Northeast of downtown Indianapolis, in the hilly region along the banks of Fall Creek, is a patch of virtually undisturbed woodland, home to massive tulip trees, rolling hills, and rocky ravines. This area is mostly known by its short name, Woollen’s Gardens, or more appropriately Woollen’s Gardens of Birds and Botany, and represents the embodiment of the long-term vision of the Garden’s namesake, William Watson Woollen. It is a monument to the cause of the conservation of natural spaces and nature in Indianapolis, at a time when the environmental conservatism in Indiana was in its infancy. I’ve seen the Gardens on maps which depict Woollen’s Gardens, located just west of Fort Ben Harrison, and have passed by the Gardens while riding the Fall Creek Trail or paddling Fall Creek itself. This past October, I finally took some time to explore the Gardens on foot. Other blogs have examined Woollen’s Gardens, including two postings on Historic Indianapolis by Gwen Sunkel and Libby Cierzniak. This posting goes into more depth on Woollen and his efforts to protect and conserve nature, in addition to looking at his Gardens. A version of this post was also used as a assignment for my S586 Archival Intelligence class at IUPUI as part of the Masters in Library Science program. (Be warned, this is a long post. So bring a snack)
Woollen was born in Indianapolis in 1838. His family lived on the outskirts of downtown Indianapolis, on the northwest side of the city, along Indiana Avenue. While still young, the family moved to a farm on the northeast side of the city, in the still undeveloped area along Fall Creek. Woollen attended North-Western Christian University (later Butler College and then University) and became a lawyer. He practiced law for many years in Indianapolis and Marion County, including a stint as the county attorney, until his replacement in 1884. In addition to his in-court practice, Woollen was also a prolific legal writer, authoring treatises and digests on Indiana law. Outside of his legal pursuits, Woollen was a lover of nature. In the late 19th century, the country surrounding Indianapolis was still rural and undeveloped. Much of the forested areas in the state had been destroyed due to overharvesting and clearing land for agricultural purposes, although forested areas were still common along the various waterways in the county. Jennifer Harrison, in her review of Charles C. Deam, the first state forester of Indiana, noted that by 1900, only 7 percent of Indiana’s land was forested.
Woollen began his movement towards the preservation of nature in Indianapolis by advocating for the care and planting of trees in and around the downtown area. There had been earlier efforts along this front. A Shade Tree Association had begun in 1858 in response to the elimination and general ill treatment of trees around downtown Indianapolis, partially led by local attorney Calvin Fletcher, Sr. Despite several early meetings, the committee faded out, and the preservation of existing trees, and the addition of new trees, was left to the efforts of individual citizens. The Indianapolis News on December 28, 1897 published a letter from Woollen praising the mayor for considering hiring a city forester for the protection of the trees within the city. He advocated for the selection of some who was not a “10-cent politician,”, but instead someone who had “an extensive knowledge of trees, their habits, and their wants, and one who loves them.” Woollen recommended Calvin Fletcher, Jr., for the post, and praised his father’s early efforts to promote tree planting, although no forester was hired at that time.
Woollen also focused on the preservation of the birds of Indiana. On Valentine’s Day 1898 Woollen wrote in the Indianapolis News that his “Valentine is a plea for more merciful treatment of the wild birds.” He decried the hunting of birds, and the use of their feathers for fashion, calling such actions, “relics of savage barbarism,” and advocated for schools to teach about the protection of birds. These efforts, he argued would be “a hundredfold more potent in the preservation of our wild birds than any law that may be enacted.”
Woollen’s most significant step in promoting nature and conservation, was obtaining a patch of land northeast of Indianapolis, informally known as Buzzard’s Roost. The land laid along the southern banks of Fall Creek and Woollen was familiar with this part of Indianapolis, as his family had lived in the area. In his book, Birds of Buzzard’s Roost, Woollen recounted how he had spent time as a youth exploring the woods and rolling hills common in that part of the county. In Birds of Buzzard’s Roost Woollen also described the discovery of Buzzard’s Roost, in April of 1897, when he visited friends near Lawrence, on the northeast side of Indianapolis. Upon ending the visit, he wandered through land of the future site Fort Benjamin Harrison, and ultimately began to follow Fall Creek, walking through woods that he recalled as a boy.
As he walked, he crossed a rail fence and found that “before me was a veritable wildwood. It was primitive. No stock had ever pastured in it. The buckeye and tulip trees were unfolding their beautiful foliage…this dense forest that I was entering was a bird paradise and resonant with bird song.” The images below show the area being explored by Woollen, as it appeared in 1941, and in 2020. Note the impact of interstate 465 in the second image (discussed in more detail below).
