A HISTORY OF DESTRUCTION AND PRESERVATION
Parks: an Historical Perspective
by Jeff Gill
The sight of a golf course occupying one of "The Seventy Wonders of the
Ancient World" is odd and to many, upsetting. Octagon State Memorial,
leased to Moundbuilders Country Club since 1911, has been called
"playing miniature golf in St. Peter’s" and likened to "soccer practice
in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity."
The future of this amazingly important piece of land is tied to its
past, and solutions will necessarily take into account the entire
story. That story is both more surprising and less thoughtless than a
casual visitor to today’s Octagon might think, and shows the still
developing course of preservation and public interest into our time, a
story still unfinished.
We can go back to a tantalizing hint in records from a Kenyon College
commencement, where Daniel Webster, famed Senator from pre-Civil War
days, gave an address and was said to have expressed a wish to see the
Newark Earthworks preserved by the federal government. There is no
evidence that this possibly well-intended statement was ever acted on by
Sen. Webster, yet the idea clearly had been heard discussed in public.
If such action had been taken, it would have been the first National
Park, supplanting Yellowstone, which was set apart for "the public good"
in March of 1872. Other lands and sites in subsequent years were
"reserved" by states and private organizations (Mount Vernon and
Monticello are still operated by associations much like the Ohio
Historical Society, private organizations with public funds supporting
But the National Park Service as we know it did not really come into
existence until after World War I, with the Federal Antiquities Act and
a number of other initiatives pressed by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt
passing after his term in 1919. For most of Yellowstone’s first
half-century, the Department of War (now Defense) had responsibility for
protecting, managing, and to some degree interpreting the park. The
distinctive uniforms of today’s "park rangers" dates in large part to
the U.S. Army uniform of that time.
1890 saw a century ending, but the city of Newark’s growth just
beginning to spill across Raccoon Creek toward the west. It was in this
period, when public parks were only just becoming popular with the work
of designers like Olmstead and Burnham, that the leadership of both
Licking County and Newark saw the gathering threat to the earthworks.
The Smithsonian Institution, under Cyrus Thomas, had surveyed the
Octagon and Circle in that year, with erosion starting to take a toll on
the northern half of the two enclosures where farming was ongoing. Most
of the aboveground part of the structure was still in the same condition
it had been when Charles Whittlesey had first surveyed in 1847, with
only the Observatory Mound at the southwest point of the Circle severely
Possibly the interest taken by scientists from Washington D.C. spurred
action, and the work of an early association of preservationists led by
Isaac Smucker of Newark, inspired by the groundwork laid by former Mayor
Israel Dille, meant that most officials with the city, county, and
schools were aware of and interested in the mounds. However the effort
began, what is clear is that a levy was placed on the ballot for a bond
issue to purchase the Octagon and Circle (the Great Circle, or
"Fairgrounds Circle" was considered safe as the Licking County
Agricultural Society owned it for a county fairgrounds), and voters
countywide passed it overwhelmingly.
Now that the public owned it, what to do with it? What seems obvious
today – make it a park – was much less obvious in 1891. Effectively
speaking, there was no National Park System, and in Ohio the original
Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society (forerunner to OHS) was just
started two years before, and was struggling to convince the state
Legislature to purchase and preserve Fort Ancient. The question asked
of the OAHS members by the state had to be in the minds of the local
leaders with the Octagon: how will you manage this site?
The federal government used soldiers at Yellowstone, but the state had
no standing body to detail onto such work. While OAHS debated how they
could responsibly care for Fort Ancient, the proposal from Licking
County’s elected officials in state government was admirably adroit:
use the property for a State Militia Training Ground. This way,
restoration work and management of the grounds could be done in the
summer, local economic benefits from the visiting militiamen would help
to balance the books, and everyone is happy.
At first, this situation did work to everyone’s advantage. Quickly
named "Camp McKinley," the site was popular with visiting soldiers from
around the sate, with a cool river to the north, shady woods to the
south, and along the riverbanks down below the Octagon was a river
bottom perfect for a firing range.
