Rustic Retreat

Old Timbers Lodge
to be restored to its former glory

Group seeks money
to upgrade structure for public use

By Don Ward

November 2008 Indiana Edition Cover

November 2008 Indiana Edition Cover

(November 2008) – It has been nearly a year now since a historic agreement was signed last January allowing public access and use of Old Timbers Lodge for the first time. The unique agreement took nearly four years to achieve and lots of wrangling through government red tape, considering the unique situation involving the U.S. Army-owned Jefferson Proving Ground, inside which the nationally registered historic lodge is located.
JPG is a former Army ammunition test base located four miles north of Madison, Ind. on Hwy. 421. The 58,000-acre Army base, which stretches across three counties – Jefferson, Ripley and Jennings – was formally closed in 1995 and today much of it – now known as the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge – is managed by the National Park Service. One northern portion of about 1,000 acres is used as a bombing range by the Indiana Air National Guard.
“The usage agreement is sort of precedent-setting because of the type of government and nonprofit entities involved,” said Ken Knouf, an civilian government employee who serves as JPG’s site manager. “I’ve been here 26 years, and this lodge has always been near and dear to my heart. To find a way to protect it has been a long and difficult process, so my hat is off to all these various entities and the people who worked hard to make it happen.”

Jiim Leveille

Photo by Don Ward

Big Oaks Conservation Society
president Jim Leveille will speak on
restoring Old Timbers at a Nov. 1
public seminar to be held at the lodge.
He poses here in front of the
Great Room fireplace.

The agreement involves the U.S. Army, which owns the refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, the Indiana Air National Guard, which was previously responsible for managing the lodge since 1976, and the Big Oaks Conservation Society, which has now taken over that management role.
But the conditions of the 76-year-old lodge need upgrading before it can be rented out to groups for social or corporate meetings and gatherings, Knouf said.
The building was constructed as a hunting lodge and family retreat by Alexander Thomson, a wealthy businessman from Cincinnati who presided over Champion Paper Co. Today, it needs a new roof and upgrades to its water and electrical systems. The kitchen is fully operational, but there is only one working restroom. Access to the lodge requires a 12-mile drive along a two-lane road that skirts the eastern edge of the refuge, all the way to the northernmost end of the range. The drive is scenic but populated with deer, especially at night.

Ken Knouf

"I’ve been here 26 years, and this lodge has always been near and dear to my heart.’
– JPG Site Manager Ken Knouf

On Oct. 17, the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce held its monthly “Business After Hours” networking meeting at the lodge, drawing a large crowd of curious chamber members who wanted to see the structure. Representatives of each organization involved in the user agreement spoke about their role in allowing public access to the rustic lodge.
Jim Leveille, a commercial pilot from Rexville, Ind., who serves as president of the Big Oaks Conservation Society, led tours and explained the mission of his non-profit society for its taking over management of the lodge.
“This lodge has so much potential and it is great that we can now gain access to it with the purpose of opening it up to the public at some point,” Leveille said.
Lt. Col. Matt Sweeney of the Air National Guard said that when the base closed, the Guard was tasked with keeping the lodge “water tight and bug free. But we were given no funding to do anything else,” he said.
So the lodge sat empty for many years, used only sparingly for outdoors-related events. The Women in the Outdoors event and the Take a Kid Fishing Day are two such events that have been headquartered there in recent years.

Old Timbers Lodge Location

“It has been hard for me personally to see it sit empty all these years because I just love this place,” Sweeney said. “My troops have done a lot of non-gratis work out here, and there has been a lot of political pressure to take care of this place. But without funding, it has been a challenge. So when the Big Oaks Conservation Society went to the government with their offer to manage it, it was an offer they just couldn’t turn down.”
Once the user agreement was signed, Leveille said the society immediately launched a fundraising campaign and an effort to seek grant money to pay for upgrading the lodge. That campaign continues today, and Knouf said he believes there are grants available that, once obtained, could provide much of the needed funding.
But Knouf and others are already finding ways to use the lodge without waiting for the upgrades. On Nov. 1, the Jefferson Proving Ground’s Heritage Partnership organization is holding its annual day-long seminar at the lodge. Several speakers, including Knouf and Leveille, are on the schedule.

Old Timbers Fireplace

Photo provided by Big Oaks Conservation Society

The fireplace inside Old Timbers
Lodge features a three-ton
mantel made of limestone.

“By having our seminar at the lodge, we will continue to get the word out to more people about the future uses of this historic gem,” Knouf said.
Leveille plans to use the opportunity to introduce seminar participants to the society and its mission for using the lodge. The society was formed as a support group for the wildlife refuge and has been instrumental in that effort, considering the understaffed Fish and Wildlife office and its monumental task to manage the refuge.
Members of the society spent the day May 17 working at Old Timbers Lodge in what they affectionately called a “Makeover” event. Forty-two volunteers worked to remove old furniture, polish interior wood, re-glaze windows and clean the interior. Among those who helped work on the cleanup were the society’s vice president Dave Bear, the Building Trades instructor at Madison Consolidated High School; society member Bill Hughes, who spent three days power washing the lodge’s 14-inch thick limestone walls; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service members Dan Matiatos and Dave Jones, who cleared vegetation that had blocked the 90-foot cliff-top view from the lodge to Big Graham Creek below; Sweeney, who serves as commander of the 181st Fighter Group Det. 2 of the Guard; and Paul Cloud, the Base Environmental Coordinator for JPG who traveled from Aberdeen, Md.’s Edgewood Arsenal, for the occasion.

