The Sugar Creek tributary of the Wabash River in west-central Indiana is nature’s focus for a notable constellation of man-made resources. Most of them remain in public view. The 2,382 acres of Turkey Run State Park, Indiana’s second oldest state park, features a 61-room lodge built in 1919, two pioneer cabins, a log church, and a covered bridge (Davis). Gobblers Knob Country Store now sells souvenirs, camping supplies, and includes a second-floor home since it was moved to its present location and made in 1943 from the park’s commissary (Graeber and Guthrie). Jungle Park, a half-mile race course with stands and nearby lodging still surviving, remains in ruins since it closed in 1960 (Williams). Turkey Run Canoe Trips occupies some of Jungle Park’s site at this writing. Surrounding these throughout Parke County are the 30 covered bridges that are the centerpieces of the county’s annual festival (Janiskee).
Deer Park at Gobblers Knob, however, is a vestige of Sugar Creek’s past recreational landscape. The little-known Jungle Park Silver-Black Fox Ranch was an earlier zoo in the area; it opened in 1929 inside Jungle Park’s grounds, but about it, little else is known (Davis, 72 and 75). By contrast, with attendance topping 1,000 on a good day, Gobblers Knob Deer Park became well-known, and modestly but consistently augmented the tourist economy born of the sites noted above (Overmyer, J.; Overmyer, K.). No longer in existence, it is physically accessible only through the courtesy of two sons of the Overmyer family that operated the site between 1968 and 1976. Kirk and Jeffrey live on the northern edge of the site, amidst a clearing in the abundant foliage and woods that dotted Deer Park, and accessed by a long dirt road screened from U.S. Highway 41 past the entrance to the state park, country store, and speedway ruins. Overgrowth camouflages even the small covered bridge that was the entrance to Deer Park adjacent to the Overmyers’ access road. It requires directions from Jeff and Kirk to find it, although once located, it can be easily seen from public view off the highway. They and their siblings also add greatly through their memories shared with this historian.
The theme of public view and private memory resonates throughout the history of Gobblers Knob Deer Park. It requires both on-site inspection coupled with the numerous postcards surviving from Deer Park and oral history to recover the park’s history. Strangely, the local newspapers hardly mentioned Deer Park: only once in its duration, an advertisement for its grand opening, and, again, on the 40th anniversary of the park’s grand opening (Advertisement 1968; “40 Years Ago,” 2008). That anniversary notice merely repeated the original advertisement in the newspaper. Nor did Deer Park help sponsor local newspaper publicity for community activities, as was customary for many business that, in turn, advertised themselves on the same page as the publicity. Never in the years of the park’s operation could mention be found of it or the Overmyers. Nothing could be added from their obituaries in the local newspaper because decedents’ obituaries did not carry information about their public lives (Overmyer, J.W.; Overmyer, E.A.).
Tourism and leisure history within several academic disciplines have grown rapidly over the last several decades (for example, see Boorstin 1961, 77-117; Rothman 1998). One of the earliest canonical works with persistent relevance remains Erving Goffman’s, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1973); he holds that one’s public presentation contrasts with one’s private life since the modern era, because social actions no longer strictly prescribe how one behaves. In The Tourist, Dean MacCannell elucidated a front and back region for tourism experiences. In the former, tourist sites are staged for public consumption with consideration for entertainment and achieving populatrity. In the back region, site managers and interpreters prepare for public performances. The result can put into question the authenticity tourists seek in their travel (Goffman; MacCannell).
Experience at Gobblers Knob Deer Park bears on the front and back stage portrayal in a manner routinely overlooked in the study of tourism. The park’s zoo element and the entertainment there were out of synch with the rural Indiana landscape in which they were located; they were staged for the consumption of travelers to Parke County. Yet, one can learn from those surviving who managed the site that they provided pleasant personal experiences fully designed to make the tourists’ experience just as pleasant. Only one younger member of the original construction crew recalls unpleasant memories about one group of animals, the llamas. The back and the front experience for tourists and site workers alike were in agreement; hence, the distinction of front and back regions fades at the site itself. No evidence of disagreement between interested parties—site managers, visitors, the site’s neighbors, and Parke County tourism promoters—exists. It was not the contested site tourism often spawns.
Gobblers Knob Deer Park comprised 20 acres of a 45-acre lot purchased by William “Bill” and Elizabeth Overmyer in 1966. A prosperous peppermint farmer and owner of the OK Corporation, which produced Angus beef in White County, Indiana, and an astute dealer in commodities and real estate, Bill Overmyer enjoyed bringing his plans, whatever they were, to fruition. The deer park in Parke County presented another opportunity for Bill Overmyer to satisfy his entrepreneurial instincts (McElheny). For reasons no longer remembered, he and his wife made a family vacation to the Wisconsin Dells specifically to see a petting zoo and returned with idea of building one according to their own formula (Overmyer, J.; Overmyer, K.; McElheny; Liebrandt). Daughter Susan recalled very cramped cages at another petting zoo at Santa Claus Land in Indiana (McElheny).
