A few months ago I was in Noble County in northeastern Indiana, wearing one of my other hats, giving a presentation at a remote state park, one that came into the system after the New Deal. Fully half of Indiana’s state parks and all but two of its state forests were developed or improved by New Deal agencies. I spent the night in Ligonier, a small struggling city with a rich historical heritage.
Ligonier is on what was once an old military road, an Indian trail before that, which became part of the original Lincoln Highway route in 1913. Adventurous early automobile travelers took to the road with camping gear, and any number of towns or private entrepreneurs set up tourist camps featuring set-up sites, running water, outhouses at the least and sometimes real toilet facilities and showers, and a degree of safety. Often there was a small store where a traveler could purchase supplies. Such a tourist camp soon opened west of Ligonier, at that time a thriving manufacturing community.
But in 1928 the Lincoln Highway across Indiana was rerouted into virtually a straight east-west line that soon became US30. If one wished to travel across the country on the Lincoln Highway, the idea of saving miles and skipping populous areas to the north such as South Bend must have been appealing. Not only that, State Road 2, that part of Lincoln Highway from Fort Wayne to South Bend (designated US33 in 1938), ultimately passed around Ligonier, and the tourist camp was left high and dry.
Since I research the Lincoln Highway and other early twentieth century roads, naturally I headed out on the old road to explore and to my delight discovered a New Deal treasure. WPA Project 54-52-309 created a city park on the property in 1935. The gateposts do not quite match those of the tourist camp, so they may have been newly built by the WPA, or they may have been altered or moved and rebuilt. The following year another WPA grant funded the construction of a stone shelterhouse in what became Woodlawn Park, completed in 1937. Inside the shelter is an awkwardly lettered plaque, perhaps a repair or replacement of the original. Other WPA features in the park include a large fieldstone flower bed that likely was a fountain originally and another, larger circular fieldstone enclosure that may have been a shallow pool with concrete steps leading toward it. Surrounding it are three mysterious stone platforms. None of these resources is especially well maintained. No doubt some of the playing fields on the property originated with the WPA, but more have been added, along with a large open picnic shelter and some utilitarian buildings.
Parks and recreational facilities were seen as especially suitable for WPA projects; an administrator in the 1930s pointed out that they “are flexible and can offer employment where there is greatest need; most of their expenditures go directly to local unemployed labor; they do not compete with private enterprise, and. . . they make permanent contributions to better living conditions and increased opportunities for more abundant living.” Not only that, they were highly visible and could readily make use of native or discarded material, such as the abundant fieldstone, a remnant of the glaciers withdrawal from northern Indiana, used here, no doubt once the pride of Ligonier.