Old Timbers Lodge

By the end of the day, the group had filled a 30-cubic-yard dumpster with discarded mattresses and old furniture, cleared the view-blocking brush and scrubbed and cleaned the lodge’s interior of nearly 10,000 square feet.
“There are many people who have put in a lot of hard work out here already, so we are very excited about the future,” said Leveille, who also participated in the cleanup effort.
“It’s really exciting to see this unique building take shape as a place where people can go to hold events and enjoy the natural beauty of Big Oaks,” said the society’s treasurer Deanna Robison of Madison. “We hope that in time, more people will find out about it and want to come here. The natural beauty of this place is awesome.”

Thomson Family

Photo provided by Big Oaks Conservation Society

This historic photo
from the 1930s shows Alexander Thomson
(far left) with his wife
and family. His son,
Chilton Thomson, who
in 1981 later authored
the book titled “Old
Timbers,” is seated in
his mother’s lap. The
family vacationed at
the lodge for only
eight years before the government took
over the land for
the U.S. Army.

In 1981, a book titled “Old Timbers” on the history of the lodge was published by Chilton Thomson, son of lodge builder Alexander Thomson. Only 1,000 copies were initially printed, and the book quickly sold out. Years later after the JPG Heritage Partnership was formed it eventually took on as its mission the need to reprint the book. In May 2005, JPG chairwoman Norma Lou Irwin traveled to Cleveland to meet with Chilton Thomson, then 85, to discuss a reprinting.
The book recounts the building of the lodge by area farmers and craftsmen, and the subsequent takeover of the land by the U.S. Army a decade later, in 1941 when the country went to war. The Army selected the location in southern Indiana for its ordnance depot testing ground because at the time it was among the largest undeveloped private tract of land east of the Mississippi River.
Construction of the lodge, meanwhile, lasted from 1929 to 1932, during the Depression and completed by unemployed farmers who quarried the limestone split shingles and harvest timber to build the impressive, two-story structure.
Alexander Thomson bought the 20-acre plot of Ripley County land from Emmett and Louise Williams, then hired a retired, well-known, Danish-born architect Gustav Elzner of Cincinnati to design it. The lodge cost $75,000 to build using limestone quarried from only 125 yards northeast of the site.
The lodge features unique spiral staircases, three-ton mantels and window sills, and large yellow poplar beams and planks on its interior walls that came from eight area barns that were dismantled. One beam across the great room stretches 60 feet.

Brief history of Big Oak
National Wildlife Refue

Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge is situated on approximately 50,000 acres in southeastern Indiana. Big Oaks NWR is the largest of the three national wildlife refuges in Indiana and stretches across Jefferson, Jennings and Ripley counties. Other refuges in Indiana include Muscatatuck NWR and Patoka Lake NWR.
It overlays that portion of the former Jefferson Proving Ground that lies north of the historic firing line. The Indiana Air National Guard operates an air-to-ground bombing range on the remaining 1,033 acres of the former proving ground north of the firing line and this property is surrounded by but not designated as part of the refuge. 
JPG was established by the Army in 1940 as an ordnance testing installation and closed in 1995. Beginning in 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managed the wildlife resources of JPG. Big Oaks NWR was established in June 2000 as an “overlay” national wildlife refuge through a 25-year real estate permit from the U.S. Army. As an overly refuge, the Army retains ownership and the FWS manages the property as Big Oaks NWR. It is now one of more than 540 refuges in the country forming the National Wildlife Refuge System, a vast network of lands and waters set aside to be protected and managed for wildlife.
Information: (812) 273-0783 or visit: www.bigoaks.org

The door hinges and other hardware were handcrafted by students at Berea College in Berea, Ky. No two sets of hinges are alike throughout the lodge.
The family, with their four sons, enjoyed vacationing at the lodge nearby every weekend for only eight years before the government took it over. During their weekend getaways, they hosted many friends and dignitaries of the day, including Indiana Gov. Harry Guyer Leslie, the Proctor family, co-owners of Proctor & Gamble, and Hoosier composer Cole Porter.
Alexander Thomson died in 1939, just a year before the Army announced it would be constructing a large munitions testing facility there. The family left the lodge behind for good during Christmas in 1940. Chilton Thomson died in 2007.
Today, the lodge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and with funding and hard work, the dedicated volunteer members of the Big Oaks Conservation Society are determined to restore the site to its former glory.

• The 30-page, hardcover book, “Old Timbers,” can be purchased for $23 at the Jefferson County Historical Society book store, 615 W. First St., Madison. To learn more, visit: www.BigOaks.org or www.JPGHeritage.org.

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