Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower, Monet impression, buzzard barrens

It took two trips last week to the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower to capture a blue-skied, cloud-filled horizon shot for the natural history chapter of Rewilding Southern Indiana: The Hoosier National Forest. In between, grandson Vale and I embarked upon a journey south to the Boone Creek Barrens, which, at least in terms of book photos, was unproductive.

The first Hickory Ridge tower jaunt on Sunday produced a couple quick images of the historic Brooks Cabin and a reduced confidence in my weather radar skills. Instead of catching an expected break in the stormy afternoon weather, I spent a futile half hour in the car waiting for an abatement in the rain, which started literally the minute I arrived. The wait did generate an impressionistic wilderness-through-a-rainy-windshield image, reminiscent of Claude Monet’s "Weeping Willow Tree."

Our journey to Boone Creek Barrens on Tuesday was timed to an advertised color explosion from prairie plants that thrive on the thin, dry soils atop bedrock, including blazing stars, rattlesnake master, white wild indigo, hoary puccoon, and downy phlox. An informational flier said these midsummer beauties were viewable from the road.

We found the barrens but no color. And with a 5 year old in tow during peak bug season, I decided to forego any ridge top hikes in search of multihued forest openings. Instead, we headed to the nearby Buzzard Roost Recreation Area for some grandson-behind-the-camera shots for the family photo archive.

The Friday morning tower shoot was the byproduct of a different mission. A couple Forest Service employees were stationed there to introduce hikers to a new digital mapping system through which they can plot their positions on Hoosier National maps in real time. I downloaded three maps – Deam Wilderness, Hemlock Cliffs and Tipsaw Lake – which, via GPS, will pinpoint where I am at any location on these properties. More maps are coming.

The weather just happened to be perfect for a Hoosier National horizon image to illustrate the region’s naturally flat landscape, which has been carved into the Ohio River Valley and the national forest’s rugged hill country by 10,000 years of post-glacial erosion. Plus, the 110-foot tower, which stands on the edge of the Charles C. Deam Wilderness, is a photographic treasure in and of itself.

The Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower is the only one of eight that still stands on Hoosier National Forest property. Its 133 steps and 7-foot-square cabin was built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a brigade of unemployed local workers hired by the Roosevelt-era Works Progress Administration to reclaim a landscape that had been devastated by a half century of unsustainable logging and rural settlement.

Fires were common on the regenerating forests -- four to five a day weren't uncommon -- and the Hickory Ridge tower was manned by towermen (and women) from its construction through the 1970s. During high-risk times, fire crews stayed at the tower site, which included a house or guard station, a latrine, and a garage. By the early 1950s, more than 5,000 such towers were in use on national forests nationwide, eight on the Hoosier. Another one was located at Buzzard Roost.

The Hickory Ridge vista encompasses broad swaths of Brown, Monroe, Jackson and Lawrence Counties that had been settled and cleared by the time the lookout was built. Eighty farms and homesteads occupied the nearby ridge tops, connected by more than 50 miles of backcountry roads in the Deam Wilderness alone. Visible from the tower were a general store, a grist mill, two taverns and a blacksmith shop. A one-room school sat near the Blackwell Pond, which today is accessible from the Brooks Cabin. A family with six children, hogs and chickens lived across the road.

The Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower today is sourrounded by the federally protected Deam on three sides and Hoosier forestland on the fourth. All that remains of the community are the CCC's roads, scattered family cemeteries, old foundations and structural remains, and domestic plantings like daffodils and yuccas.

Hoosier National Forest Photographs: Top Three, Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower; Bottom, Buzzard Roost Recreation Area


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