A cacophony of bird chirps accompanied the soft crunch of hikers’ sneakers treading on the gravel of Trail 1 at Turkey Run State Park.
Patches of sunlight peeked through the canopy of tall Hoosier hardwoods, like spotlights on an otherwise shady stage of nature.
It wasn’t heat from the early June sunshine that caused beads of sweat on Angela Tracer’s cheeks. She and friend Norma Humphrey had just ascended a series of concrete steps leading from the park’s suspension bridge over Sugar Creek up to a bluff along Trail 1. They came to Turkey Run — Tracer from Lafayette, and Humphrey from Carmel — for a dose of scenic outdoors exercise. It worked. The climb got Tracer’s heart rate up.
“Coming up those 70 steps, yeah, it did,” Tracer said, grinning.
Turkey Run’s 2,382 square miles include sandstone cliffs and canyons; trees dating back to the 1600s; rippling streams and waterfalls; a gamut of wildlife species roaming its air, ground and water; camping; fishing; lodging; horseback riding; swimming; picnicking; 19th-century structures and covered bridges; and stately sculptures. Some of the park’s 11 trails also were walked long ago by the area’s original inhabitants — the Piankeshaw tribe, part of the Miami Nation of Native Americans.
The 103-year-old park joined the National Register of Historic Places in April — a lofty honor to which its longtime fans would say, “Well, duh.”
A total of 828,145 people visited Turkey Run last year, up from 676,502 a decade earlier, according to Department of Natural Resources statistics. Fellow Hoosier state parks Indiana Dunes and Brown County drew more visitors in the 2017-18 season, but Turkey Run got the top state park ranking in the 2018 Best of Indiana People’s Choice poll by the Office of Tourism Development released in November.
“Turkey Run has become a destination place,” said Aaron Douglass, the interpretive naturalist at Turkey Run and its nearby sister state park, Shades. “It’s not necessarily a place to go just for a day. They come for a whole weekend.”
Even on a Tuesday morning, steady streams of visitors hit the trails, browsed the Nature Center exhibits, wandered through the 1848-era Lieber Cabin and ambled across the 202-foot-long suspension bridge. A mom, dad, three kids and a grandmother gawked at a massive turkey vulture, perched on an elm branch on a rocky cliff above Sugar Creek. Rafters drifted in the stream below. A retired couple held hands and walking sticks as they walked a rocky path.
“This is just beautiful,” Humphrey said, as she and Tracer briefly paused their hike. “It’s just so neat to see people out enjoying nature.”
That’s precisely what the park’s originators envisioned in 1915. That year, John Lusk — the eccentric yet nature-loving owner of 1,000 acres of land in the northeast corner of Parke County — died and left no will. Juliet Strauss, a Rockville-raised columnist for the Indianapolis News, launched a campaign to preserve the land and its majestic hardwood forest, according to a Turkey Run historical account published by the DNR in 2016.
Spared by public campaign
Strauss enlisted the help of influential conservationist “Colonel” Richard Lieber, a title he wore as military secretary to Indiana Gov. Samuel Ralston. As a child, Strauss explored the gorges, trees and waterfalls of the area that became known as “Turkey Run,” most likely because the wild birds congregated in winter in the warmer canyon bottoms, where hunters would find and run the turkeys out, and shoot them. Strauss persuaded Lieber, who also grew to love the area, to support its preservation and protect its trees — some 200 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter — from logging companies.
Lieber went further, telling Ralston about his plan to create a state parks system modeled after the national parks system. It would help commemorate Indiana’s centennial the following year, 1916. Ralston appointed both Lieber and Strauss to his Turkey Run Commission, aiming to make Turkey Run the first state park.
Everything seemed set when the public auction day arrived in May 1916. But an earlier “gentleman’s agreement” by timber firms not to purchase the grounds went out the window when Hoosier Veneer — a logging business — outbid the state’s $30,100 offer by $100, according to the DNR historical account. Citizens, gathered for what they thought would be a celebratory moment, left enraged.
“This space was supposed to be this beautiful state park, and this logging company swooped in and took it. Lots of angry Hoosiers,” Douglass said as he walked from the park’s bronze sculpture honoring Strauss (the state’s first such tribute to a woman) to a bronze and stone monument honoring Lieber.
After months of negotiations, the state bought the property from Hoosier Veneer for $40,200, with the extra money covering the company’s forgone timber profits. The delay led to McCormick’s Creek in Owen County becoming Indiana’s first state park, followed by Turkey Run in December 1916. Strauss died two years later. Lieber died in 1944, and his ashes and those of his wife are scattered among a hemlock grove behind his statue on Trail 11.
