Volunteer Ralph Cooley, garbed in his cold-weather clothes, led a tour of Chestnut Ridge Trail at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge for Saturday’s Wetlands Day.
The annual event celebrates the contributions wetlands — links between land and water – provide for the many birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and plants that call them home.
As the Muscatatuck Wildlife Society member walked along the 4/10-mile trail with another society member, Richard Winegarden, and other visitors, Cooley stopped on occasion to point out different plants, wildlife and the sites of homesteads of the earliest settlers in the area.
“This land down here used to be farmland and part of homesteads years before that,” Cooley said.
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The 7,724-acre refuge, off of U.S. 50 just east of Seymour, was established in 1966. Muscatatuck means “Land of the Winding Waters.” The area includes flood-prone creeks and many small springs. Most of the early attempts to drain it failed, making it a prime location for a wildlife refuge.
Before the first settlers arrived, the refuge was home to a number of native Americans including the Piankeshaws of the Miami tribe, the Wyandotte, the Shawnee and the Delaware, on a seasonal basis. Little evidence remains from those times.
“If you see flowers planted, a lot of times that was someone’s yard back then,” Cooley said of the homesteads and farms that dotted the area before 1966. “A lot of those are planted in straight lines and just keep blooming year after year.”
The homesteaders included the Stanfields, Hunts, Richarts, Ruddicks, Bollingers, Boxmans, Pfaffenbergers, Nichters and McDonalds.
“It’s hard to imagine that these roughly 8,000 acres were someone’s farmland,” Cooley said of what was little more than swampland.
Three men, Harold McReynolds, Charley Scheffe and Jim Endicott, are credited as being the “founding fathers” of the refuge.
According to Cooley, McReynolds, a fisheries biologist for the Indiana Department of Conservation — now the Indiana Department of Natural Resources — discovered the property while driving from Indianapolis to Scottsburg along U.S. 31 on a business trip with a co-worker in 1956. There was no Interstate 65 at the time.
During a later stop in the area, the topic of duck hunting came up in conversation with the location Moss Lake, at what is now the refuge, being discussed as an ideal area. McReynolds had never heard of the lake and investigated it with Scheffe, a co-worker who was a land acquisition specialist with the department of conservation, Cooley said.
Scheffe later tried to get his director interested in Muscatatuck as a state waterfowl area but nothing came of that idea.
Years later Scheffe, who had become a regional realty specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Region 3, suggested Muscatatuck when the initiative to establish a national wildlife refuge in Indiana began, Cooley said.
Scheffe’s superiors were not eager to recognize the site as it was too far east, in their opinion, for waterfowl, according to a history of the refuge.
Scheffe, however, eventually enlisted the support of conservation clubs, the Indiana Wildlife Federation and other groups for their help in establishing a refuge at Muscatatuck.
Endicott, president of the Seymour Chamber of Commerce and Dudleytown Conservation Club at the time, also helped gained local support for federal funding and networked with friends and service organizations in surrounding counties. He and his family had moved to Seymour in 1948 for him to start his own business, Endicott’s Men’s Apparel and Sporting Goods, on West Second Street.
Eventually, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relented, forging the way for the establishment of Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, and Scheffe became the refuge’s first manager.
Cooley also spoke about a number of other topics in the walk, including the wildlife including otters found in wetlands.
“Just because you look at the water once and don’t see anything doesn’t mean there’s not lots there,” he said.
Cooley said the quality of waterways can be judged by the wildlife that call them home — the better the water, the more creatures that can be found living there.
He also talked about the invasive species of animals or plants not native to the area that have begun to overwhelm native animals and plants.
Invasive plants in Indiana include purple loosestrife, Japanese honeysuckle, autumn olive, glossy buckthorn and garlic mustard, he said.
“Muscatatuck is such a magical place, it has something for everyone whether it’s hunting or fishing or learning about nature,” Cooley said.
Cooley said while the refuge is a good place to see nature, it is not a zoo and there are no guarantees that anyone will see wildlife. To do so often requires patience, he said.
“People drive past or go through the woods every day and they never see the little things that make this place beautiful,” he said.
Saturday also was the 114th birthday of the National Wildlife Refuge System — an event celebrated with cake at noon at the refuge’s visitor center.
The refuge is one of more than 555 refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are just three, however, in Indiana. The others are Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge near Madison and Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge near Oakland.