waters (now the Division of State Parks and Reservoirs) created Brown County State Park at slightly less than 15,000 acres.

2009 is the time to celebrate the 80th birthday of our state park. But the “gift” is to us who continue to value its beauty and recreational uses. We can thank those people who were behind the Indiana land’s preservation.