Looking At History:
Indiana's Hoosier National Forest Region, 1600 to 1950


Twentieth Century Changes, 1915-1950

The first half of the twentieth century in our region was a time when the pace of change increased. As in all parts of the nation, the effects of two world wars and a major economic depression were felt. Local participation in World War I and II, and the effect of nationally planned relief efforts during the Great Depression, helped to bring new ideas and attitudes into the region. Modernization in public communication, utility services, and transportation also brought national cultural trends into the area, as well as dramatically changing the everyday lives of residents.

Figure 81: Over-grazed pasture land in Brown County, 1940s.

Economic Conditions

One of the most significant trends for our region at the beginning of this period was an overall economic decline, both in comparison to other areas in the state and in absolute terms. Small-scale farming techniques suited to our steep terrain were increasingly overshadowed by the large-scale agricultural production being accomplished elsewhere on flat lands. For residents of our area, the transition to mechanized farming is an easily remembered process, one which took place in the 1940s and 1950s. One Monroe County farmer recalled the changes to a folklore student, who reported:

In 1940 [he] bought his first tractor, a John Deere, 'the first new one that went out down in that county.' Before that he had worked with four head of horses. He kept one team of horses after he had gotten the tractor, using them for hauling and planting his corn, until 'I got me a four row planter, and that was too much for the team.' Then he used the pair of mares for shucking. [109]

With poor soils hindering agricultural success, many farmers relied on hunting and trapping in making a living. Both meat and hides could provide a "cash crop," as is told in a recollection of the early 1900s.

. . . limits were non-existent and sale of game was legal. In one season, grandpa killed over 1,500 rabbits; largest single day's haul was 68 rabbits, 4 quail, and 1 woodcock.... Fur-bearing animals were also plentiful. Grandpa kept hunting dogs for fox hunting by day or other fur-bearers at night. Raccoons, 'possums, skunks, mink, muskrats, weasels, foxes were taken by hunting or trapping. He had over 300 steel traps. He frequently hunted all night. He would designate a landmark several miles from home and tell [his sons] to meet him there at sunrise with the horses. He skinned animals while hunting to lessen weight in hunting coat or gunny sack. [110]

Figure 82: 1935 map showing percent of sheet erosion and guilying by county, based on a study of information collected by the Soil Conservation Service--U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Hoosier National Forest region closely follows the most eroded lands. That study also noted that the greatest overall erosion was in Crawford County (99.4%), Orange County (95%), and Brown County (92%).

By the 1920s and 1930s the economic disadvantage of the terrain was made far more devastating by the effects of massive land erosion in the hilly regions. In fact, various upland ridges in southern Indiana had earned a special designation, being called:

'ten-year' land ... . [D]uring ten years of tillage by the customary methods so much of the soil washes away that further tillage is unprofitable. [111]

Many landowners could not pay taxes and others were forced to abandon their holdings because of the condition of the land. This environmental devastation, together with the economic problems associated with the Great Depression of the 1930s, meant that our region was in a dire economic situation by the mid-1930s.

One result of these conditions was the formation of a national forest in south central Indiana. Federal funding to purchase lands for national forests was initially authorized by the U.S. Congress through the Week's Act of 1911. The Clarke-McNary Act of 1924 established cooperative agreements between the federal government and states. In 1931, a survey of game animals and environmental conditions by Adolph Leopold was especially significant in highlighting land abandonment and soil depletion. The Indiana General Assembly officially determined in 1935 that Indiana's national forest would be located in the southern uplands of the state. The original name proposed for our Forest was the Benjamin Harrison National Forest, but ultimately the name "Hoosier National Forest" was selected. By 1951, when enough land had been acquired, the Forest was officially designated. [112]

The lands for the Hoosier National Forest were purchased by the Forest Service from willing landowners, who were often anxious to divest themselves of their eroded acreage no longer productive for agriculture. A contemporary newspaper account reported that by August of 1935, the Forest Service had over 2,000 offers to sell from area landowners--totaling over 200,000 acres! [113] This amount is higher than the acreage owned by the Hoosier National Forest in 1990. From this perspective, it becomes obvious why the Hoosier National Forest holdings correlate with the two rugged landforms, the Crawford and Norman Uplands; it was in these hilly areas that farm lands had suffered the most soil erosion.

Figure 83: Civilian Conservation Corps crew planting shortleaf pine in an abandoned field in 1940.

Figure 84: View of a young red pine plantation in 1940, three years after it was planted by CCC workers.

