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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

STATE PARKS: McCormick's Creek


The oldest park in Indana is steeped in history. Businessman and nature enthusiast Richard Lieber bought the land in 1916 at an auction and immediately gave it all back to Indiana in honor of the state centennial.


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The trails of McCormick’s Creek put you right in the center of nature and its inhabitants. /Photo by Mercer Suppiger

McCormick’s Creek is a park steeped in history. Businessman and nature enthusiast Richard Lieber bought the land in 1916 at an auction and immediately gave it all back to Indiana in honor of the state centennial. McCormick’s was opened to the public on Dec. 11, 1916, making it the oldest of Indiana’s state parks. Near Spencer, the park is sometimes surrounded by flea markets and garage sales. But turn into the drive and you’ll find these seasonal sales replaced by towering beech and tulip trees.

A trip to this park will provide you with a history lesson, wet socks and dirty knees if you’re willing to march along every trail. If hiking isn’t for you, don’t worry. You can enjoy a turtle feeding, bird walk or movie screening at the nature center. If you’re feeling hungry, stop by the Canyon Inn for their famous deep-fried tenderloin or buffet-style fried chicken. There’s something for everyone in McCormick’s diverse landscape and busy calendar if you’re looking for a good weekend out of town.

“McCormick’s is a snapshot of everything you want an Indiana state park to be,” says naturalist Will Schaust. “All of the trails are easy to hike, even for kids, and there’s something for everyone. I hope people take advantage of that.”

History hangs heavy in the air at McCormick’s Creek

By Mercer T. Suppiger

Editor’s note: The following is a fictionalized account based on the Legend of Wolf Creek.

The natives don’t hunt ‘round here no more.

Nancy Peden repeated the words inside her head as she entered the thick of the forest, walking home after trading goods with the nice men who had tied off their flatboats along the banks of the White River that evening.

Those boatmen must’ve been short on supplies, Nancy thought. I can’t wait to show Jesse how much money we made today.

Jesse was chopping wood in the cool morning fog the last time Nancy saw him. He had to stay at the farm to watch the sheep. Some of them had gone missing over the last couple of weeks.

The natives don’t hunt ‘round here no more.

A swollen sun hung low in the sky, sending deep orange rays through the hickory trees that swayed lazily as they whispered to each other. Nancy wished she were back at the springhouse, where a stream running under the floorboards kept milk and eggs cool even on humid summer days.

As the voices of the boatmen vanished behind her, she suddenly couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.

The natives don’t hunt ‘round here no more.

That’s what her father had told her the year they settled this land back in 1816. She remembered because it was the same year people stopped calling this area the Indiana Territory. Now it was simply Indiana, and the native Miami tribe, who used to hunt deer and grouse along the river, hadn’t been seen in the area for years.

At least I ain’t lost, she thought as she approached a cave she had seen a few times before as she walked to and from the river.  Her footsteps slowed to a halt when a glint of light caught her eye, and a feeling of dread plunged into her chest as she stared into the mouth of the cave.

Wolves.

Light reflected off the beast’s snarling teeth. Slowly it emerged from the cave, with its head low to the ground. Suddenly there were two – three – five wolves outside the cave. Nancy thought she heard more, but she wasn’t going to stick around to find out.

She sprang like a deer from where she stood, sprinting into the woods as the wolves barked behind her. She tore off her gloves and her white bonnet and tossed them at her pursuers. She didn’t look back to see if it had any effect. It was dark now, and Nancy ran toward the only light she could see; a faint glimmer of candlelight through the sycamores.

She screamed Jesse’s name as she burst into the clearing marking the edge of their farm. He was standing on the front porch steps with a lantern in one hand and a shotgun in the other. It was only then that Nancy noticed she didn’t hear the wolves anymore. She nearly knocked Jesse to the ground as she threw herself into his arms.

“I think I know where our sheep have been disappearing to,” she said.

Park memories

By Taylor Haggerty

Andrea Oeding; Friend of McCormick’s Creek and former park naturalist, shared a favorite memory from a day at the park.

“I went to the park with a friend. We planned to walk all 10 trails, because there’s a way to walk through the park where you can do them all in one long go. No one else was there because it was the middle of the winter, so it was just the two of us and her pet dog. We spent the whole day walking around in the park together in the cold. I’d say that is my favorite memory of McCormick’s.”

A guide to Trail 3

By Taylor Haggerty

Trail 3 is the only trail in McCormick’s Creek listed as “rugged.” It calls for a heavy pair of rain boots, good balance and a lot of drinking water. Covering less than a mile, it won’t take much longer than a half an hour if you move quickly. When I walked the trail, though, the last thing I wanted to do was hurry up. The trail is a loop starting and ending near the Canyon Inn, running alongside the creek and down into the canyon itself.

I was lucky enough to walk Trail 3 in its entirety. Rain and poor weather can flood the creek and the trail. The best time to hike it is after a series of dry days. The water level is low and the path easier to follow. Your only obstacles will be a few loose rocks on the path and some fallen trees you might need to climb over.

You can start at the beginning and walk the whole loop, or you can drive to the Falls Lookout and start there; you won’t miss any of the canyon, and the falls are the primary attraction. A lookout and informational podium rests above the canyon. From there, you can see the falls in their entirety, and you get a nice view of the creek before it drops into the canyon, surrounded on either side by forest and limestone walls.

Along the sides of the canyon you can find ridges that look like playground slides. Climbing up them can be a lot of fun if they’re steady, but some are dangerous and not consistently wide enough to walk on. If you plan on hiking along the sides of the canyon, be prepared to turn back at some point along the way. But give it a try – I found my favorite spot in McCormick’s Creek on one of those limestone trails.

