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 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
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
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
Eyes on a National Park
Steel mills, power plants and logging operations began encroaching along the
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
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
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,
“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.