Fanning the Flames
At the height of the Great Depression, several hundred men from throughout the U.S. arrived at what is now Ouabache State Park (the linguistic precursor to modern-day “Wabash”) in Bluffton, looking for work through the federally funded Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). The CCC offered job training, housing, food, and pay at a time when national unemployment hovered around 25%.
The CCC hired only single men aged 18 to 24, paying them $5 a week with an additional $25 sent home to their parents. At the 1,100-acre park, then known as the Wells County State Forest and Game Preserve, the young men constructed stone retaining walls, picnic shelters, lodges and – perhaps most notable – a fire tower, one of 14 in the state and the only one in northeast Indiana.
Built in 1939, the galvanized steel tower has a room or “cab” perched at the top, 100 feet above ground. With windows on all sides, the cab affords an unobstructed view of four counties. Park staff and community volunteers climbed 106 oak treads winding steeply through the open-sided framework to serve as lookouts during warm weather months when forest fires were most likely. To qualify for the job, lookouts had to pass a vision test and be able to climb the tower several times. During the WWII era, fire towers around the state were staffed almost exclusively by women.
Over the years, the tower became less important for its original purpose but became an iconic symbol for the park. For decades, anyone who dared could scale its narrow stair to the top. By 2015, the park closed the deteriorated tower, hoping to repair and reopen it. The only problem: the park didn’t have $75,000 for renovation.
Enter the Friends of Ouabache State Park, a nonprofit group formed in 2012. The group opened a Go Fund Me page and launched a turbo-charged campaign. Hosting events big and small to bring awareness to their cause, the group raised the entire amount in just nine months – something park officials thought would take five years.
Whether it was building a miniature tower for the float in the downtown parade or hosting a zombie run through the park, each event brought the group closer to the goal. The Friends hosted old time baseball games and bocce ball tournaments, sold commemorative bricks and t-shirts, and collected gate fees during holiday events at the park.
“Every single dollar we raised was critically important as the majority of our funds came from private individuals or from small local businesses,” says Kathleen Schwartz, president of the Friends group. “We spoke at fraternal and civic organizations, like the Rotary, and talked to media as often as we could to tell our story. Many generations of our community have fond memories of the tower so we tapped into that as well,” she adds. Impressed by the effort, the Wells County Community Foundation contributed $25,000 to push fundraising over the finish line.
According to park manager Dustin Clark, repairs are slated to begin soon, with a goal of reopening the fire tower in spring 2018. In addition to restoring the tower to like-new condition, the state plans to add wheelchair access to the base of the structure and replace a chain link fence around the perimeter of the tower with a new one made of oak timber and stone. With restoration complete, the tower will be a fitting tribute to the young men and women who played a significant role in the early history of Ouabache State Park.
For more information on the tower restoration, contact Dustin Clark at the Ouabache State Park by calling 260-824-0926 or email duclark@dnr.IN.gov.
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