Figure 85: Planted pines after a quarter-century of growth, Hoosier National Forest, Monroe County.

During the 1930s the state of Indiana acquired other depleted lands for state forests, most of which are in or near our region. Like the land acquisitions for the Hoosier National Forest, studies of erosion and economic conditions guided the acquisition of property, keeping the focus on the southern hill country. A portion of one state area, near today's Martin State Forest, was transferred to the U.S. Government for the Crane Naval Weapons Depot, when weapons manufacture became a national concern. One significant difference between state and federal land acquisition programs involved the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal program for economic recovery that was used by the state to help marginal farmers become established on more suitable lands.

The presence of the Forest fulfilled many purposes for our region. By acquiring vast amounts of poorly maintained farm land and bringing this land under one management scheme, the Forest Service was able to reclaim a badly deteriorated natural resource--the land itself--and restore it to a more stable condition. The replanting of thousand of acres of former farm land in pine trees, and later in hardwoods, helped check the problem of erosion. By 1936, the Indiana furniture industry had become nearly dependent on lumber from out-of-state, while 40 years earlier the state had been the leading timber producer in the nation. Reforestation and other Forest Service strategies helped to revive timber production in the region. [114]

Figure 86: Soil erosion on ridge slope along German Ridge Road in Perry County, 1941.

Figure 87: Entrance to the CCC camp at Kurtz, in Jackson County, 1941.

One area forester who began his association with the Hoosier National Forest in its earliest days remembered what the land was like in the 1930s. He recalled that erosion had left gullies everywhere, and remarked that the only topsoil left in southern Indiana was "in the Ohio River." Only a few pockets of privately owned original forest remained in southern Indiana by the middle of the 20th century. [115] Today, the two best known tracts of uncut original forest are located on public lands: the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest, in the Hoosier National Forest near Paoli, and Donaldson's Woods in Spring Mill State Park near Mitchell.

Figure 88: Workers from the Tell City CCC camp fighting a ground fire.

Figure 89: The Hickory Ridge Firetower was built by CCC workers in 1936. The tower featured a telephone line to the nearby community of Kurtz--the first phone line in the area The tower was used to watch for forest fires from 1937 to the 1970s. Visitors can now climb the tower to view the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area and nearby Lake Monroe. The tower is listed on the National Historic Lookout Tower Register.

Another way in which the Federal government became involved in the economic recovery of our region was through the formation of several Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps. This program, initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt as one aspect of national recovery, provided paid employment for out-of-work men during the Great Depression. The U.S. Army operated these camps, and held night classes for CCC workers to learn trades, but it was the U.S. Forest Service (as well as the Indiana Department of Conservation and state parks) that arranged the jobs to be done. Most of the money these men earned was sent home to their families, many of them in cities outside the region. But, the region benefited directly from the work they did, and the pocket change they were allowed to keep for themselves provided a welcome boost to local merchants.

The CCC men did the work of replanting barren acreage in the new national forest and state forests, as well as executing many other tasks, such as fighting fires and completing many construction projects. The Hickory Ridge Fire Tower, still standing, was one of their projects. The CCC workers also put in some of the first telephone lines and built many miles of roads in the region. CCC workers not only took on public building projects but also built new homes for local residents who lived in deteriorated houses, using salvaged material. The CCC and the Forest Service as well stepped in to provide emergency aid when necessary. After the famous 1937 flood, which devastated riverside areas of the country from Pennsylvania to New Orleans, workers from the CCC camp in Tell City, on the Ohio River, offered rescue and relief assistance, and the Forest Service provided funds to help with flood recovery in the area. Another local project which the CCC men worked on was the reconstruction of the pioneer era buildings at Spring Mill State Park. [116]

Figure 90: CCC workers helped to provide area residents with adequate housing. Top: a woman and her child in front of their old house, replaced by a newly built structure. Bottom: a new family home, built by CCC men.

Figure 91: The 1937 flood along the Ohio River affected all low-lying towns, such as Leavenworth, where boats had to be used to salvage goods and furnishings. Leavenworth was rebuilt on higher land after this flood.

