near agreement on JPG wildlife refuge
former U.S. Army ammunition
testing base now shared by hunters,
Air Guard jets, local businesses
MADISON, Ind. Deep in the heart of the densely
wooded Jefferson Proving Grounds, a family of wild geese float silently
across a peaceful stream. Overhead, a squirrel darts from limb to limb.
A few yards down the gravel road that rings this vast
wilderness, a startled deer races for cover. At the foot of a decades-old
iron bridge, a black rat snake suns itself on a rock, then slithers
into the dark cracks as intruders approach.
This area is also home to beavers, river otters, coyotes, osprey, eagles,
blue heron, the rare Henslows sparrow and the endangered Indiana
Bat. JPG also harbors impressive two- and three-arched limestone bridges
that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and stand
as relics of Ind-ianas early 1900s attempt to improve its road
Civil War history buffs still relish the stories of John Hunt Morgan
and his raiders, who rode across the JPG property in 1863 with Union
soldiers in close pursuit. Three of Morgans men were captured
at a location that is now off limits because of depleted uranium and
ordnance contamination. Nevertheless, a stone marker identifies the
Hard to believe that this bastion of nature, wildlife and historical
sites exists a mere four miles from Madisons city limits and spreads
across three Indiana counties. Hard to believe that the U.S. Army tested
artillery and exploded bombs here over a 54-year period, from 1941 until
the base closure in 1995.
Perhaps even more astonishing has been the odd co-existence of the tools
of modern warfare with the docile sights and sounds of Mother Nature.
The guns have long fallen silent here at this 55,000-acre former Army
ammunition testing base, but the wildlife and natural wonders endure.
A not-for-profit group of 50 conservation-minded citizens are working
to preserve the history of JPG and eventually establish a museum on
a parcel of land near the main entrance. The museum would house oral
histories and documents from those who worked at the base or once lived
on the farms before the government took over.
The groups sole employee, Kay Sudhoff, already is busy transcribing
oral histories at an office in the Venture Out Business Center in Madison.
They hope to obtain a parcel of land near the JPG entrance to build
In addition to an $8,500 grant from the Community Foundation of Madison
and Jefferson County, the group is applying for other grant money to
build the museum. They also plan to sell T-shirts, hats and other items
over the Internet.
Our organization brought them on as an affiliate to give them
a nonprofit structure so they could apply for grants, explained
Gary Conant, coordinator of the Versailles, Ind.-based Historic Hoosier
Hills. Once we established the structure subcommittees
and officers our first priority was to get these oral histories,
because many of these people are now 75 to 95 years old.
Meanwhile, the USFWS has been negotiating with Army and Air Force officials
to establish a 51,000-acre refuge, to be called the Big Oaks National
USFWS has been managing the natural resources at JPG since 1996 as part
of a cooperative agreement with the Army. The Service supports a five-member
staff based across the hall from JPG site manager Ken Knouf, one of
the three last remaining Army employees from the once 387-strong civilian
staff. Air Force Maj. Bill Nolen and eight others operate the bombing
In addition to monitoring and managing wildlife habitats, the USFWS
has directed various seasonal programs that allow hunters into areas
north of the firing line to harvest deer, quail, rabbits and other game.
What makes this place so neat is the variety you have flat
lands, creeks, hilly land, rock ledges, anything you want, said
group member Mary Ellen Munier of Madison.
Although the Army closed the base five years ago, JPG has been shared
by Army officials and the Indiana Air National Guard, which has used
the bombing ranges in the far north end since 1977 for practice runs.
Every week, Air Guard jets scream overhead as pilots from bases in Indiana,
Michigan and Ohio drop inert practice bombs on range targets.
The Guard conducts about 2,100 training missions a year. Despite the
establishment of the wildlife refuge, Guard officials say they will
continue to use the 1,083-acre bombing range. Pilots fly at 16,000 feet
and higher, similar to the altitude of todays real missions.
Also nestled on a 90-foot limestone bluff in the north end of JPG sits
Old Timbers Lodge, a unique two-story structure built from 1930-1932
by Cincinnati industrialist and conservationist Alexander Thomson. The
lodge, which features 14-inch-thick limestone walls and exposed ceiling
timbers inside the main room, can accommodate up to 75 people and is
still used by Army military and civilian employees and retirees for
parties and special events. Currently, the lodge is empty and awaits
Thomson died in 1939, just seven years after the lodge was completed.
His son, Chilton Thomson, wrote a book about his familys life
at the lodge until the government took it over in 1940, amid bitter
feelings by the Thomsons.
At the southern end of JPG, encompassing about 4,000 acres, 15 commercial
businesses employing 200 people operate in abandoned warehouses and
buildings south of the firing line. About 150 residents occupy the houses
and test buildings that once housed military families and operational
I love it out here, said JPG Heritage co-chair David Lee,
who lives in one of the houses. Its like a big family.
Both groups rent from developer Dean Ford, who currently is leasing
the south end from the Army, with exception of a 400-acre tract that
awaits unexploded ordnance cleanup, scheduled for this summer. Jefferson
County has asked that the tract be transferred to it to be managed as
a natural area. Ford and county officials are negotiating the future
control of that land.
Ford purchased the southern end property in 1996 from the government
for $5.1 million, but Army officials have delayed transferring the property
until it has been cleaned up.
Ford, who owns a farm equipment dealership in Dupont, has been farming
900 acres but has had several offers to develop various parcels for
commercial use. The most notable a garbage landfill and a go-cart
track and entertainment complex both failed for various reasons.
Ford says he has received several offers from other businesses.
Just inside the south entrance off Hwy. 421, meanwhile, a 220-acre tract
has been donated to Jefferson County for creating a park around Krueger
Lake. Fishermen already use the lake, but ballfields, a campground and
picnic tables may some day be added.
Its been really interesting out here since the base closed
down, but mostly it functions as a refuge, regardless of what they call
it, said Knouf, an Ohio native whose job is uncertain.
No matter what happens, the Air Force is going to continue to
use it, and wildlife will continue to thrive. But because of the liability
the Army retains for unexploded ordnance, the question is, who is going
to stay around and guard it?
Visit the JPG Heritage Partnership website at:
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