About halfway through the canyon itself, the trail opens up considerably. There are no signs telling you which way to go or what side of the creek you should stay on, so you’ve got a lot of freedom to explore on your own. You can splash in the creek, sit down on a fallen tree for a break or take some pictures.

You can follow the creek until a final flight of stairs leads you out of the canyon, or you can keep going. If the weather is right, follow the creek a little farther, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of Trail 10. From there, you can move on to either Trail 7 or Trail 5 and finish your visit with a trip to Wolf Cave.

The must-sees of McCormick's

By Taylor Haggerty

According to naturalist Will Schaust, these are the top five attractions in McCormick’s Creek that you absolutely have to see:

1. Wolf Cave: The cave is a tight squeeze for an adult, and you’ll spend most of the time either crouched down or crawling. It stretches for 60 yards and isn’t ideal for people afraid of small spaces or the dark, but kids can enjoy it with a flashlight and some friends. You can find Wolf Cave on Trail 5.

2. The Fire Tower: The lookout on top of the tower is closed due to the lead paint on the interior walls, but the view from the top steps is worth the climb. The Friends of McCormick’s Creek have started a fundraiser to refurbish the tower, and it should be open to the public soon. You can find the fire tower on Trail 4.

3. The Old Statehouse Quarry: The present state capitol building was built from limestone from McCormick’s Creek. The historic work site is open today for public exploration. Schaust says to look for the perforated lines where they pulled the limestone. The quarry is accessible from trails 2 and 10.

4. The Peden Family Farm: It includes the spring house, where perishable goods were kept cold by a natural spring, the old barn and the house foundation. Signs stationed throughout the area will explain the uses of each building, as well as its history. You can find the Peden farm on Trail 9.

. Trail 3: The “rugged” trail described on page xx follows the creek to a waterfall and descends into the canyon. Climbing along the sides and hopping over the river stones, visitors can enjoy the natural landscape and wildlife such as minnows and mice. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the Louisiana waterthrush, a bird that sometimes stops in McCormick’s Creek.

The founding of the state parks

By Mercer T. Suppiger

Nancy Peden’s father, a Scotch-Irish immigrant named John McCormick, was the first European to settle the rugged land that would become known as McCormick’s Creek State Park in 1816. The McCormicks and the Pedens lived on the family farm for generations, until a smallpox epidemic swept the region in 1854. Nancy and Jesse’s children stuck around until they decided to settle in some of the nearby towns in the early 1900s. Descendants of the two families are still farming in Monroe and Morgan counties today.

he original site of the farm grew decrepit over the years, until Dr. Frederick Denkewalter, a German immigrant who lived in Indianapolis, bought the land in 1888. Denkewalter was so enchanted by the scenic tranquility of the landscape that he built a sanitarium on the other side of the creek, a spa-like resort where wealthy individuals sought the healing powers of fresh air and peaceful surroundings. The resort became more and more popular among locals, and his business thrived until his death in 1914.

Indiana purchased the land and dedicated our first state park open to the public on Independence Day, 1916, to celebrate 100 years of statehood. In the 1920s, the old sanitarium was remodeled into its current state and renamed The Canyon Inn. Guests came from all over the region to enjoy the beautiful scenery and landscaped gardens, some of which were planted by Dr. Denkewalter himself.

During the 1930s, as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program, workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps built most of the park’s improvements, including the gatehouse, camp shelters, stone bridge and fire tower. These structures are still in use to this day, making history come to life.

The last land purchase was during the early 1970s, when the park bought land for the present campsites, recreation center and swimming pool.

McCormick's by the numbers

By Taylor Haggerty

1. More than 80 kinds of wildflowers bloomi in March and April

2. 129 steps lead down into the canyon from Trail 7

3. 60 yards of underground cave stretch out on Trail 5

4. 36 bluebird houses are tucked away inside the park

5. 10 feet of waterfall rushes into the canyon on Trail 3

6. 106 steps climb to the top of the fire tower off Trail 4

The best-kept secrets

By Taylor Haggerty

Anyone can hike the trails of a state park, but it takes a true woodsman to find those special hideouts off the map. Here are three of McCormick's best hideaways for you to explore and enjoy.

Twin Bridges

After crawling through the twists and turns of Wolf Cave, you’ll find yourself in a hole in the ground – literally. The cave was once much longer, but erosion and other natural factors caused the roof to fall in certain areas. Only two stone arches, dubbed the Twin Bridges, remain. If you’re not willing to wiggle through the cave itself, you can access these arches by coming up the trail from the opposite direction. Make sure to bring a camera.

Trail 1 Grasslands

Trail 1 starts near the family cabins and makes its way toward the Saddle Barn. At one point the trail opens up from woods and forestry to the grasslands of a prairie. According to Schaust, this is an ideal place for bird watching. Indigo Buntings and common yellowthroats, among many others, spend their time in this area, and if you’re quiet, you might be able to find them.

Taylor’s Pick

Halfway through the canyon on Trail 3, a limestone ridge breaks off from the creek and leads up the side of the canyon. A small cave sits in the canyon wall, about two feet off the ground. It’s small enough that standing up straight isn’t possible, but you can tuck yourself inside and comfortably admire the beautiful canyon view.

Meet a bluebird!

By Taylor Haggerty

Bluebird preservation is a part of what makes McCormick's Creek great. We here at 812 got the chance to interview one of these aviary visitors.

“Most of us lay blue eggs, but my sister is weird and lays white eggs. I guess she just doesn’t have my beautiful pigmentation.”

“I never go house-hunting. That’s my husband’s job. I just decorate once we’ve moved in.”

“I haven’t gotten any sleep since my fledglings hatched. I swear, they want food every 15 minutes.”

“My husband’s a great singer. I made him sing 50 songs before we went on our first date.”

“If you come to visit me, please knock on the door first. I don’t like it when people arrive unannounced.”