How was the Great Depression experienced from the point of view of local residents? The accounts we have from the period are reminiscent of stories of the earliest pioneer days in our region: people lived without much in the way of cash resources, and relied on their abilities to make a significant portion of their living directly from their land. One woman from our area recalled acquiring outside supplies by barter, rather than purchase:

We had chickens and I took eggs to town, and that was what I got my groceries with. I remember one time I took nine dozen to town, and it didn't buy a sack full. [117]

Another area woman remembered a more far-reaching consequence of the Depression:

When I got out of [high] school there wasn't any money to go to school further, and there wasn't any jobs for girls or women, because there were so many men out of work, and they had to be served first. [118]

Despite these hardships and privations, some recalled that the Depression helped to make them resourceful with what they did have, and emphasized that their family relationships helped them to survive the experience. [119]

Figure 92: Official Navy Photograph, assembly of rockets during World War II at Crane Naval Weapons Depot.

The Depression was followed by World War II, and our nation's entry into international conflict. In our region, World War II had a marked economic effect in the creation of the Crane Depot in northern Martin County. The idea for this ammunitions base was developed in 1940, before the U.S. entered the war, to supply the Atlantic Fleet. More than half of the land required for the project had already been purchased by the state through the federal recovery program. The area was rural, yet near major roads and railroads, and thus was a favorable location for storing and supplying military ordnance. The Crane facility hired local workers for its construction and operation during the war years, employing over 10,000 civilian workers and 2,000 military personnel in 1945, and continues to be a major employer in our region. [120]

The Hoosier National Forest and private landowners were also involved in the war effort, providing needed raw materials. A period newspaper report listed several types of timber supplied by the Forest for war production: hickory, used in building truck beds; walnut, for gun stocks; beech, for food containers; and ash, used in making hammer handles and for construction lumber. [121]

Figure 93: Grand resort hotels in French Lick and West Baden were popular in the early 1900s and drew visitors from throughout the country, who came for recreation and gambling, as well as for the mineral water. The domed rotunda of the West Baden Springs Hotel was also used for conventions.

The resort industry provided employment for African Americans, bringing a significant number of people particularly from the southern states. Blacks owned one hotel in West Baden (and were prohibited by State law to stay as guests at the other area resorts); other signs of a thriving black community include churches and at least one school in the French Lick/West Baden area.

Social Patterns, Issues, and Institutions

The social fabric of the region changed during the first half of the twentieth century with the intensification of the rural-to-urban migration begun in the late 1800s. Growing factories in the towns of our region, along with the development of resort hotels in Orange County, brought changes in society as well as the economy. Still, the importance of the extended family continued and was celebrated, as is evident in the wide spread practice of holding family reunions. Similarly, "homecomings" at towns and churches were events that reinforced traditional social ties.

Another factor in the social scene was the effect of two world wars. Both wars removed a large portion of the male population from the region, at least temporarily. This meant that women could--or had to--enter areas of the work force previously held by men, but it also changed the dynamics of local social experience. The effect of World War II is remembered by two area women:

All the boys were getting drafted. We would go to dances, church, and all the boys in a certain age group were gone. It was an odd feeling to see more girls than boys. [122]

The summer I was fifteen, there were no boys around. It was the patriotic duty to write to the boys in service. My neighbor had a brother and she asked me to write him. We started corresponding. Two years, and many letters, later, we were married. . . [123]

Figure 94: A 1919 photo taken in the Perry County town of Troy, showing John Phillip Sousa's military band parading for a Liberty Bond drive during World War I. A "baby tank" was also part of the parade. The band was additionally hosted in Teil City and Cannelton.

Of course, having neighbors or family members in the service had a more ominous effect for many who were left behind. One woman, whose four sons were in the army or navy, had this recollection of her experience:

You know, I was always whistling and singing, but when the boys were in service, I never sang. Three years I never sang.

You never knew whether they would ever come home or not. You just didn't know what kind of word you'd get the next day. A person don't have no idea how hard it was.

But, thank God, my boys all come home. [124]

The world wars affected social patterns in other ways. The German American residents of the area may have suffered the effects of ethnic prejudice during the period of World War I, as has been documented in other communities in the state and nation. To quote one scholar:

In effect, there was a war against German language and culture for a short time, as individual citizens of German origin were harassed and persecuted. [125]

Nationally, this persecution included such acts as vandalism and restricting German language instruction in schools. Many churches during this period switched from German to English in their services. Even material culture can reflect such social relations. We wonder whether rural German cemeteries in our area show a change from German to English wording on tombstones before and after World War I, as has been noted elsewhere. [126]

Also during this era, the Ku Klux Klan was a strong political and social force in Indiana. The Klan, which originated in the South just after the Civil War, found new popularity and political influence in the early part of this century. The group based its influence on widespread distrust and anxiety toward elements which were perceived as outside the "mainstream" of American life; those persecuted by the KKK included people of the Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths, and foreigners, as well as African Americans. In Indiana, the KKK also took advantage of considerable public concern about political corruption.

