Woollens Gardens is accessible from the north end of the Fall Creek Greenway

Woollens Garden is accessible from the north end of the Fall Creek Greenway

The northeast section of Interstate 465 is one of Indianapolis’s busiest roads.  Travelers speed through it on their morning commute, perhaps unaware that one of the City’s most picturesque parks lies beneath this road, just south of Fall Creek.  Its name is Woollens Garden.

Welcome to Woollens Gardens, a hidden gem of a park on the city's northeast side.

Welcome to Woollens Garden, a hidden gem of a park on the city’s northeast side.

William Watson Woollen, great-grandfather of renowned Indianapolis architect, Evans Woollen III, was born in Indianapolis in 1838.  He grew up on his family farm, eight miles northeast of the city, and later studied law at what would become Butler University.  William inherited the family farm upon his parents’ death and continued to use it as a site for recreation.  An avid botanist and bird watcher, Woollen could often be found cataloging the flora and fauna of the land.  In 1908, he founded  “The Nature Study Club” of Indianapolis; the group often met to hike on his property, which was known as “Buzzard’s Roost” at the time.

Woollens Gardens is a great place to launch canoes or wade along the banks of Fall Creek

Woollens Garden is a great place to launch canoes or wade along the banks of Fall Creek

In 1907, George Edward Kessler was hired to plan the city’s park system.  His design called for a series of “parkways” connecting parks throughout the city.  Parkways were not only meant to be passages between recreation areas; Kessler hoped they would “form a chain of parks or a continuous park, which is by its nature brought to the doors of all sections of the community.”

It's hard to believe that one of the city's most primitive parks lies beneath one of the busiest stretches of I-465.

It’s hard to believe that one of the city’s most primitive parks lies beneath one of the busiest stretches of I-465.

To aid in expanding the park and boulevard system to the northeast, William Watson Woollen donated the family’s 44-acre estate to the city of Indianapolis in 1909.  The gift was made under the condition that the area be maintained in its primitive and unspoiled state, to ensure that wild creatures could find sanctuary within.  He also asked that the name be changed to “Woollens Garden of Birds and Botany.”

Woollens Gardens is the perfect place to watch a fall sunrise.

Woollens Garden is the perfect place to watch a fall sunrise.

In a letter to Mayor Charles Bookwalter’s office, Woollen wrote of the land:

            “It is an ideal place.  No other such beautiful and desirable place can be found within the same distance from the center of this city.  On the north it is bounded by Fall Creek, and if your plan for a boulevard…is carried out, a portion of it will be taken for that purpose and the whole of it would work into your park and boulevard scheme for this city most admirably.”

Fall Creek is as beautiful today as it was in 1911. photo: Indianapolis Historical Society, W. H. Bass Collection

Fall Creek is as beautiful today as it was in 1911. photo courtesy: Bass Photo Co. Collection, Indiana Historical Society

The property originally contained a seven-room log cabin, a gardener’s cottage and a barn with a corn crib.  Woollen used these buildings as his botany laboratory.  He had hoped that the buildings could be used as a museum, but they fell into disrepair and were eventually torn down.

Paths wind through the picturesque landscape of Woollens Gardens

Paths wind through the picturesque landscape of Woollens Garden

In 1987, Woollens Garden was officially declared a nature preserve by the State of Indiana, ensuring that the area would be protected from future development.  The park is filled with Sycamore, Pin Oak, Beech, and Maple trees, many of which have been standing since William Watson Woollen hiked among them.  The woods are home to a variety of hawks, owls, sparrows, warblers, and woodpeckers.  Visitors can launch canoes along the shores of Fall Creek, or simply take in its beauty.  A walk through Woollens Gardens is an escape from the city’s urban landscape to what seems like an earlier Indianapolis era.

9 responses to “In the Park: Woollens Garden”

  1. Basil Berchekas Jr says:

    From what I read in high school, this patch of woods is reputed to be the only remaining stand of virgin timber left in Marion County…all other woods are reputed to be second or third growth woods…maybe Marrott Park has some virgin timber; I’m not sure.

  2. Scott Goodwine says:

    super article. I never knew it was there.. Thanks

  3. Les Gordon II says:

    I recall taking “nature hikes” at Woolens Gardens in the early 1950’s with a church group from the First Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. The original forty-four (44) acres of Woolens Gardens property was located on the south side of Fall Creek. If memory serves me correctly, I believe that sometime during the late 1980’s it was proposed that a foot bridge be constructed across the creek from the Fall Creek Greenway to the south side of the creek as part of the Fall Creek Greenway masterplan. I haven’t been there in several decades and am curious if the foot bridge was ever constructed. During the mid 1950’s during weeks at the then adjacent Camp Belzer Scout Camp we would take hikes west from the Scout camp to Woolens Gardens for a quiet view of nature. The Scout camp and Woolens Gardens are now separated by eight (8) lanes of I-465 and the recontruction extension of Shadeland Avenue. I believe that several acres of Woolens Gardens located on the east side of the property were lost due to the construction of I-465..

  4. Eric Rowland says:

    For a short time in the early 1980s, an access path to Wollens Gardens was created at the end of Brendon Forest Drive and a picnic shelter was built. It included a sign advertising Wollens Gardens at 56th Street. I don’t remember exactly how long it was there, but I was under the impression that the neighbors on Brendon Forest Drive didn’t like having outsiders in their neighborhood. The shelter mysteriously burned and the access path and sign were removed. For similar reasons, the once-proposed footbridge was never constructed.

  5. steve hammans says:

    My Grandpa was the caretaker here in the early 60’s. This is where i grew up.I have fond memories of this area.

  6. Theodore Schott says:

    We parked in the area on Shadeland Ave and walked under I465.

  7. Margaret Stewart says:

    When I was a young girl I lived in Indianapolis and on Indy 500 race day we would first go to the airport to sit up on the roof and watch the Goodyear Blimp land, let people off and then fill up again and take off to fly over the racetrack during the race. Then we would come to Woollens Gardens with a picnic lunch and spend a few hours there eating and walking the trails. We never went to the race but this is what we did instead. I was pleasantly surprised when I looked it up on a whim and found that it is still there and has been expanded. It brings back many memories! This would have been in the ’50’s and ’60’s.

  8. Tim Berglund says:

    I used to hike the Woollens Bird Sanctuary, accessible by Brendan Forrest Drive back in the 60’s & 70’s. The trailhead started where there is now a home that was built. The trail was great & if I’m being completely honest, a lot of kids used the gardens to smoke pot including myself but that wasn’t what drew me to the Woollens. I was drawn by the sheer beauty and quiet. I felt disconnected from everything when I was alone in the forrest. Not all of the 44 acres remained untouched, I believe several acres were sold for housing development and that’s sad.

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