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Interpretive Services History

Interpretation by the Decade
A History of "Nature Guiding" in
Indiana State Parks and Reservoirs

1920 | 1930 | 1940 | 1950 | 1960 | 1970 | 1980 | 1990 | 2000 | 2010 | 2020


The Nature Study Club of Indianapolis provided the service of Miss Lucy Pitschler for three weeks, during the spring wildflower season in 1923. She returned the following season as well. This was considered the beginning of the interpretive services (then called nature guide services) in Indiana State Parks. In 1927-28, state funded nature guides were hired for the first time at McCormick's Creek, Turkey Run and Clifty Falls.

Chief Naturalist Sydney Esten provided the first "Report of Nature Guide Study" in the annual report of the Department of Conservation. In general, program types include a flora/fauna study, a silent nature trail, a test trail that allowed visitors to identify plants and animals on their own, bird hikes, regular/special hikes and nature lectures. The first "nature museum" was opened in a cabin at Turkey Run.

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The first school group programs were conducted in the group camp at McCormick's Creek.
Turkey Run pioneered the use of colored lantern slides and moving pictures! The first report of what we call "roving interpretation" today showed a nature guide at Clifty Falls stationed at the tower and at Big Clifty Falls to answer visitors' questions.

An exhibit loan for the nature museum at Turkey Run included "45 fossils, 5 stalactites, 2 mammoth teeth and 133 Indiana relics." The first mention is made of the Chief Nature Guide (Sydney Esten) traveling to other parks. Sydney, a teacher in Indianapolis during the school year, was also the state ornithologist and influenced the decision to make Indiana's state bird the Northern Cardinal.

A copperhead bit Edna Banta, the nature guide at Clifty Falls, on a bird hike. She was given anti-venom and couldn't walk for 2 weeks. Obviously, her season ended early!

In the mid-1930s cave trips began at Spring Mill. A short trip cost 10 cents. A long trip (3 hours) cost $1. In the annual report in 1937, it mentioned that 35,000 people took these cave tours.

By this time Richard Lieber, the state park system's founder and first director, had developed 12 principles for park management to share with other states. One of these principles was "maintain service of nature study guides." An Outdoor Indiana article described the nature guide programs at Dunes, Turkey Run, McCormick's Creek, Clifty Falls and Brown County. By the end of the decade, there were nature guides at 6 parks.

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State Park Naturalists in 1941The first "pre-training" school for summer naturalists was held on two weekends at individual parks. The first naturalist guide manual was produced; it was the first of its kind in any state and there were requests from many other states for copies.

New screens, projectors and colored Kodachrome slides made their appearance. Programming now included, in addition to the standard nature fare, songfests, hay rides, boat rides and other "social entertainment."

In 1941, there were 16 nature guides. In 1942, apparently because of World War II, only McCormick's Creek and Turkey Run had guides. In 1943, guide service was re-established at Pokagon, Spring Mill and Clifty falls because "park guests depended more on the naturalist than anyone supposed," and they were missed by many.

In the mid-1940's programs mentioned included moonlight hikes, horseback trips, folk and square dancing, games and party supervising and talent shows in addition to nature hikes.

By the end of the decade a full summer of program was offered at Shades, Brown County, Clifty Falls, Dunes, McCormick's Creek, Pokagon, Spring Mill and Turkey Run. Spring and fall programs were offered at Dunes, Pokagon and Turkey Run.

Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers transformed the former Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) recreation building at McCormick’s Creek into a park nature “museum”, complete with displays and artifacts. An open-air shelter directly behind the museum housed live park animals in cages. A resident screech owl that lived in the museum and a trained groundhog were used in programming.

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In spring, 1950, the first naturalist training institute was held at McCormick's Creek. Howard "Howdy" Weaver, who worked as one of the first "Junior Naturalists" in 1941 and as a seasonal naturalist for several years in the late 1940's completed a doctoral thesis on the status of state park naturalist services around the country. Indiana's program was thriving and leading the way for many other states.

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At the beginning of the decade in 1961, fourteen naturalists worked in 8 parks (Dunes, Pokagon, Turkey Run, Shades, McCormick's Creek, Brown County, Spring Mill, Clifty Falls). Spring and fall weekend programs were available where possible.