Figure 95: Monroe County Ku Klux Klan members, photographed in their white robes and hoods.

The Klan was active in our south central region, though not to the extent that it was in some parts of the state. Klan membership in the Hoosier National Forest counties ranged from over 1,500 men in Monroe County, to just over a hundred men in Perry County. Expressed in percentages, we find that Klan members in Monroe County accounted for about 25 of every 100 native-born white men whose parents were also native-born; in Perry County, the figure was fewer than four in a hundred. For the state as a whole, Klan membership "was many times larger, for instance, than any of the veteran's organizations ... and even larger than the Methodist church, the state's leading Protestant denomination." [127]

At the state level, the Klan became deeply involved in Indiana politics and government, and examination of published Klan records shows that this also occurred to an extent in our region. These records not only list membership figures and Klan officers, they also note which county officials were in sympathy with the Klan. For Brown County, for instance, the Klan document records that the "Judge, Prosecutor, Sheriff and Recorder are O.K.; all other officers in sympathy." Other area counties showed a more mixed slate; surprisingly, in light of its high Klan membership, Monroe County was not listed as having any active Klansmen among its chief officials. One of the main authors of Klan-inspired legislation in the Indiana legislature was based in Bloomington, however. [128]

It is difficult to understand the popularity of the Klan in the 1920s from the point of view of today's more open society. A partial explanation is that the organization appealed to a deep sense of morality found in Indiana's residents. We have noted the strong influence churches had in the state throughout the 1800s and into this century; the Klan tapped into the wellspring of public morality so basic to the people by associating itself with Protestant churches and ministers. As one scholar of the Klan puts it, the Klan professed to be in favor of the same things that churches stood for: "cleaning up morals and virtues ... a general return to God and piety." [129]

It has been suggested that the Klan purposely cultivated a public image of morality and sobriety, but meanwhile carried out a "secret" agenda of racism and anti-Catholicism. Some people may have joined because of this public image, only to have learned of the other, more virulent elements later. [130]

Klan membership also must be viewed in terms of the social patterns of the period. Joining exclusive, fraternal societies was both common and accepted, even expected; many such organizations, as we have already mentioned, developed in the later part of the 1800s. Some of these groups, such as the Masons, also had secret components. In other words, not all Klan members of this period joined because they were strongly anti-black, anti-Catholic, or anti-Jewish, though clearly those elements were vital to the inner circle of Klansmen.

Support for the Klan was not universal, by any means. Some southern Indiana residents who were children at the time recall their parents' disapproval of the KKK, though they also admit to an interest in the pageantry and mystery embodied in the Klan and its operations. [131]

Figure 96: Still near Weed Patch, Brown County.

Figure 97: "It was a long time before manufacturers put rubber tires on tractors, but good roads demanded the change and by the mid-1930s everyone wanted tires, almost. The FREE in this ad meant a demonstration, in 1934."

A major issue both nationally and in our state and region was Prohibition. Part of the appeal of the Klan in Indiana was its alliance with the anti-liquor movement. The movement had strong support as part of the general issue of moral reform, based on belief in the destructive and disruptive affects of alcohol consumption on the populace. Clearly, though, the ban on alcohol was not universally popular. Illegal liquor production, sale, and consumption were rampant. For instance, it is said that the Germans of Dubois County were famous for their "moonshine," known as "Dubois County Dew." One area resident recalls that during Prohibition her father, who lived in Indianapolis, would travel down to our region, where he kept a still hidden in one of Monroe County's many caves. The constitutional amendment which started the federal prohibition period in 1920 was repealed in 1933, partly because of the view that the strength of the illegal liquor trade undermined both public morality and the country's legal system. [132]

One institution which consciously promoted advancement in our region was the agricultural extension service, established in 1911 by the state experimental farming program at Purdue University. The service brought information and advice on improving farming to Indiana's farmers through various programs, including the supervision of county agricultural extension agents. Though paid by the individual counties, these agents had for the most part received their educations at Purdue, and were able to bring scientific farming practices to area farmers. In some counties, the agents concerned themselves with the general quality of rural life, in addition to agricultural methods. Agents also supervised children's 4-H clubs, promoting and teaching scientific agriculture to the next generation of farmers. [133]