Woollen continued to explore the “wild and beautiful place,” including seeing the stump of a great tulip tree which was known locally as the “Buzzard’s Roost,” since buzzards used to frequent the tree prior to its felling. The photo below is reputed to be this stump, although the date of the photo is unclear. This land would be an important part of Woollen’s future efforts to promote and protect the natural environment in Indianapolis. Woollen purchased the land in July of 1897, and that August, the Indianapolis Journal reported that Woollen was working on a plan to develop a nature preserve “as a rendezvous and home for Indiana wild birds,” and that such preserve would be given to the city of Indianapolis. Some maps show Buzzard's Roost as including land on the northside of Fall Creek. However, the legal description used by Woollen states that the land was on the south side of Fall Creek.
In November of that year, Woollen served as the keynote speaker at Butler College (then located in Irvington on the eastside of Indianapolis) as part of the college’s Arbor Day celebration, during which 100 trees were planted on campus. Woollen, an alum of Butler’s predecessor, spoke about the importance of trees, noting that the college’s founder, Ovid Butler, had left half of his lands forested, and when his lands north of downtown were subdivided, he made sure to plant shade trees along the streets and sidewalks. He also described the Buzzard’s Roost, that the Indianapolis News reported as a “nearby wild forest land.” Woollen further explained a plan to give this land to the city of Indianapolis for use by students at the public schools and Butler College to study of botany and ornithology.
Woollen provided more detail about his plan for the land, which he called Woollen’s Garden of Birds and Botany, in the 1898 Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science. In Woollen (1898) he described the untouched nature of the land, and that the “primary idea I have in mind is to preserve these ‘wondrous works,’ just as they are for all time to come,” while a secondary goal was that “to this garden shall be brought, planted and preserved every tree shrub, vine and plant not already growing in it, which now grows, or has before grown, in Indiana: in other words, that the garden shall represent the botany of Indiana.”
Woollen’s plan for Buzzard’s Roost would take some time to develop, beyond his general intent to gift the land to the city. In the meantime, his conservation efforts enveloped more group-based advocacy. In April of 1898, Woollen was involved in the organization of the Indiana Audubon Society, whose goals were for the protection of birds. He was also the first secretary of the Indiana Forestry Association, upon its founding in March of 1899. The Indianapolis News described the goal of the association was to “promote the interest in forestry in the State and to encourage the planting of trees both n unproductive lands, along the streets of cities, and on private grounds.” Woollen served as secretary and on the Forest Committee for the association.
Woollen often hosted individuals and groups at Buzzard's Roost for study and exploration, including the Indiana Academy of Science. Woollen was also a regular contributor to local newspapers, and the turn of the last century newspapers in Indianapolis were full of letters from Woollen continuing to promote the care and planting of trees. In a January 31, 1901 letter to the editor of the Indianapolis News Woollen encouraged the State of Indiana to become involved in forestry. He also commended the News for their statements supporting “all reasonable efforts in favor of the preservation of forest area or the creation of forests in Indiana,” but decried their suggestion that a state forester was not needed. A series of articles featuring Indiana birds was also authored by Woollen and appeared in the News.
1908-09 would be significant years for Woollen, and his Buzzard’s Roost. First, on January 4, 1908, the Indianapolis Star reported on the organizing of the Indiana Nature Study Club, with Woollen as its president (the group would formally incorporate in 1913). As the name suggested, the club would study nature, and take “excursions into the country for nature study and to hold meetings at which noted nature students may speak.” The club was to be based at Woollen’s Gardens, as the Roost was now being called, and use the cabins built on the property for their headquarters and for study. Then, on May 28 of that year, the which was Woollen’s 70th birthday, the Star reported that the birthday would be celebrated with the formal dedication of the Roost, for the study of nature. That day would also be known as “Founders Day” and the Roost would be formally designated as the Woollen’s Garden of Botany and Birds.
In 1909 Woollen finally acted on the original intent behind his purchase of Buzzard’s Roost, or the Woollen’s Garden, and in a letter to the Parks Commissioners and Mayor he offered the 44 acres of land to the city of Indianapolis on November 24, 1909. The 1909 annual report for the Board of Parks Commissioners, reported the land as “a tract of such fine natural forest, one of the finest in the State, as to render it the greatest value of the city.” While the Park Commissioners clearly appreciated the natural value of the property, they were more impressed with what they referred to as the “fine spirit” in which the land was given to the city by Woollen. The annual report included a portion of a letter sent by Woollen to the parks commission, where Woollen recounted his discovery of the land, detailed the cabins he had built there, and his accumulation of a library of nature books which was also onsite and would be included with the donation.
