History of Hickory Ridge Tower
The Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower, now standing guard over the Charles C. Deam Wilderness was once a sentinel built to protect a fledgling forest from wildfire. Today, it stands as a tribute to its builders, the last lookout tower remaining on the Hoosier National Forest.
The Hickory Ridge Tower was built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It was manned and used for fire detection until the 1970's. It is 110 feet tall, made of steel, with a 7 foot square cab and 133 metal steps. Originally there was a cabin or guard station, a latrine, and a garage built on the site. All but the tower have now been removed.
Early lookouts were simple perches in the crowns of tall trees or merely ladder steps nailed to a tall tree so someone could climb up and look around. By the 1930's, the tower's design had been perfected and most were uniform. At their peak in 1953, there were 5,060 towers in the nation, nine on the Hoosier National Forest. Their cost ranged from $960 in 1931 to $9,273 in 1964.
Inside the tower's cabin, entered through a hinged trapdoor in the cabin's floor, was an alidade on a podium. The alidade has been removed from the Hickory Ridge Tower, but it was a circular map with the fire tower location in the center and compass directions around the edge. Attached to the map was a swivel range finder with a sighting wire. When smoke was sighted, the towerman lined up the sighting wire with the smoke. By plotting the intersection of lines of sight from more than one tower, the precise location of the fire was determined.
A telephone or radio was then used to report the fire and dispatch crews. It was common for the lookout towers, usually built in remote areas, to be the first sites in a rural area to get a telephone or radio. They served as the area's link to the outside world.
Here James Wasson, from the Tell City Civilian Conservation Corp Camp splices wire on the Bryantsville-Shoals line. Many miles of phone lines were put in and maintained to link the remote towers to the homes of fire wardens and ranger stations so that fire crews could be rounded up if a fire was spotted.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was the most successful of all Roosevelt's New Deal programs of the 1930's. It employed men during the Great Depression era and put them to work in a variety of services. The U.S. Army ran the CCC camps , but it was the U.S. Forest Service who put them to work.
On the Hoosier, the CCC crews fought fire, planted trees, developed habitat for fish and wildlife, constructed roads, bridges, campgrounds, and lookout towers. During the early days of the Hoosier National Forest, the CCC served as the primary work force for a skeletal crew of foresters. A CCC camp, located in Kurtz, not only built the lookout tower at Hickory Ridge and Dutch Ridge, but also the one at Trinity Springs. They reconstructed the Tower Road, the Maumee Road, and the old Dutch Ridge Road (now State Road 446). The rock to build the roads was quarried from what is now Blackwell Pond. The CCC also built several new homes for local residents who lived in deteriorating houses.
Raymond Axsom staffed the Hickory Ridge Lookout for 26 of the years it was in use. Axsom stayed in the tower during periods of high fire danger. When he wasn't on duty in the tower he helped survey land lines, mark timber, route signs, and did maintenance work on Forest.
Axsom had a farm just 2 miles from the tower and was hired in 1936 as the first towerman. He was replaced in 1938 and 1939 by young men from the CCC camp who were assigned to keep watch. Axsom noted the young men kept falling asleep in the tower. A few fires got unnecessarily large because they weren't reported promptly, so in 1940, he was called back to the lookout.
Many of the towermen were local farmers recruited to man the towers during high fire danger. At least two of the towers however, were by staffed by women, the wives of the men originally hired to do the job. According to Clarissie Carroll, former lookout on the Georgia Tower, when her husband tired of working in the tower, he just gave her the job. She recalls, "The rules weren't as strict as they are now, I never told anyone I was taking over. I just did it."
At the base of most towers, the Forest Service provided a two room house for the towerman and his family. To climb the Hickory Ridge Tower today would give the impression that it might have been a lonely life living at the base of the tower. But at the time the tower was built, there were 80 farms and homesteads in the area.
From the top of the tower (photo below from 1937 looking northeast), you would have seen several homes, including a one room log cabin across the road where a family with six children, chickens, and hogs lived. Near Blackwell pond you could have seen a one-room school. A general store stood at the junction of the road to Maumee. You would also have been able to see a grist mill, two taverns, a blacksmith shop, and many open fields.
During periods of high danger, a small crew of fire fighters were stationed at the base of the tower. When the towerman spotted smoke, they were immediately dispatched to put it out. Axsom recalls periods when there might have been 4-5 fires start in a day, so the fire fighters were kept busy.
He recalls the worst fire in the Hickory Ridge area in his memory was in 1952. An old man was burning off his garden plot on a windy day. The fire got away from him and spread into the woods. Before it was out it was to burn over 2,000 acres and spread for about 6 miles. He said the fire had flames 30-40 feet high but was stopped within a half mile of the Hickory Ridge Tower.
As frightening as the fire was, Axsom said the time the tower was struck by lightening with him in the top was worse. And he was the most frightened the time an unexpected storm hit with high winds. Since towers had been known to blow over he had quickly started down. But the wind got to blowing so hard he said he had to sit down and wrap his legs around the stairway to keep from being blown off the top, he added "that's the only time I was REALLY frightened!"
Aerial shot of Hickory Ridge Tower in 1967.
A New Purpose
Over time, the open farmlands around the tower have reverted to forest.
Raymond Axsom is now gone and the house near the base of the tower was torn down. Today the tower serves visitors to the Charles C. Deam Wilderness by offering them a panoramic view of the Forest and Lake Monroe.
In October 1990, Hickory Ridge Lookout was placed on the National Historic Lookout Register, it was the fourth lookout tower to be listed nationally, and the first in Indiana.
Please Be Careful: If you choose to climb the tower, use caution. The steps may be slick in rainy or icy weather. Stay out of the tower in high winds or during storms. It is a strenuous climb to the top, know your limitations, climb slowly, and use the handrails.