By Seth Slabaugh, The (Muncie) Star Press

Farmland, IN (AP) – Martha Davis died in the summer of 1917, leaving a 385-acre farm that included a virgin oak forest to Purdue University.

The bequest required Purdue to preserve the trees and wildflowers as a bird sanctuary and example of a native Hoosier forest. The gift prohibited hunting and commercial timber cutting and named the woods the Herbert Davis Forestry Farm.

Worried about the extinction of plants and animals as Indiana’s landscape was changing from forests to farms, Davis was serious about saving the woods. She specified that if the conditions of her gift to Purdue were broken, ownership of the property would transfer to the Methodist Missionary Society at 150 Fifth Ave., New York City, for safe-keeping.

Davis inherited the site from her father, a wealthy Delaware County farmer, school teacher and brick mason. She married Lewis Davis, a Farmland physician, in 1874. The couple had a son, Herbert, aka Herbie, in 1876.

Music, painting, religion, nature, travel, social events and her son were among Davis’s passions, according to a letter written by a descendant. The letter at the Randolph County Historical Society says Herbie had more toys than any kid in town. But he was “never well’’ and died at age 19. Davis outlived not only her husband but her only child. The 52-acre virgin forest memorializes him.

It received national attention in 1975 and remains intact a century after she died. Purdue has left it alone.

Walking through the woods today “gives you a sense of what it was like to have been in an old-growth forest when that was normative,’’ said Michael Doyle, an associate professor of history at Ball State University. “I had no idea our community harbored such remnants. It’s difficult to imagine Indiana without corn and soybeans.’’

Doyle saw the woods in May, during a walk sponsored by the Delaware County Soil and Water Conservation District. He is attracted to the “cathedral-like environment’’ of old-growth forests.

Tana Pittsford, a Delaware County 4-H leader, also took the walk, with her two grandchildren. She was surprised to see waist-high ash trees sprouting from the forest floor. News accounts had led her to believe Indiana’s ash trees “had been completely wiped out’’ by an invasive beetle native to northeastern Asia. “I thought ash trees were gone forever, but they’re coming back,’’ she said.

Some of the thousands of trees in Davis woods, north of Farmland in Randolph County, are now 300 to 400 years old.
The flat to gently rolling surface of the heavily farmed Tipton (Glacial) Till Plain across Central Indiana was mostly forested until the early 1800s, when clearing began for row crops.

“These tracts of relic forest that don’t really show strong imprints of humans are pretty rare,’’ said Michael Jenkins, an associate professor of forest ecology at Purdue. “Davis woods was never cleared by humans. No one farmed it. It’s been left alone so long that it’s one of the best tracts of old growth in the Midwest.’’

The National Park Service designated Herbert Davis Forestry Farm as a National Natural Landmark in 1975, calling it “the best old growth oak-hickory forest on the Tipton Till Plain and possibly one of the finest such forests in the eastern United States. The site contains exceptionally large individuals of several tree species.’’

There are about 600 National Natural Landmarks in the United States and American Territories, including the volcanic crater Diamond Head on the Island of Oahu, Hawaii; the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, and the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles.

But like Davis woods, many other Natural Landmark sites have unfamiliar names because they are usually not primary tourist destinations, they may not be open to the public, they are often small, and they may be difficult to access, according to NPS. There are nearly 30 of them in Indiana, including the Ohio Coral Reef, Dunes Nature Preserve, and Wyandotte Cave.

Davis woods, 6230 N. Ind. 1, Farmland, is accessible to the public, but it lacks trails and you should call – 765-468-7022 – before visiting. It is part of the 703-acre Davis Purdue Agricultural Center, where research is conducted not only on old-growth timber stands but on crop diseases, weed control, insect prob?lems, drainage, and fertilizer applications in corn, soybeans, and winter wheat. The public is invited to a 100th anniversary event at the center on Aug. 31.