The letter, in granting the gardens to the city, included several stipulations. Among these, was that the land would be known as “Woollen’s Garden of Birds and Botany” and that the existing cabins would remain as a memorial to Woollen’s parents. Most importantly, Woollen’s gift required the protection of the land, and that “[t]he wildwood of it is to be maintained as near as can be in its present wild state,” and that it would serve as a “home and refuge for the wild creatures.” Additionally, Buzzard’s Roost would be kept as a place for the study of nature for the use of all schools in Indianapolis, without regard for the race or religion of the students, as well as Butler College. Finally, Woollen specified that the Indiana Academy of Science and the Indiana Nature Study Club be permitted to use the property, as well as “other education bodies or persons who may desire to pursue the study of the Natural Sciences.” The Nature Study Club would continue to use the Gardens as its headquarters, incorporating the large cabin at the Gardens on their annual yearbook and other documents (see yearbook cover, above). One last requirement was that the city would assume an encumbrance of $2,600 which was on the property.
The Garden was accepted by the city, and in a November 26, 1909, letter, the Board of Park Commissioners expressed their thanks, and noted their hope that others in the city would take his example and "run even ahead of the plans of the board for the betterment of the city, and the fact that your gift comes practically at the inception of larger work for a more beautiful city, gives the board of park commissioners the greatest encouragement."
At the time, there were few protected spaces in Indiana dedicated to the study of nature and the preservation of natural places, especially a place with old woodland and maintained in its natural state like the Gardens. Indianapolis had several parks, but these were not in their natural, or original state, although as noted above in the letter from Board of Park Commissioners, the city was embarking upon a plan for an expansion of the parks. In 1909, the Indiana state government did not have a conservation department, although efforts to that end were underway. On a nationwide scale, natural spaces were already being protected, with several National Parks established before the 20th century. The efforts of Charles C. Deam and Richard Lieber in Indiana were in the works, and would begin to ramp up to push conversation on a statewide level in the decade after the establishment of Woollen's Gardens. The only state protected land at the time was the Clark State Forest, established in 1903 as an experimental forest, in the early stages of forestry emerging as a recognized practice. The first state park in Indiana, McCormick’s Creek, would not be dedicated until 1916. Woollen would serve on a committee to buy the land for Turkey Run State Park, which was established shortly after McCormick's Creek. Woollen’s efforts to preserve trees and his study of nature were ahead of their time, as was his plan for the protection of his Garden for the future.
After the gift of Woollen’s Garden, Woollen continued to be active in his nature-related activities. On September 19, 1910, the Star reported on Woollen’s advocacy for nature-based curriculum in the public schools, an effort he had been promoting for over a decade. Woollen recommended that each township in the state should have a school located adjacent to a natural area with woodland and land for cultivation, and that courses in ornithology, forestry, entomology, horticulture, agriculture and gardening be taught. Shifting subjects, Woollen also told the Star that the Board of Park Commissioners was keeping the Buzzard’s Roost (the name that Woollen continued to use for the property), in an even more wild condition than he had expected. He had kept some of the land at the Garden open for cultivation of fruit. The portion of the property which had been cultivated for growing fruit was being allowed to return to the wild way, an action supported by Woollen.
Woollen continued to be active with the Indiana Nature Study Club, and also took several trips to Alaska between 1910 and 1920 and authored a book about his expeditions titled The Inside Passage To Alaska, 1792-1920 which was published in 1924 (photo of Woollen to the left was taken prior to one of these trips). Unfortunately, the book was published after his death, as William Watson Woollen died on March 26, 1921. His obituary in the Indianapolis Star on March 27, reported that he died of bronchitis after a month’s illness. The Woollen Papers, maintained at the special collection Indianapolis Room at the Indianapolis Central Library, contains numerous letters of condolences to his widow, and son Evans, as well as remarks from the Indianapolis Bar Association, of which Woollen had been a member. Of note is a letter from the Indiana Department of Conservation, and its director, Richard Lieber, the founder of the state park system, which recognized Woollen’s role and early involvement in the conservation movement within Indiana. The letter states that “[t]he State of Indiana, through the officers of the Department of Conservation, not only recognize a deep obligation to William Watson Woollen, but in addition, clearly understand that the almost overwhelming demand for conservation of our natural resources could not have come about if torchbearers of the character, of the ability and the perseverance of the late fellow citizen, had not shown the way of making a true estimate and of placing proper valuation on our natural resources and all they involve.”
