Indiana’s First State Park: A New Deal Delight

About 50 miles south of the hurly-burly of Indianapolis is beautiful McCormick’s Creek State Park, Indiana’s first, established to commemorate the state’s centennial in 1916. A spartan inn was created out of a former sanitarium located on the scenic property, but little development took place beyond the vicinity of the inn. Nevertheless, people flocked to the park then as they do now to see this wonderland of limestone canyons and ravines.

Former concessions shelter (1935).

When the New Deal came along, its programs shaped much of the park we know today. CCC Company 589 established Camp SP-4 from November 1933 until July 1935, which enabled McCormick’s Creek to undertake a much-needed development program. Along with some reforestation, landscaping, and additional road and trail building, the CCC boys worked on the construction of outdoor recreational buildings and the supporting infrastructure. 

Among my personal favorites are the elaborate stone water fountains distributed throughout the park (originally about a dozen). Dubbed “noodle-knockers” because tall people tended to bump into the corners, their design was soon discontinued. There is even a file labeled with that name in the CCC records at the National Archives!

“Noodle-knocker” drinking fountain.

Stone arch bridge over McCormick’s Creek.

Perhaps the most impressive structure is an unusually fine stone arch bridge across McCormick’s Creek above the falls. It is listed individually in the National Register of Historic Places. The bridge is entirely of stone, not just faced with it, and is the only one like it the state park system. A quarry in nearby Ellettsville donated the material. The bridge made the area known as Beech Grove (once a picnic grove, now a campground) accessible to park visitors by way of a scenic road that essentially paralleled the creek. The CCC boys built a lovely shelter house there. 

Beech Grove shelter house, built 1934-35.

After the CCC camp was abandoned in 1935, the WPA came along to help with the development of McCormick Creek Park.  WPA workers cleared the area of the former CCC camp, leaving only the recreation hall.  In response to public demand, the WPA remodeled the building for use as a nature museum–the first in any Indiana state park.  

Former CCC camp recreation hall, later a nature museum.

The museum opened in 1936, housing displays, photographs, and live animals and fish, and serving as a center for lectures on various aspects of the natural world and as a takeoff point for nature hikes. The building is a rare example of a surviving CCC camp structure in situ and an early example of adaptive reuse. It, too, is listed in the National Register. It has been largely restored to its original appearance as a recreation hall and serves today as a CCC museum and space for programs.

WPA-built amphitheater with one of the CCC-built group camps in background.

WPA workers went on to construct an amphitheater adjacent to two of the group camps and not far from the hotel. The group camps are not as active as they once were, but are still used. I was astonished hiking in the park one afternoon to hear a high school band performing in the amphitheater!

Redbud Shelter, constructed 1940.

In 1940 another group of CCC workers, who trucked over daily from Brown County State Park 35 miles away, undertook a new round of development that included the Redbud Shelter.  World War II intervened before all the intended construction could be completed.  After the war, the previously planned group of family housekeeping cabins were among the first projects park employees tackled, using the CCC blueprints.  

Like many of Indiana’s state parks in the last two decades, McCormick’s Creek now embraces its New Deal history, and rightly so! The park boasts several other New Deal-built structures, including two group camps, an attractive gatehouse, more shelters, and a fire tower, which was restored just a few years ago. These contribute as much to the attractiveness of McCormick’s Creek as the forests and canyons themselves.

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