By the mid-1960's nineteen naturalists and the Chief Naturalist served 13 parks. This included Dunes, Pokagon, Turkey Run, Shades, Raccoon Lake, Shakamak, McCormick's Creek, Brown County, Versailles, Whitewater , Spring Mill, Lincoln and Clifty Falls. A full-time historian was assigned to the Pioneer Village at Spring Mill for the first time.

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Programs included "fossil hunts, cave hikes, geology hikes, frog hunts, hoot owl hikes, and general hikes, demonstrated animal talks, star talks, illustrated park talks, nature films, campfire singing, wiener roasts, Pioneer Village tours and related activities."

McCormick's Creek's new nature center opened in August, 1970. The observation bee hive was quite a hit.

State Park Patch ProgramThe 1973-74 season marked the beginning of the presence of full time naturalists in the system. Six permanent naturalist positions (Clifty Falls, Brown County, Turkey Run, McCormick's Creek, Indiana Dunes and Pokagon) and a full-time Chief Naturalist position were established. The goal of the program: "To introduce to the public the goals and accomplishments of the DNR in an entertaining and educational manner by using ecological guidelines as a principal tool in presenting the program." About the same time, the Division of Forestry established a full-time naturalist position at Wyandotte Woods SRA at Harrison-Crawford State Forest.

The presence of full time naturalists brought several changes, including increased programming for schools and service clubs (there is a mention that the new naturalists were "overwhelmed" with requests!) and the development of a unique patch program for kids. By the end of 1975, over 5,000 children were working on their Smokey's Pal, Junior Naturalist or Hoosier Ecologist patches. This change also brought the advent of the State Park Getaways, weekends of activities focused around a natural or cultural theme. These developed a supportive following and, even though they aren't presented anymore today there is still a getaway "reunion" each year.

November 1974 marked the beginning of Indiana Outdoors, a Naturalist Service weekly television program. By the end of the decade, the program was broadcast by 6 commercial stations and over 200 cable stations.

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The Division of Reservoir Management began an interpretive program with development of a new solar visitor center at Patoka Reservoir. A full time naturalist was hired to staff this center.

A new nature center was opened at Pokagon State Park, and the old CCC saddle barn at Clifty Falls was redesigned as a nature center as well. By this time there were nature centers open either seasonally or full time in 13 locations.

Reservoirs expanded its program with the addition of full time naturalists for the Upper Wabash Reservoirs (Salamonie, Huntington and Mississinewa) and for Hardy Lake. Hardy also developed a wildlife rehabilitation center to handle injured hawks and owls. For the first time, a cooperative training session was held between State Parks and Reservoirs at McCormick's Creek State Park.

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A new nature center was opened at Indiana Dunes, new auditoriums were constructed for the nature centers at Pokagon, Potato Creek and Patoka and a nature center was opened at the Upper Wabash Reservoirs in a former property residence.

In the summer of 1992, the program was dealt a serious blow with the elimination of all seasonal naturalists from state parks as a budget reduction tool. This meant fewer programs and fewer nature center hours. Public reaction and media coverage limited this reduction to one year. By 1993, seasonal naturalists were back!

In the mid-1990s, naturalists led the way in initiating resource restoration and management plans for state park properties. "Managing for the Future: Resource Management in Indiana State Parks" mandated the development of plans for active management of natural resources on park properties in addition to the well-established practice of managing facilities and programs. The purpose: perpetuate the unique, original natural resources of each park.

In 1996, an unexpected merger occurred between the Division of State Parks and the Division of Reservoir Management. The Chief Naturalist position was eliminated in the process. Naturalists, who had been working together for many years in training sessions and on other projects, continued to offer high quality programs on all sites.

With the opening of Fort Harrison State Park and its long and varied history and natural resources, a full time naturalist was hired. A new interpretive center opened in the late 1990's.

Falls of the Ohio State Park opened in 1990 through a partnership with the Falls of the Ohio Foundation and the Town of Clarksville. It included a world class interpretive center overlooking the internationally renowned Devonian fossil beds in the Ohio River. Two new interpretive naturalists coordinated school programs at the sites.

Charlestown State Park was established in 1996 and staffed with a seasonal interpretive naturalist.

In 1997, the position of Chief Naturalist, now called the Chief of Interpretation, was reestablished. We began using the title "interpretive naturalist" for our field staff. This title helps to preserve our ties with natural history, emphasize more fully our role in telling our cultural history stories and aligns us with the standard titles used in the profession nationwide. A five-year strategic plan for the interpretive services was implemented.

