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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 |


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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The 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.

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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.

The 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. A new interpretive center, constructed through a unique partnership with the Clarksville Riverfront Foundation, opened with world-class exhibits at Falls of the Ohio.

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.

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.

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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