Today, northeast Indiana is known as lake country. However, in the early 20th century there was a movement to drain the lakes, one of this area's best natural resources.
The Great Black Swamp and the Limberlost had been tamed by this time and the land was mostly used for agricultural purposes. There were those who believed the lakes held no economic value and should also be drained and made to be productive.
Maurice McClue, an Angola attorney and conservationist, lobbied passionately for the preservation of the lakes in Steuben County. McClue's grandfather, John McClue, purchased land in 1836 along what is now known as the first basin at Lake James.
In 1917, McClue wrote eloquently about the value of Steuben County's lakes and said we would be sorry if the greed of a few men went unchecked as it did with the forests of the county. “Many look at the water surface as simply taking up so much land, that might be devoted to cultivation, and yet it is doubtful if an equal area of land would be worth as much to the country as the water surface. It is hard to estimate the value of the fish that are taken from the waters of the country every year but if probably runs to an amount somewhere between $25,000 and $50,000.”
At this time ice was also cut from the lakes in the winter to use in ice boxes that kept foods cool. A tourist industry was also beginning. Hotels, stores and summer cottages were beginning to appear. Some stores around the lakes were largely being supported by the “summer people” and Maurice McClue was quick to point that out to business owners and taxpayers.
Our state representative in 1920 was Louis W. Fairfield of Fort Wayne. He recommended that the lakes of northern Indiana be under the department of conservation to ensure that they would be preserved.
Richard Lieber is now known as the father of state parks. At this time he was head of the Indiana State Department of Conservation. He was pleased that by this time people were beginning to see the value of their natural resources.
According to Lieber, “In 1918 President Roosevelt called a conference of governors of the states to consider the condition of our natural resources. As a result of that conference the conservation movement sprang up.” Lieber called Americans “the most wasteful people on earth. Twenty-five years ago people did not think much about conservation and the necessity of preserving the natural resources because these resources were so abundant that people thought they were inexhaustible.”
Thanks to the foresight of a small group of people almost 100 years ago, the lakes are still here for us to enjoy. Can we imagine a summer in northeast Indiana without our lakes?