With an adjacent two-story house in the handsome Tudor Revival style, the former Burnt Oak Inn, the Overmyers found a setting suitable for themselves and their six children near the prospective zoo site (Overmyer, T.). Although it proved rather snug for the eight-member Overmyer family, the former inn was relatively new (built 1935) and originally created for creaturely comfort as the over-flow lodging for tourists who were unable to find space at the Turkey Run Inn (Overmyer, J. 2008; Overmyer, K. 2008).
Bill Overmyer headed the family team responsible for the park that was open annually from April 1 to October 20 (on one of the postcards). Not only did he sketch the layout of the grounds, the plans for the animal sheds, the shelters where visitors could feed the animals, and the docks from which they could fish, he drove the earthmover that dug the ponds. Each day, before he sold his farm, he rose at 5 am to drive to his farm in White County and returned at the end of each day to Gobblers Knob. He promoted the park only through free passes printed in newspapers outside the immediate area and given upon a paid visitors’ exit in order to encourage a return visit (Overmyer, J.; Overmyer, K.; Liebrandt). The park was clearly not the family’s income source, only breaking even in profits, but Bill lavished great attention on its operation. All but one of the children worked extensively at the park. Only the oldest child, Marie, did not because she moved from the area shortly after her high school graduation and marriage (McElheny). As the script for Parke County tour guides stated, it “is a family business with the children taking their share of the responsibility” (“Old Covered Bridge Bus Tour”). Fred, the oldest son, managed the deer park and later took possession of it. Kirk routinely fed the animals, and Jeff assisted (Overmyer, J.; Overmyer, K.). Nancy, recalling herself to be the “official money taker,” and her mother managed the admission booth (Liebrandt 2008). Susan, the youngest child, helped fill the ice-cream cones with feed given at the admission gate for the animals, filled the 35-40 dispensers of feed located throughout the grounds, and took delight in gathering the coins, which fell from visitors’ grasp, from beneath the planks of the covered bridge at the entrance (McElheny).
Other workers in plain view were hired-hand Ivan Jackson, an older man in the neighborhood, and two veterinarians. One came from Rockville when needed, and, because a breeder’s license and another for keeping fur-bearing animals had to be maintained, the state veterinarian regularly inspected the stock (Overmyer, J.; Overmyer, K.).
Photographs permit the most enduring view, and Bill Overmyer took pains to have them made by a professional with whom he felt comfortable. One was hired to record the setting and the family on site, but could not agree with Overmyer. His work was not kept (McElheny). Floyd Mitchell of nearby Bridgeton was hired to complete the work, and he provided the picture postcards, exercising great care with his assignment. Both Jeffrey and Kirk said it seemed like a long time before he finished (2008).
More than a dozen of Mitchell’s postcards have been identified. Their sale at several places in Rockville make them a public legacy, returning the site to public view, not only for visitors to the Rockville Museum charged with public memory but for the many deltiologists elsewhere. Pictures are selected for postcards, after all, to show things as their creator preferred; they are no more objective than written records left to become so-called “primary documents” on which historians ordinarily based their conclusions. Historians of visual culture have drawn significant conclusions from postcards about various landscapes in their time (Waitt; Albers and James).
Mitchell’s images, nonetheless, corroborate in mood and message the private memories of the members of the Overmyer family’s oral history. Perhaps because they were the primary animal keepers, Jeffrey and Kirk remember the various animals’ eccentricities and how visitors regarded the animals, both individually and collectively. Deer hunters, for example, frequently visited the park to gain intimate views of animals they otherwise regarded as game (Overmyer, J.; Overmyer, K.). Susan rapidly recalls her favorite animals and many of those given individual names (McElheny 2008a; 2008b). These curious, respectful, and occasionally fond gazes are captured in time on several of Mitchell’s postcard views. Text printed on the reverse reinforces the docile images in reassuring prose. “Children can pet most animals.” “Tourists may roam over the large farm, feed and pet many of the tame deer and other animals.” The words “most” and “many” italicized in the foregoing quotations faithfully connote the fact that some animals did bite visitors. Deer, taken for docile animals, remained the park’s primary pitch. Ten to twelve deer highlighted the collection of 60 animals when the park first opened (Overmyer, J.; Overmyer, K.). Never was the name changed to zoo, although zoo would more accurately have reflected the numerous animals on display—bears, buffalo, camels, a chimpanzee, emus, goats, and a zeedonk (a hybrid zebra and donkey).
Just as the Overmyers spent much time on the site, they encouraged visitors to spend an entire day. Free passes promised a visit would be “A day you’ll long remember.” Hot dogs, chips, and drinks for sale facilitated the invitation (McElheny 2008a). Ponds were stocked for fishing. A park setting or pastime rather than an educational opportunity about zoology seems to have been structured for the visitors. No tours were given; visitors guided themselves through the grounds (Liebrandt).