“I’m just thankful things worked out the way it did,” Douglass said.
Given the park’s legion of return visitors, the public is thankful, too.
‘A really unique spot’
Linda Nowling and Doretta “Dee” Cash are among those returnees. Both visited the park as kids. Nowling graduated from Turkey Run High School, and her class conducted its junior prom at the park’s inn. “It was neat, we had the dinner at the dining hall, and the dance downstairs in the convention room,” Nowling recalled, while strolling through the park earlier this month. Now 62, Nowling also recalled Sunday family dinners years ago with her parents at the inn’s Narrows Restaurant.
Nowling returned to that restaurant for lunch this month with Cash and their friend, Mary K. Meyer, a newcomer to the park. Later, they walked a trail. “And now we’re headed to Sunset Point,” Nowling said.
That spot overlooks Sugar Creek, with the western horizon as a backdrop, ideal for sunset watchers. Stone steps, a wall and seating — one of many Turkey Run amenities built by the President Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934 and ‘35 — make Sunset Point more accessible. A photograph of the location graced the DNR’s state parks annual passes last year.
“This is a really unique spot,” said Douglass, the park’s naturalist.
The CCC’s contributions to Turkey Run’s infrastructure exemplify the man-made touches to a natural wonder. Native American trails weave around rock formations, cliffs and brooks. The Lieber Cabin, built in 1848 and moved to the park 70 years later, features breathtakingly huge tulip poplar timbers, 36 inches wide. Just four of those beams comprise an entire wall.
“You can’t find [lumber] that large anymore,” Douglass said.
When the cabin’s “cat-and-clay” style chimney needed repaired in the 1980s, park staffers had to locate an elderly Parke County woman who’s family once installed such pioneer-era chimneys. The woman coached the employees as they fixed it. “She sat in a chair and bossed a bunch of young men around,” Douglass said.
Impact beyond borders
The park’s impact stretches beyond relic structures and natural resources within its boundaries. Numerous recreation-based businesses line the roadsides of Indiana 47 and U.S. 41 leading to the park, located north of the Parke County town of Marshall. Those small businesses offer zip-line rides, cabin rentals, go-karts, antiques, photography, taxidermy, canoe rentals, campgrounds, boats, gasoline and diners. There’s even a Sugar Creek Distillery.
Janean DePlanty has owned and operated Gobbler’s Knob Country Store for the past 30 years on a bend of U.S. 41. The wooden structure used to overlook Sugar Creek inside the state park, until the state parks department canceled original owner William Guthrie’s lease in 1943, DePlanty explained. The state told Guthrie he could leave the building, but offered him no compensation.
So, Guthrie had it sawed in half, and the two pieces were rolled on logs down Highway 47 to its current spot on U.S. 41. Alas, its relocation means the 1927-era building won’t qualify for National Register status, DePlanty said. “But it has a great history,” she added. After its move, it became a gas station, restaurant and country store.
Today, Gobbler’s Knob sells ice cream, sodas, candies, crafts and memorabilia. DePlanty added bed-and-breakfast style rental cabins a few years ago. “People traveling want choices,” said DePlanty, who “lives and breathes this place.”
The state park’s nearby presence, and its constant influx of visitors, keeps Gobbler’s Knob viable on its quiet corner of Parke County’s countryside. “Oh, it’s the only reason it’s here,” DePlanty said.
Back inside the park’s colorful confines, the idyllic setting isn’t without problems. As Douglass guided a journalist through park landmarks such as the Lieber Cabin, the Lusk Home (built by John’s father, Capt. Salmon Lusk, in 1829), the sculptures and an 1871-era Log Church (still used for Sunday services), fellow Turkey Run employee Shannon Flannigan inspected the woods for invasive plants.
The predicament is large enough to be Flannigan’s full-time job.
“Sometimes it feels like the problem’s too large,” she said. “It’s very pervasive our natural system.”
A short walk down Trail 6 revealed beech trees with hundreds of initials carved into their smooth bark, another human-driven concern. “This path has been here for 100 years,” Douglass said, “and if everyone left their mark, there wouldn’t be much nature left to see.” The park urges visitors to enjoy their stay, but to leave no traces.
After all, as Col. Lieber concluded after his first visit to Turkey Run in 1916, “this is a beauty spot.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected].
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