On May 28, 1921 the Indiana Academy of Science, Indiana Audubon Society, and Indiana Nature Study Club met for a joint meeting in remembrance of their common member, William Watson Woollen. A monument to Woollen was placed at the top of a hill in the Gardens given by Woollen “as a park where wild plant and bird life might be preserved.” The Indiana Academy of Science, of which Woollen had been a member for almost 30 years, remembered Woollen in the 1921 annual proceedings. Member Amos Butler, in remembering Woollen, recalled that “[h]e loved the things of the early days. The trees and woods and their inhabitants were all his friends. He saw with regret the vanishing of our wildlife—the wildflowers, the primeval forest and the birds.” A speech given by Dean Stanley Coulter, a member of the Nature Study Club, eulogized Woollen, commending his foresight to the ideals of conservation: “Very early and very clearly he saw the value of our natural resources, very clearly he recognized the economic significance of birds. With far sighted vision he saw the effects of the wasting of our forests in eroded lands and lowered water levels…and in season and out of season did pioneer work along the lines of conversation of our natural resources. His ardent advocacy gained converts until at last the [State] Conservation Commission was an accomplished fact.”
Woollen’s Gardens continue to serve the purpose of natural study and have remained in a wild, untouched, and undeveloped state, in compliance with Woollen’s stipulations in 1909. In 1966, the great loop of Interstate 465 cut through the eastern boundary of the Gardens, and the Parks Department gave up 11 acres of the land for the construction, which limited access. In 1964, the Star reported that the Indiana governor had proposed a pedestrian bridge to connect the Garden with the northern bank of Fall Creek, since interstate construction would limit access. However, the bridge never materialized. Not long after, the property to the south of the park was sold to private interests, including a large apartment complex and several private homes. The north and west sides of the Gardens are bordered by Fall Creek. This development has cut off easy access to the Gardens. While Indy Parks lists the Garden on its website, albeit misspelled, their maps do not include the property and no accommodations or improvements are made for visitors, likely in line with Woollen’s desire for the property to remain in a wild state.
Without trespassing on private property, visiting the park is accomplished by fording Fall Creek from the north. Once in the Gardens, a visitor encounters steep hills, ravines, and little sign of human presence (see image at the top of the blog), save some trash which had washed down the ravines, presumably from the nearby apartment complex, and the remains of an old campsite. Old building materials are located along Fall Creek and close to the interstate bridge over Fall Creek, near the former cultivated portion of the land (photo above), which had several small structures in the past. Woollen asserted on several occasions that the land had never been “pastured,” so the property could possibly be considered old growth. The trees in the Gardens are massive, especially the tulip trees, some of which are several feet in diameter. An example of one such tulip tree is pictured to the left.
A faint trail leading from the high portion of the park near the apartment complex, to the low ground along Fall Creek (near the remains of the buildings) was faintly visible during a visit in the fall of 2020. The trail is not maintained and has not been maintained for many years. A LIDAR scan of the area showed a trace of the trail, although if not visited during the fall, the trail would likely not have been visible. Animal life was mostly limited to squirrels, chipmunks, and birds, although some deer were spotted in a thicket along Fall Creek near the interstate, and in the far western portion of the Gardens. Of note, the boulder with the memorial plaque honoring Woollen and his gift to the city is still in place, a few hundred feet north of the property line with the apartment complex.
In July 1987, the local Audubon Society chapter requested several areas in Indianapolis be named as state nature preserves. Woollen’s Gardens was included in this and subsequent reports indicated this designation had been awarded. However, I could not find any information on the Indiana Department of Natural Resources website about the Garden, and the land’s preserved character is enforced by the city’s park department, although its best defense to its natural state is the lack of access. Some maps of the area show the park
Because of its preserved status, Woollen’s Gardens are still used by researchers, a throwback to the old Nature Study Club. In 2017, an article presented in the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science, Dolan, et al (2017), discussed a “floristic inventory” taken at the Gardens, using permanent research plots established in 2003 and 2017, and noted that the “site has been long-recognized as one of the highest-quality forested natural areas in the city.” The article also stated that the location of the Gardens has limited the expansion of invasive species: “Woollen’s Gardens has little foot traffic due to limited parking, few trails, and lack of publicity. These features may contribute to the relatively low numbers of non-native and invasive plant species present, as hikers can introduce and spread non-native seed.” Of note, the researchers for this article were from Butler University, appropriate considering Woollen’s initial desire that the land be used by that institution’s students for the study of nature.
Woollen's Garden is a beautiful area, which has a relatively low impact from humans (at least since the interstate was built) when compared to other parks. Considering the terms of its donation, this is not a park for large groups, picnics, biking, sledding, camping, etc. Small group and individual exploration, and responsible use of the park, is the order of the day.
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Indiana Historical Society (1910) Log Cabin Under Construction, Woollen's Garden, Samuel Elliott Perkins Family Collection, 1835-1947