There was some friction. At least one man on the construction team in 1968 remembered the llamas to be “curious and obnoxious to work around. They spit and drooled constantly. A mess” (Meece). When Gobblers Knob Deer Park closed after seven seasons, it was in part due to the Overmyers’ liabilities for some bitten visitors. The overriding cause, however, was the lack of the oldest son’s interest in carrying on the work after the parents looked for an easier retirement than managing the park would have made possible (Overmyer, J. and Overmyer, K.). The older son might have stayed, but a physician advised him to move to a warmer climate after he had a heart attack (Overmyer, T.).
Roadside attractions are among the most obvious places, while they operate, but can be among the most elusive after their demise, especially in rural areas where the sparse population offers few respondents to an oral history survey. Where respondents can be found, their memories can be clear and convincingly accurate to substitute for the written record in some instances such as Gobbler’s Knob Deer Park. They can enliven the public record from postcards, again, as Deer Park shows.
While the meanings of Deer Park were highly personal for its managers yet lacking reference to the evolving Parke County recreational landscape through participation in the area’s business associations, they had an invented quality. That is, the park took form from the private satisfactions of its managers, and they assumed the public would derive their own satisfaction. The park was a place of idealized harmony wherein man and animals existed in peace and mutual dependence in a natural setting. This combination made it unique among the sites around Sugar Creek, for all the others were places of human interaction exclusively in a natural oasis.
Tourism and leisure transformed Parke County, Indiana’s agriculturally based economy in the twentieth century. The effects are more than superficial outcroppings in public view or roadside trivialities upon the landscape of woods, streams, and fields. They do restate the differences in public view. Understanding effects, however, requires attention to the emergence, decline, or persistence of the new businesses. The documentation of the short-lived Gobblers Knob Deer Park presented here can be added to the record of the constellation of sites around Sugar Mill Creek, to peer at a later time into tourism’s and leisure’s meaning for the locale. By plumbing private memories, the front-and-back dichotomy at other sites might be discovered as imperceptible as they were for the visitors and workers at Gobblers Knob Deer Park.
The author thanks the members of the Overmyer family for their time and shared family memorabilia. Thanks also to the staff of the Rockville Public Library and the Parke County Museum.
Advertisement. 1968. The Rockville Tribune, June 20, p. 3.
Albers, P.C., and W.R. James. 1984. “Utah’s Indians and Popular Photography in the American West: A View from the Picture Post Card,” Utah Historical Quarterly 52.2: 72-91.
Boorstin, D. 1961. The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York, Athenaeum.
Davis C. “The History of Turkey Run” 1826-2007. n. p.: n. p., .
“40 Years Ago.” 2008. The Parke County Sentinel, June 18, p. 2.
Graeber, J.G., and G. Guthrie. 2002 “A Short History of how the ‘Old Commissary Building’ at Turkey Run State Park became the Gobbler’s Knob Country Store.” Transcript available at Gobbler’s Knob Country Store. Author obtained copy Oct. 4, 2008.
Goffman, E. 1973. The Presentation of self in Everyday Life. Woodstock, NY: Overlook.
Janiskee, R.L. 1974. “Rural Relic Landscape As A Recreational Resource: The Case of Parke County, Indiana,” Ph.D. thesis, Department of Geography, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Liebrandt (nee Overmyer), N. 2008a. Telephone interview by the author, October 23.
___. 2008b. Telephone interview by the author, December 1.
MacCannel, D. 1976. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York, Schocken.
McElheny (nee Overmyer), S. 2008a. Telephone interview by the author, October 12.
___. 2008b. Telephone interview by the author, October 21.
Meece, James. 2008. Email to the author, November 3.
“Old Covered Bridge Bus Tour.” c. early 1970s. In the possession of the Parke County Museum, Rockville, Indiana.
Overmyer, E.A. 2000. Obituary, The Parke County Sentinel, May 17, p. 12.
Overmyer, J. 2008. Interview by the author at Gobblers Knob Deer Park site, July 5.
Overmyer, J.W. 1995. Obituary, The Parke County Sentinel, August 30, p. 14.
Overmyer, K. 2008. Interview by the author at Gobblers Knob Deer Park site, July 5.
Overmyer, T. 2008. Telephone interview by the author, December 10.
Rothman, H.K. 1998. Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West. Lawrence: University of Kansas P.
Waitt, G. 2002. “Postcards and Frontier Mythologies: Sustaining Views of the Kimberley as Timeless.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 20: 319-344.
Williams, T.S. 2007 The Ghosts of Jungle Park: History, Myth, and Legend: The Story of a Place Like No Other. Temperance: Woodangett Press.
Keith A. Sculle has reported and published for thirty-six years about material-culture expressions on the landscape, especially those for automobile travelers. The former Head of Research and Education for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, his seventh book, America’s Main Street Hotels, (University of Tennessee Pres, co-authored) appeared in 2009.
© Keith A. Sculle