The women's version of these organizations was the Indiana Extension Homemakers Association. This informational organization, begun in 1913, seems to have both affected and reflected social change, especially in small towns and rural areas. The association had clubs in every county in the state. Typically, local women would meet weekly, at a member's house, or at a public building, and would be given presentations by a homemakers extension agent or by local members who had attended workshops at the association headquarters at Purdue. While receiving lessons about food preparation and hygiene, members were also given the chance to socialize with each other. Years later, many "Club" members spoke fondly of the ties they formed with other neighborhood homemakers. The extension clubs also introduced--and promoted--modernization in rural areas, in particular encouraging the success of rural electricity programs by demonstrating the usefulness of electric appliances in the home. Extension clubs also provided a different kind of role model for local women; the extension leader was often an energetic and independent woman, who was admired by club members. [134]

Figure 98: The one-room school house was still a fixture in our region well into the 20th century. This photo was taken in 1924 at Young's Creek school in Orange County.

Just as Purdue University promoted modern farming and home crafts, Indiana University and other state universities were also involved in transforming society, particularly in the area of public education. Their faculty trained professionals in many fields and advised local governments and organizations on a host of social and economic matters.

Figure 99: Even one-room schools went beyond instruction in "reading, writing, and 'rithmatic." This photo at Young's Creek school shows the school orchestra; the wooden building in the background is a chemistry laboratory where experiments were undertaken.

Communication and Transportation

The trend toward improved communication seen earlier in population centers finally reached the rural areas in the mid-1900s. First radio was introduced, as federally-assisted rural electric companies were established in the 1940s. Then, small telephone companies came to the hill country of south central Indiana, some as late as the 1950s. More recently, television arrived. These mass communications media expanded the viewpoints of the region's residents. They connected the region more closely with national- and state-level concerns, but also helped to weaken reliance on immediate neighbors and other local sources of news and entertainment.

We can best illustrate the changes that occurred in our region during the first half of the 20th century by quoting from the recollections of a lifelong resident, one whose ancestors were among the pioneer settlers of Monroe County.

When winter winds howled we stuffed old socks in the cracks around doors and rattling windows. We warmed our beds with well wrapped hot flatirons and bricks. In the morning, with frosty breaths, we scampered down the stairs to hover around the wood-burning stoves.

My mother made apple butter outside in the big kettle and stirred it with the long-handled wooden paddle that her aunts had used. She wove rugs and carpets on the ceiling-high, hand-carved loom.... Clothes were usually remade once or twice by our capable mother before she consigned them to the carpet rag box.

To take care of the farm work and provide for their eight children . . . our parents put in grueling hours of work. Our food supply throughout my childhood was almost entirely home-grown and processed.... I did not appreciate then how well we were fed and yearned for more of the things I saw in the grocery stores. How excited I was when my father brought home our first box of "Post's Toasties" (corn flakes)!

My father butchered our own beef or pork. Mother cooked and canned the meat. Lard was squeezed from the "cracklings" in the heavy lard press. Sugar-cured hams were strung in the near-by smokehouse. I would not dare estimate how many chickens or turkeys our mother "dressed" so expertly for our own use or for selling....

Rural electrification did not come to that area until the 1940's. Only afterwards did our parents get to enjoy such conveniences as "getting water out of a wall." Before then, even radios were not common in that rural area.... Before REA [electricity] even the wash water for our big family was carried or hauled from the spring downhill. Mother always had some sort of a washing machine, albeit hand-powered, but it was a great day when we got a Maytag with a gasoline engine! Each improvement, however primitive in retrospect, was experienced with downright excitement and pride. [135]

Figure 100: West Main Street, Nashville, Brown County, 1927. Towns were often the leaders in acquiring the new technologies which entered our region during the years 1915-1951, bringing changes in communication. transportation, and entertainment, and altering the social arid economic life of the area. Note the automobiles and the telephone and electric wires. A movie theater and the first art gallery stood to the right.

This account of growing up among the hills of south central Indiana brings our narrative to its end. We have tried to weave together a portrait of past times, by telling about the people of our region, and how they lived, worked, played, and worshipped. When we could, we used the words of area residents, to help bring the past closer. We have also highlighted the material culture of the past, in order to demonstrate the role that houses, archaeological sites, and objects can play in understanding the past.

Figure 101: The new technologies that entered our region in the 20th century did not always alter the old patterns of work. In this photo, taken around 1930, an elderly resident of Monroe County who immigrated from Ireland in 1857 tends his garden.

For those of you who are interested in learning more about our region's history, and contributing to the discovery and interpretation of our past, the remaining sections of this book may help guide you in that process.

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Last Updated: 21-Nov-2008
Forest History SocietyElectronic edition courtesy of the
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