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State Parks and Reservoirs assumed management responsibility for two historic sites: Mansfield Roller Mill and the Col. William Jones Home. A full time interpretive naturalist was added at Mansfield/Raccoon SRA and the Jones Home site curator's responsibilities were expanded to include Lincoln State Park.

In 2002, the fiscal condition of the state reduced the number of seasonal interpretive naturalists to one per property.

While volunteers had provided supportive services in state parks to a degree for many years, the volunteer program was organized with specific guidelines and recognition options in the early 2000s. In locations where a full-time interpretive naturalist was stationed, much of the property coordination of the volunteer program became their responsibility. The benefits ranged from adding nature center hosts and animal care to resource management field work and school field trip assistance.

Indiana State Parks joined participation in certification of interpretive naturalists offered through the National Association for Interpretation (NAI), the professional organization serving interpreters. As of 2005, all new Indiana full-time state park and reservoir interpreters were required to obtain at least Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) status, and all new seasonal interpreters were encouraged to do the same. The annual interpretive training session began to emphasize this new direction for establishing interpretive principles used in creating programs.

In 2004, a wayside sign initiative was launched to provide interpretive messages near important natural and cultural features across Indiana State Parks. This initiative has resulted in more than 500 signs to help hikers, campers, and other guests appreciate the meaning behind the resources as they explore and enjoy in our state parks.

The number of Friends groups across the state began to grow at individual state parks and reservoirs, and cooperative agreements were developed. McCormick’s Creek and Turkey Run and Brown County state parks were some of the first to form Friends groups under these new guidelines, and groups in existence before then such as the Friends of Indiana Dunes were included. In many cases, the interpretive naturalist served as a park liaison for the group. One role of the Friends groups is generally supporting interpretation and education at the respective property they assist.

In 2004, a portion of Harrison-Crawford State Forest containing the campground, aquatic center, picnic areas, and other recreation facilities was carved out to become O’Bannon Woods State Park in honor of the late Gov. Frank O’Bannon. This included the Hickory Hollow Nature Center and Farmstead and the interpretive naturalist position based there.

An interpretive master planning process was launched to help evaluate services and look at future needs for individual properties.

A renewed focus on facilities continued after the development of interpretive centers at Mounds State Park and Salamonie Lake. This included professionally designed and fabricated exhibits at McCormick’s Creek and Lincoln and Indiana Dunes state parks and interior/exterior historic restoration work on the Stanley Schoolhouse at Chain O’Lakes State Park.

In 2007, the Hoosier Quest Series replaced the long-running and popular patch program established in the 1980s. The program was designed to help visitors build a relationship with the land and people of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

In 2009, the inaugural Hoosier Outdoor Experience, established to showcase a wide range of outdoor activities and encourage use of all DNR properties by diverse audiences, was hosted at Fort Harrison State Park. Indiana State Park interpreters offered a wide variety of activities at the event as did education staff from all other DNR divisions. The last such event was held in 2017.

In 2009, DNR closed public access to caves, sinkholes, tunnels, and abandoned mines on DNR property in response to a growing concern for bat populations affected by the fungal disease white-nose syndrome (WNS) in Indiana. Cave access and guided interpretive tours were included in this closure at Spring Mill State Park, McCormick’s Creek, O’Bannon Woods/Wyandotte Caves State Recreation Area (SRA), and Brough’s Tunnel at Clifty Falls State Park.

The advent of social media – specifically Facebook – added a new dimension to interpretive efforts. With both a division-wide and individual-property social media presence, interpretive naturalists provided program information, natural and cultural history stories, and links to places for guests to explore parks in a different way.

New interpretive centers were constructed and opened at Salamonie Reservoir (serving the Upper Wabash Reservoirs) and at Mounds State Park.

In 2003, the Interpretive Services includes 18 full time interpretive naturalists, 1 historian, approximately 50 seasonal interpretive naturalists, a chief interpreter, 14 year round interpretive centers, 3 historic homes, an historic village and an historic Roller Mill, 8 seasonal (generally summer) interpretive centers and one raptor rehab facility.

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In 2014, the name of the Division of State Parks & Reservoirs was shortened to the Division of State Parks to simplify guests’ understanding of their management. The differences inherent to the two types of properties remained. Reservoirs still permitted hunting while state parks did not, except for management of white-tailed deer and other species as needed. Both state parks and reservoirs practiced resource management, with differences in goals and approaches. Interpretive naturalists worked to use each property’s unique approaches to emphasize resource management, stewardship, and recreation.

