to be restored to its former glory
to upgrade structure for public use
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 JPGs site manager.
Ive 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.
by Don Ward
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,
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.
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,
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.
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 couldnt 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 Grounds
Heritage Partnership organization is holding its annual day-long seminar
at the lodge. Several speakers, including Knouf and Leveille, are on
provided by Big Oaks Conservation Society
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 societys vice president Dave Bear, the Building Trades
instructor at Madison Consolidated High School; society member Bill
Hughes, who spent three days power washing the lodges 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.
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 lodges interior of nearly 10,000
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.
Its 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 societys 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.
provided by Big Oaks Conservation Society
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 mothers 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,
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
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.
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:
Back to November 2008