Unfortunately, what political power can grant, clout can take away. Other
areas with influential politicians started to see the spin-off benefits of
having the militia grounds in their district, and clamored to move it
around. Finally, pitches made to the Adjutant-General that included cash
inducements for equipment and other supplies shifted the weight of
argument away from Licking County, and the militia departed.
They left behind a well-groomed property, where busy soldiers under
scientifically minded officers had re-surveyed and stabilized areas of the
geometric earthworks where ancient trees had fallen over and torn at the
slopes. Uneven spots along the tops were leveled to the height first
measured 50 years earlier. In fact, jumping to the present day, one wall
of the Octagon was "extended" by a crew supervised by an officer who
wanted to "straighten out" the otherwise geometric earthen walls; this was
found by Hively and Horn in the 1980’s when they were trying to figure out
why only one particular lunar alignment didn’t fit the right gateway, and
realized later that it had been "fixed" by the militia.
But by 1900, the Octagon area was left open and empty, and comments in
local newspapers referred to grass grown long and tree limbs littering the
lanes around it. What to do? Even in that year, for the city and county
leaders to allocate funds to staff and maintain a site simply for the
purposes of preservation would have been remarkably visionary. We might
wish that they had been, but it is hard to criticize them for not seeing a
solution barely known to governments anywhere at that time.
In 1901, we read of a Newark High School teacher laying out a golf course
on the "old militia grounds." This would have been an arrangement of
stakes and holes that could be set up and taken down quickly, without
sand-traps or other features we think of today; much more like a "Frisbee
golf course" and serving the same purpose as Columbus Metro Parks does at
Blendon Woods, encouraging walking around the park and experiencing nature
while having little impact on the landscape.
By 1910, the Newark Board of Trade (a predecessor body to the Licking
County Chamber of Commerce) had been given title to the Octagon property
by the local governments, as they had given the board responsibility for
promoting business, industry, and residential development. Their track
record in these areas, following the serious downturn from 1893, was one
of success and improvement except for one area: downtown Newark. Riots
became a regular feature of the weekends, with closing time for countless
bars around the south side of the Square a dangerous time for police and
citizens alike. Brothels, pawnshops, and cheap lodging for industrial
workers further intensified the concern that what had been good for
industry was not good for the community.
So when a group of local leaders suggested the building of a "Licking
County Country Club," they meant it literally: they wanted to establish a
place in the country, out in fresh air and open landscape, away from the
"miasmas" of the unhealthy air that was thought at the time to bring
tuberculosis and other ailments, as
well as to keep their children away from the fogs of industrial smoke and
barroom atmosphere. This new game, golf, had made a hit with the young
people in high school, so why not go . . .
Again, the idea that a group would "get" the mounds sounds odd in today’s
context, but the officials in 1910 were sincerely perplexed by how the
property could be both protected and maintained. A park system as we know
it was still barely even a reality in places like New York and Boston, and
luxury to a small city like Newark. Leasing to a group that would allow
public access, but take on maintenance for health and safety was extremely
1911 saw the establishment of Moundbuilders Country Club’s first nine
holes (today’s back nine) at the site known since 1933 as Octagon State
Memorial, when the Board of Trade, then defunct, handed the property over
to the Ohio Archaeological & Historical Society. The city and county
expressed some concern over the turnover, noting in the press that this
was land bought with taxpayer’s money, but assurances that public access
would be maintained removed the final obstacles. By this date, OAHS owned
and managed a number of properties, but then as now, their budget was
tight, and sharing responsibilities with a local group to cover expenses
was attractive, as is still done with sites in Zoar, Mt. Pleasant, and
others around the state.
With an extension in 1997 making the effective term of the lease last
until 2077, the relationship between preservation and access has grown
more problematic. But like the Great Circle unit of the Newark
Earthworks, with a history incorporating the State Fair, a Civil War
encampment, the County Agricultural Society fairs, and Idlewilde Park, not
to mention the WPA Camp Moundbuilders of the CCC in the 1930’s, all of
these uses are now part of the living history of a site which still has a
powerful influence on visitors and area residents.
The next chapters of the history of preservation at Octagon State memorial
are still being drafted, with a "cultural resource management plan" (see
for full text) assembled in 2003 by OHS, using a large advisory team from
all over central Ohio. The Moonrise events will be a further page, with
many more yet to be written.