A full-time interpretive naturalist was hired at Prophetstown State Park, which opened to the public in 2004. The position was tasked to work with division leadership to develop relationships with Native American tribes connected to Prophetstown and to include interpretive messaging related to the history of Indigenous people at the site and their present-day connections to it. As a result of early listening sessions with the tribes, the Circle of Stones was constructed and dedicated, with many tribal representatives attending.

New professionally designed and fabricated interpretive exhibits were developed at Turkey Run, Fort Harrison and Falls of the Ohio. A new outdoor exhibit was opened at Charlestown in 2016 to interpret the history of Rose Island, the site of a popular amusement park and retreat in the early 1900s.

In 2014, a pilot program restored limited access to select caves at Spring Mill and Cave River Valley Natural Area in partnership with the Indiana Karst Conservancy, to Wolf Cave at McCormick’s Creek, and to Brough’s Tunnel at Clifty Falls. Wyandotte Caves reopened for tours in 2016 but closed again in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

In 2016, Indiana State Parks celebrated its centennial year. The state park system was established in 1916 as a 100th birthday gift to Hoosiers during the state’s centennial. We dedicated 11 legacy projects, many with direct interpretive connections, ranging from new exhibits at Falls of the Ohio, to the Circle of Stones at Prophetstown, to the Centennial Shelter at McCormick’s Creek, Indiana’s first state park. Each property hosted a celebration event. A centennial interpretive sign and bronze plaque were installed at each park.

As a part of the state’s bicentennial celebration, the Indiana Arts Commission (IAC) funded an “Arts in the Parks” partnership with the state parks. A similar program was in place for many years in the 1980s–2000s, funded by Indiana State Parks. This 2016 version was managed by the IAC, and artists were selected via grant applications. The program ended in 2020.

Salamonie Interpretive Center opened the park system’s third raptor education facility to join Hardy Lake and Patoka Lake in offering this interpretive opportunity.

The Hoosier Quest pin and patch program was updated. The Explore pin, which allows visitors to earn a park-specific collectable pin, is popular.

With audiences interested in unique experiences, state park “challenges” began to be developed by interpretive staff and partners. These included the 3 Dune Challenge at Indiana Dunes, Four Falls Challenge at Clifty Falls, Five Mile Challenge at Turkey Run, Six Ravine Challenge at Shades State Park, Seven Vista Challenge at Brown County, Eight Mile Hell’s Point Challenge at Pokagon State Park, Nine Lake Challenge at Chain O’Lakes and 10 Mile Hiking Challenge at Spring Mill.

First Day Hikes became an annual New Year’s Day tradition at Indiana State Parks. This initiative was developed through America’s State Parks, the organization that ties together state park systems nationwide, and coordinated at our properties by interpretive naturalists where they are in place.

Regular part-time interpreters were added in several locations (Turkey Run, Patoka Lake, Hardy Lake, and Harmonie State Park) and some full-time position location adjustments were made when retirements occurred, to provide wider coverage for interpretive services. By the end of the decade, the statewide interpretive staff stood at 22 full-time interpreters, five regular part-time interpreters, and a statewide interpretive manager.

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The COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 resulted in the closure of nature centers and public programs for several months. Interpretive naturalists responded by developing more than 100 virtual programs to continue to engage with guests.

New interpretive exhibits were designed and fabricated at Pokagon as a part of a statewide deferred maintenance program. Active collaboration with the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Tribe and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma provided insight into the lives of Indigenous people for these exhibits.

Charlestown developed exhibits for an interpretive room in its main office building.

O’Bannon Woods partnered with Purdue University to house and display an adult Eastern hellbender, an Indiana endangered salamander. This was one of the first exhibits of its kind in the state.

To celebrate Clifty Fall’s 100th Anniversary, a “getaway” event, based on popular overnight programming hosted by interpretive naturalists at state park inns in the 1980s and 1990s, was introduced to a new generation of guests.

In 2021, the management of Deam Lake and  Starve Hollow SRAs, and Interlake and Redbird off-road state recreation areas was added to Indiana State Parks. This change included adding seasonal interpreters at Deam Lake and Starve Hollow.

In 2023 we celebrate 100 years since Lucy Pitschler led the first spring wildflower hikes as a “nature guide” at McCormick’s Creek.

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