Octagon Moonrise.Org

Preservation and 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 their work).

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 damaged.

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 an unimaginable
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 attractive.

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 http://www.ohiohistory.org/places/newarkearthworks/managementplan/index.cfm 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.

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