Purdue calls Davis woods the largest and oldest mapped forest in North America. In 1926, forestry professor Burr N. Prentice numbered, mapped, described, and tagged every tree on the property – about 7,000 – without the aid of computers.

“We have this incredibly long data set .that allows us to look back in time and see how the forest has changed,’’ Jenkins said. “It also serves as a baseline to compare younger forests to, to kind of understand how those forests will look in the future.’’

Studies of Davis woods could help guide management of other forests, including accelerating the development of old-growth characteristics in second-growth hardwoods, he said. Management techniques that emulate natural forest disturbance and forest stand development have the potential to enhance biodiversity, ecosystem health and forest resilience, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Forests like Davis “are pretty large storage reservoirs for carbon,’’ vast amounts of which are released by the burning of fossil fuels, Jenkins said.

Though it was grazed by livestock before being donated to Purdue, the woods has been protected from grazing since then. Other disturbances in the past 100 years have included a seven-acre fire in 1971, Dutch elm disease, storm damage, and the invasive emerald ash borer, a jewel beetle fatal to ash trees. Uncontrolled wildlife, especially white-tailed deer, also can disturb the forest.

According to a Purdue management plan, the overstory of Davis woods is a mix of oak, hickory, beech, maple, walnut, ash and basswood.

But as the large-diameter canopy trees, especially the oaks, begin to die out, the forest will convert to a climax forest of beech and maple, according to the management plan. Oak seedlings don’t grow well in heavy shade, Jenkins said, while seedlings of sugar maple are shade tolerant.

Beech-maple forests are thought to eventually dominate the Tipton Till Plain, except in lowland depression areas like the Davis woods, where wet soils that preclude agriculture tend toward oak-hickory forests, according to Purdue studies.

Jenkins co-authored a study published in 2014 that sampled standing deadwood and downed deadwood in the Davis woods.

Even after dying, trees continue to influence ecological processes and biodiversity. According to the study, deadwood provides “regeneration substrate’’ for some plants, serves as habitat for insects, spiders, birds, small mammals, amphibians and fungi; contributes to soil development; mitigates erosion from slopes, and captures carbon and other nutrients.

Brad Rody, a district forester who led a tour of Davis woods in May, noted, “ We’re not getting the oak regeneration that we wish we could. It’s a common issue across the entire U.S. We’re not seeing those regenerate due to a lot of different things. There is no fire that’s out of control. Now, if there’s a whiff of smoke, we put out the fire. In some areas, oak regeneration is benefited by fire.’’

He described Davis as being in transition. “We saw trees with a lot of damage to the upper crowns, open holes where limbs were broken out over time,’’ Rody said. “As the overstory dies, it is then being replaced by the understory of maple, and now a vast amount of ash in the openings being created just because the ash trees died. So the sun can get to the floor. Everything around you is ash seedlings waist high. We see ash competing with maple seedlings. When so many maples and ash seedlings come up, young oaks get shaded out.’’

The fate of the new ash trees coming up is unknown. “There is no way to tell if a second wave of emerald ash borer will come through when those ash trees get bigger,’’  Rody said. “But the residual population (of the beetle) is not high enough to continue killing the young ones.’’

For places like Davis woods to remain intact, it required several things to come together.

The first is that the property was too wet to farm and couldn’t be drained because all of the surrounding water runs to it, Rody said. The second is that the family that owned it wanted to keep it in a natural state, “and a lot of that comes down to financing. The Davis family must have been well-to-do or owned other woods that they could use to construct their first buildings.’’ Third, if Herbie had survived Davis, she might have handed down the farm to him, not to Purdue.

Having no direct descendants, Davis left a sister six lots in Farmland, jewelry, cash and household goods. She willed a 93-acre farm in Delaware County to “Pekin University’’ in China to establish the “Erastus and Julia Allegre Endowment Fund’’ (in the name of her parents, possibly related to missionary work). She also bequeathed an 80-acre Randolph County farm to her nephews and a 96-acre farm in Delaware County to her grand-nephews.

The Herbert Davis Forestry Farm at Perdue