Chesterton Tribune



Dunes parks and preservation groups make for summer museum exhibit

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There’s more than corn in Indiana.

Any Dunelander can tell you that, for right in Westchester Twp. is access to some of the most beautiful bathing beaches in the nation. In fact nearly three million visitors travel to Northwest Indiana each year to play in the Dunes parks’ white-sand coastlines, hike its trails, or get an eyeful of its diverse plant life, with more orchid species than Hawaii.

The Indiana Dunes will be preserved by our National Park System to be enjoyed by generations to come, but that was not so certain 50 years ago when a great struggle to preserve the dunes was waged by environmentalists against congressmen and business tycoons, who sought to build industries on the lakeshore.

The events and drama of the clash spanning from the early 20th century to establishment of a state park in 1916 and later a national park in 1966 are featured in the Westchester Township History Museum’s summer exhibit “Pageant, Protest, and Progress: Saving the Indiana Dunes,” which opened in June and runs until Sept. 1.

Museum Educator Susan Swarner said “everyone kind of knows the Dunes” but many may not realize how deep the back story goes.

“We thought it was a really good story to share,” Swarner said. The exhibit is meant to honor those who fought to preserve the Indiana Dunes for over 100 years.

To give museum visitors a tangible, up-close look at the legacy of the Dunes, the exhibit features memorabilia and historic photos from the first preservation groups, their publicity materials, Dunes painter Frank Dudley’s camera, and fashionable swim wear from nearly a century ago.

Prairie Club in the Dunes

The exhibit starts off with a profile of one of the earliest groups that fostered the Dunes preservation effort, the Prairie Club, which incorporated in 1911. Made up of Chicago residents who regularly made trips to the Dunes, the group previously called themselves Chicago’s Saturday Afternoon Walking Club.

The Prairie Club built a clubhouse near Tremont in 1913 and created a committee to voice its goal of land preservation and to dissuade those interested in industrial development. Once the National Parks Service was commissioned by Congress in 1916, the club pushed to make Dunes preservation a national effort. Their work proved futile at first, as the nation turned its attention to World War I.

Thinking smaller, the Prairie Club worked to establish the Indiana Dunes State Park in 1923, after several years of lobbying the Indiana legislature.

Museum-goers can view some early photographs of the Prairie Club members perched “atop the last Dune” and at Miller Beach.

To promote the Dunes, the Prairie Club held public pageants, the largest of which being “Dunes Under Four Flags” in 1917, where the group performed interpretive dances and reenacted the known history of the area under French, Spanish, British and American flags.

Once Dunes State Park opened, there was a boom of tourism, but the more people came to the Dunes the more it was being eyed for commercial development.

Eyes on a National Park

Steel mills, power plants and logging operations began encroaching along the shoreline.

As construction expanded, a group of twenty-some women met at the home of Ogden Dunes resident and English teacher Dorothy R. Buell, in 1952, to discuss their interest in “saving the Dunes” and they formed the Save the Dunes Council.

The new council’s mission was to protect 3,500 acres of land between Ogden Dunes and Dune Acres, but the odds turned against them as state lawmakers’ interest grew in industrial development. Save the Dunes hatched the idea of getting Congress to create a Dunes national park and after the state’s U.S. Senators gave them a cold shoulder, the Council found Illinois Senator Paul Douglas to champion their cause, which drew national attention.

“It was kind of a big deal,” said Swarner.

Douglas became so involved with the push for the Dunes national park that he became known as “the third senator from Indiana.”

The Save the Dunes Council produced a film strip to educate the rest of the nation on why the Dunes should be preserved, calling it “a haven of recreation” and “one of the world’s most unique and unspoiled playgrounds.” The film, narrated by Ken Nordine, implored citizens to write their legislators telling them they “want the Dunes to be preserved in their natural state for (their) children to enjoy.”

Exhibit visitors can watch the film playing on a continuous loop.

A different view

Not all Duneland residents during the days of the Prairie Club and the Save the Dunes Council wanted to see the beaches left alone. Commercial development became the agenda for many citizens and government officials, the exhibit relates. They supported the creation of the “Port of Indiana” and obtained federal funding.

A group called the Indiana Citizens Association protested against a national park, promoting proliferation of industrial improvements and job creation.

While Douglas and the Save the Dunes Council were pushing a bill for a Dunes national park, Bethlehem Steel wanted to build a port right where a large dune sat. It built its plant in a compromise approved by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, which included the foundation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

The others

The exhibit tells of less prominent groups which gave their support as well. Closely linked with the Prairie Club, the National Dunes Park Association lobbied dignitaries for the creation of a national park.

The Friends of Our Native Landscape was a citizen group, formed by architect Jens Jensen in 1913, which not only fought for the Dunes but dedicated itself to conservation throughout the Midwest.

In 1958, Herb Read, of the Save the Dunes Council, founded the Porter County Chapter of the Izaak League which joined in the cause promoting conservation and sustainability of natural land.

Later came the Shirley Heinze Environmental Fund in memory of Heinze, an Ogden Dunes resident, in 1981.

“Father of Ecology”

The exhibit also recognizes an original member of the Prairie Club, University of Chicago professor Henry Chandler Cowles, who brought international scientific attention to the Dunes through his dissertation published in the Botanical Gazette magazine in 1899, earning him the moniker “father of plant ecology.”

Save the Dunes Council later purchased the 56 acres where Cowles did his studies, now the Cowles Bog.

The current restoration of the Cowles Bog is mentioned in the exhibit. The NPS has been removing invasive plant and tree species that gained a foothold after removal of sand dunes in the 1960s, which altered the landscape.

Women of the Dunes

The exhibit pays tribute to some of the Dunes’ more notable matriarchs. Sharing the spotlight with Save the Dunes leader Buell are Bess Sheehan, who served as chairman of the Dunes Park Committee of the State Federated Woman’s Club from 1916-1923 and helped raise funds to buy park land winning her the nom de plume “Dunes Lady.”

Then there was Alice Gray, better known as “Diana of the Dunes,” who emigrated from Chicago to live in the Dunes in a shack, wanting nothing but to be left alone.

An early member of the Save the Dunes Council who went on to do more was local artist Hazel Hannell, who shared her love for the Dunes by referencing it in every piece of art she created.

Other Council leaders were Sylvia Troy, Ruth Osann, and Charlotte Read.


Museum curator Serena Sutliff said she chose to exhibit the Dunes because they are “such an important part of our area Ð economically, geographically, and historically.”

“The more I spoke with people like Herb and Charlotte Read, the more I realized the lengths people went to save the Dunes. I just wanted to tell their story,” Sutliff said. “The thing that surprised me most was the amount of work that went into that movement.”

The museum, 700 W. Porter Ave., is open 1-5 p.m. on Wednesdays through Sundays. To schedule group tours, call 219-983-9715.




Posted 7/16/2013