|A Year of Indiana History - 2016|
The forested hills of south central Indiana were never ideal farmland. They did contain some of the world's finest hardwoods. The development of the steam powered sawmill in the middle of the Nineteenth Century allowed large-scale timber cutting. Sawmill operators cleared the hills of the trees, and then sold the land to farmers. Eventually the farmers abandoned the land. The Hoosier National Forest was created to replenish this abandoned land.
A geologic feature called the Knobstone Escarpment dominates south central Indiana. The knobs include some of Indiana's most rugged terrain. It stretches from Brown County State Park in the north to the Ohio River. Elevations range from 360 feet near the mouth of the Wabash River to Weed Patch Hill, which has an elevation of 1,056 feet above sea level. This hill is in Brown County State Park and is the third highest area in Indiana. These steep hills also contained some of the world’s finest hardwoods. When the steam powered sawmills came into use, loggers set to work.
Steam Powered Sawmills
Prior to steam powered mills, sawing lumber was a labor-intensive affair. If suitable waterpower was available water powered mills could cut logs into lumber. A water powered sawmill still operates at Spring Mill State Park during the summer months. Other sawing methods included the pit saw. To cut lumber with a pit saw, the sawyers first hewed a log square with a broad axe, and then placed the hewn log over a pit. Two men then sawed planks from the hewn log using a crosscut saw. One man stood in the pit pulling the saw down while another man stood on top, pulling the saw up. The men used a chalked line as a guide to keep the plank to the desired thickness. Portable steam powered sawmills came into use during the middle part of the Eighteenth Century. These saws could use the waste wood as fuel to fire the boiler that powered the saw. With the advent of these saws, loggers could, and did, log vast quantities of timber.
Clearing the Land
By 1860, loggers had begun the work of converting the trees to lumber. Thousands of sawmills operated in southern Indiana and by 1900 the state led the nation in lumber production. Loggers first cut the best hardwoods. These were walnut, oak, black cherry and tulip poplar. In the next step, the logger cut the less desirable species, and then burned the land off to finish clearing it. Cleared land sold for about a dollar an acre. Farmers bought this land to farm.
Farming, then Abandonment
However, the steep hills were not suitable for farming. Then crop prices dropped. The farm population in south central Indiana peaked around 1890 then began a slow, steady decline. The Great Depression in 1929 finished most of the remaining farmers off. Many simply just walked away from the land. Rains began eroding the cleared hills. Counties could not collect taxes on the abandoned land.
The Hoosier National Forest
Indiana Governor Paul McNutt and the Indiana General Assembly stepped in to try to salvage something from what had become an environmental and economic disaster. On April 6, 1934 they passed:
"An Act to empower the United States of America to acquire lands in the State of Indiana by purchase or otherwise, for establishing, consolidating, and extending national forests, and to grant to the United States all rights necessary for proper control and administration of lands so acquired, and legalizing certain acts and proceedings connected therewith."
Thus, the Hoosier National Forest sprang into life. The Forest Service purchased the first parcels in 1935. The first tasks for the Forest Service were to stop the erosion, rehabilitate the land and take steps to control the wildfires. Reforestation of the hills and building facilities provided jobs during the Depression era and recreated the vast forests of southern Indiana we see today.
Hoosier National Forest
A Year of Indiana History - 2016
© Paul Wonning