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O’Bannon Woods, state’s 24th park, honors family of community leaders

O’Bannon Woods, state’s 24th park, honors family of community leaders
O’Bannon Woods, state’s 24th park, honors family of community leaders
Judy O'Bannon talks about preserving precious things. The state forest was important to her husband, and they lived close by.

Three years ago, when Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon of Corydon was talking to John Goss about becoming the next director of the Indiana Dept. of Natural Resources, he asked Goss if it might be possible to create two new state parks, Wyandotte Woods in the Harrison-Crawford State Forest, and Prophetstown, outside Lafayette.
Prophetstown became a state park last summer, and the Wyandotte Woods State Recreation Area became a state park yesterday, only with a new name: O’Bannon Woods State Park, in honor of the governor who died in office a year ago last fall and his family of public servants. Gov. O’Bannon was a bird watcher, a lover of the woods and wildlife who lived less than a mile away in a log cabin and restored barn.
The creation of O’Bannon Woods is unique: a 2,000-acre park that lies within a 24,000-acre state forest that lies in two counties.
Goss announced the new park yesterday in the exhibition room at the Leavenworth Lang-Cole Haypress at the Nature Center and Pioneer Village area of the forest. Former Indiana First Lady Judy O’Bannon was by his side.
Gov. Joe Kernan and his wife, Maggie, were scheduled to be here for the ceremony but their Indiana State Police helicopter was grounded by poor weather conditions in Indianapolis.
The new park seemed to be the natural culmination of events that began almost 20 years ago, when O’Bannon was a state senator. He tried then to get the property to be a state park, but the idea ‘didn’t fly,’ Goss said.
Goss said the new project, in the works for six months, had two purposes: to transfer 2,000 acres within the forest to the state park system, and create a perpetual memorial ‘to the family that’s given so much to their community and to the state, the O’Bannon family.’
Frank O’Bannon’s father, Robert P. O’Bannon, was a state senator for 18 years, and his father, Lew O’Bannon, who bought this newspaper in 1907, was active in state Democratic politics and historical groups.
In 1966, the state purchased 4,000 acres of ground from the Rothrock family for $350,000. It had been in their family since 1819. The state legislature made it a ‘first class’ State Recreation Area with an Olympic- sized swimming pool, hundreds of camping sites, picnic sites, 100 miles of hiking trails, a Horseman’s Hideaway with miles of trail, a Nature Center, and, more recently, a Pioneer Village and the historic haypress addition, inspired by Judy O’Bannon.
Jerry Pagac (rhymes with magic), the director of state parks and reservoirs, said opening two state parks in one year, with one being a park surrounded by a state forest, not private land, is unprecedented.
State officials emphasized that the O’Bannon Woods will be a recreation area, and the 24,000 acres of forest will continue to be available for hunters, loggers, hikers and horsemen, as it has in the past.
State forester Bernie Fischer said a master plan for the Woods includes:
1. A new road that will create a loop from the main office area to the Ohio River overlook and picnic area and back;
2. Extending the Horseman’s Hideaway area;
3. Bringing back the swimming pool that was closed due to settling and leaking because swimming is a high priority with campers;
4. Revamping the Stage Stop campground into a young people’s tent area for organizations like church groups and scouts;
5. Building an inn in a beautiful, isolated spot with a nice view near the main entrance area off S.R. 462. The inn should have its own access road, for people who want to stop to eat, for example, but not stay inside the park or forest. Building an inn is ‘very difficult’ and expensive, Pagac said. The last state park inn was built in 1939.
Fischer said yesterday was a happy-sad day because he has worked with the forestry people and O’Bannon family for 30 years. He didn’t want to see that come to an end but he was excited that the park was finally created. He said if the park/forest idea is successful, it could become a model for other projects.
He said the foresters can now concentrate on forest management and the recreation people can concentrate on attracting more visitors, who view the word park as more attractive than forest.
Fischer said he thinks ‘the forest will be better than ever.’
Goss thanked legislators Richard Young, Paul Robertson and Dennie Oxley for their work and support, and all the staff at the forest and SRA.
Goss said the new park appropriately recognizes the contributions of ‘the entire O’Bannon family.’ Corydon’s Lew M. O’Bannon was a member of the Indiana State Historical Commission, and was on the committee that planned the Indiana Centennial celebrations. That led directly to the development of Indiana’s first two state parks, Turkey Run and McCormick’s Creek.
Robert P. O’Bannon was interested in education, budget and finance, and public policy. He had a hand in funding Indiana’s parks and forests.
Attorney Frank O’Bannon was a naturalist who loved watching birds, hiking and stopping in the woods with his friend (Ranger Bob) Sawtelle to watch the ‘wildlife show,’ and floating lazily down Blue River in a johnboat.
Judy O’Bannon was the driving force behind the new Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, which, Goss said, is one of the finest in the United States.
Before the crowd moved from the exhibition room to the new sign at the entrance to the forest, Judy O’Bannon said ‘it’s no small deal’ to make changes in systems and make different uses of places that people have given hours of time to. And though there’s always a tension between wanting to protect precious things and wanting to show them off to others, it’s admirable, she said, that state officials have come up with a way to both protect the natural resources and make them available to the public.
She said Frank, Bob and Lew O’Bannon were very much a part of the forest, Harrison and Crawford counties, Corydon, and Indiana. ‘For their name to be on this place is pretty special,’ she said.
The first time she visited Corydon, Frank took her to the state forest to show her where RPOB had planted some pine trees in 1937.
She said her late husband loved to get out his binoculars and bird books and walk around in the woods and the rivers and just stand still, to wait for the birds and the wild animals to eventually emerge and ‘put on a show for us.’
She said to see the wildlife mature and observe the changes of the seasons gives a sense of being a part of life and the world and also eternity. ‘That’s very reaffirming,’ she said.