Did you notice the advertising earlier this year about the Indianapolis 500 marking its 100th anniversary? I sure did - in print, on TV and other places. Few Hoosiers didn’t know the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was celebrating a milestone birthday.
Far fewer Indiana residents know there’s another 100th birthday being celebrated this year, but they should. The Indiana State Parks system is celebrating its centennial in 2016.
Did you know there’s a connection between the two? In 1916, Col. Richard Lieber led a committee tasked with pursuing the creation of a series of state parks as a gift to Indiana citizens to commemorate 100 years of statehood. A variety of locations were being considered. One of the most impressive is the area now occupied by Turkey Run State Park. The land was up for sale and Leiber and his committee were at the auction with money in hand. They lost the bid to the Hoosier Veneer Company who wanted the property because of the massive, old growth forests along Sugar Creek.
Turkey Run, once destined to become Indiana’s first state park seemed lost. In the meantime, land in Owen County was acquired and the property now named McCormick's Creek became Indiana’s first state park.
Lieber’s team proved relentless and further negotiations with the Hoosier Veneer Company ended up with an agreement to sell the Turkey Run property to the state, but at a substantial profit. Again, the amount of money needed to purchase the land fell short.
This was when the history of the Indiana State Parks and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway overlapped. Lieber contacted the owners of the speedway, James Allison, Carl Fisher, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler to see if they could lend their support, financially or otherwise. The committee invited Fisher to tour the Turkey Run site in October 1916. Impressed with what he saw, Fisher donated $5,000 of his own money to the cause and that amount was matched by owner Newby. To top it off, the two owners convinced the Speedway board of directors to pledge a portion of gate receipts from the Memorial Day weekend race to the fledgling park system.
That added more than $5000 more to the fund putting the committee “over the top” and able to complete the purchase from the Hoosier Veneer Company. Turkey Run became Indiana’s second state park.
That was not the end of Newby's generosity towards Indiana State Parks. When he died in 1933, Newby obituary described him as "a pioneer in the bicycle and automobile world and later known as a quiet philanthropist."
He gave $100,000 to Riley Children's Hospital and $50,000 each to Butler University and Earlham College, but The Star noted "one of his best known philanthropies" was the purchase of a 233-acre forested tract adjacent to Turkey Run as an addition. Newby turned the land over to the state at a time when the conservation department was without funds.
Although Newby, the other original Speedway owners, and Lieber are long gone, their efforts endure in two great Indiana institutions – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indiana State Parks system.
The Indiana Division of State Parks manages 32 properties today – 24 state parks and 8 reservoir sites. The most recent addition, Prophetstown near Lafayette, fulfilled a Lieber goal of having a state park within an hour's drive of every Indiana resident.
Indiana State Parks have averaged just shy of 16.2 million visitors over the past five years. Brookville Lake, Brown County State Park, and Indiana Dunes State Park consistently rank as the top three most-visited properties at more than 1.1 million visitors each.
Together, the 32 properties offer 8,400 campsites, 700 miles of trails, 160 playgrounds, 631 hotel or lodge rooms and 149 cabins, 16 swimming pools, 15 beaches, and 75 marinas. "Indiana's State Parks provide wonderful opportunities for partnerships like the one we shared with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its owners in 1916," said DNR Director Cameron F. Clark.
"Many of our parks have been purchased and opened through the years with the support of local counties and individuals. Today, donors contribute to support our programs and projects, and friends groups and individuals contribute over 90,000 volunteer hours annually," Clark said.